On October 9th, Pray — a documentary about Father Patrick Peyton, will come to many local theatres around the country. The movie tells the story of an Irish immigrant ordained a Holy Cross Father in the Roman Catholic Church who brought people all over the world to their knees — praying the Rosary.
The film includes never before seen footage from the archives of Father Peyton’s media work.
I spoke with Fr. David Guffey, CSC, executive producer of Pray, about the movie and Father Peyton’s story.
[Father Guffey’s words are in bold. Mine are anything not in bold.]
I saw Pray actually this morning and I knew about Father Peyton, but I didn’t know how little I knew. It was a powerful biography. I greatly enjoyed it. What brought you to do this movie at this time?
We thought that we were able to really show Father Peyton and use his voice and his words and that would help get his message out again for this age.
It was just so clear that the family has so many struggles today. Father Peyton thought the family had struggles in the early 1940s when he started the Family Rosary Crusade. It’s nothing compared to the pressures that families have today from outside influences as well as from all the kinds of pressures that families have always had relationally and spiritually. So, it’s bringing those two things together. It seemed like it would be good to introduce the world anew to the message and the person of Father Peyton.
I was fascinated by what would be considered maybe his lowest point — wanting to go to the seminary but getting tuberculosis and it basically sidelined him for a year. It was there that his whole vocation actually came together.
He was in his last year at the seminary (1938). Our theologate [theology school] at the time was in Washington, DC. Holy Cross had a college connected to Catholic University there and in October he coughed. He had a spot of blood and then he had tuberculosis and that really knocked him out.
He and his brother entered the seminary at the same time. They always wanted to be ordained together but this really just stopped him in his tracks. He had a severe case of tuberculosis and that’s really in that time when he was flat on his back and really became more and more helpless. He discovered the importance of prayer in his life and turned to it in a huge way, especially prayer asking for the intercession of the Blessed Mother. As the story goes, he was healed, he believed, through the intercession of the Blessed Mother.
The next couple of years, his big question was ‘How do I respond to this?’ I think often when people have a powerful experience of grace, there’s such gratitude that it happened and then you have to figure out what you do with it. He knew he’d always have a devotion to the Blessed Mother but he didn’t want it just to be a devotional expression of gratitude. Although that could have been enough. He wanted to do it with his whole life.
It’s in that kind of convalescence, he had he had a little job. He started out as a chaplain at the Holy Cross Brothers High School in Albany, New York. That last year of theology, the deacon year and early priesthood that he really prayed and came up with the call of his life, which was to spread the message of family prayer, especially the rosary. He spent the rest of his life single-heartedly pursuing that.
What you described is that whole focus of prayer was not there prior to the disease. He was interested in becoming a priest but it was there that he really learned prayer because that is what saved his life.
It was. He grew up praying the rosary daily because it was part of his devotional life. There’s a difference between praying because it’s a habit, praying because it’s a nice thing in your life and really discovering that prayer is your life. Prayer is what makes your life what it is.
There was a scene in the movie it’s fascinating when he just picks up the telephone and calls Bing Crosby.
Yeah, he had done local radio and he was very successful. He done a little local radio in Albany New York, and he realized the impact of mass media. Mass media at that time was radio. And so trying to pursue that idea, he talked to a lot of people. He had conversations with Fulton Sheen about how to get started and where to start. He finally got up the courage and had the connections to approach the Mutual Broadcasting System which was the second largest radio network at the time.
He was compelling, earnest, sincere and they say okay for him to do it, but you have to have a big star. And he said ‘Who is the biggest star?’ And they said ‘Bing Crosby.’
Ultimately he gets the home number from Bing Crosby and called Bing Crosby on the phone on Good Friday in 1945. He makes his case and Bing Crosby said ‘I’d love to do it. I have to check with my agent’ which I think probably is often the way that people brush you off.
But Bing Crosby on Monday, Easter Monday, said ‘I’ll do it.’ And so the first national radio show of Father Peyton had Bing Crosby, the parents of the Sullivan Brothers. The St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir, which was a big deal of time. And President Truman gave a message.
President Truman gave a message?
[The Sullivan Brothers were five men who enlisted in the Navy. They worked successfully for the Navy to waive its prohibition of brothers serving on the same ship to arrange for them all to be together. This was during World War II. Unfortunately, the ship was torpedoed and that family lost all five of those sons at once. ]
This first show providentially was on May 13th 1945. If you remember your history: first of all it was Mother’s Day. Second of all for us Catholics, that’s also one of the days related to the appearances at Fatima
— the first one.
And it was the first Sunday after the armistice agreement had been signed just ending the European War. So, this was huge and the show was really well received. It was written up in the trades at the time and that experience of that radio show really made him compelled toward starting a national radio show.
You can see in the movie this intense passion and vision that he had. I’ve seen this in stories of others who are so devoted to Christ to Our Lady. Likewise, he knew what needed to be done. He was praying for it and nothing was going to stop him.
He had some stumbling blocks along the way but it would not stop him.
For example, when he started the radio show. What he really wanted to do was to pray the rosary on the air, and he really wanted it to make it a very explicitly Catholic program.
Well, the Mutual Network said ‘we’d love to have you do a show’. Father Peyton also wanted to tell stories that showed families using prayer as a way to deal with their lives to be closer to one another. So, he really wanted to show people and Mutual liked that part a lot.
They were not so keen on praying the rosary on the air at least at first. Eventually by the way, they did. Father Peyton did a whole series of Marian shows for Mutual in the 40s and 50s beyond the radio show that he did — but back to the story.
They told him that he could do a radio show, but he couldn’t pray the rosary. He could talk about family prayer but he had to do it in the ecumenical way. They said it has to be ecumenical — ‘you can’t say the word Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim any denominational reference at all.’
If you listen to our shows in the first couple seasons, they can’t even mention the Bible. They’ll refer to a Bible as sacred scripture or another way, so, you know, they kind of get it in there but you know he was really restricted.
He debated quite a lot whether or not to agree to it. Obviously, he was disappointed and he talked to Bishop Spellman in New York. He talked to the provincial of the Holy Cross Fathers and it was one of the provincials at Holy Cross that said, ‘I think the Blessed Mother would take a half a loaf if she couldn’t get a whole loaf and why don’t you see where this leads,’ and he did.
Of course, ultimately he was able to do Rosary shows on the Mutual Network and that led to so many other things.
It’s funny when you say that because today we listen to all these restrictions and we think this is all new but it’s not.
No, for the audience and the reach that Mutual had they wanted something different and I think it ended up doing better because they were stories. They were narratives.
They tell stories of families to get through difficult times. Joyful times that are made more joyful by a family’s experience of faith and prayer. They’re still broadcast. We still are licensing those old radio shows that have been digitally remastered and they’re still out there. So, you know, they’re a little bit dated here and there but they’re still holding up.
Now I was in the Philippines in 1979 with the Navy. I was there when Ferdinand Marcos actually had a birthday party for martial law. So, when I saw Father Peyton was there in 1985 and soon after that was the overthrow of Marcos and it was done peacefully that really hit home for me. So, that also on an international level showed this power of this rosary.
Yeah, the rosary rallies were held all over the world and the organization of Father Peyton founded has offices in 17 countries. We have 25 Ministry centers in 17 countries that promote the rosary family prayer each centers a little different according to the needs of the region some of our centers do marriage prep and parenting class to some of them are more focused explicitly on the rosary, but they’re all over the world.
He brought this whole message that really changed people’s lives and then it says after Vatican two things changed what happened after Vatican II?
Well a couple things on this kind of global level. The church was really emphasizing scripture and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. So, the public practice of devotional prayers went way down and so the public practice of the Rosary went way down. So, things were happening in the church, things were happening in society so that the upheavals in the so-called sexual revolution and the kind of the upheaval in changes in society. So, that was happening.
On a personal level in the late 1960s, Father Peyton really had a health crisis where he was probably wearing himself out but he had a couple of years where he really has very precarious health. He starts to get better in the early 1970s.
Nineteen seventy-four, seventy-five he’s back on track again. But so while that’s happening in the world, he is also experiencing this kind of personal health crisis. So, that was a big shift in the organization, especially the ministry of Father Peyton.
So it all kind of came together. And there was that scene now, it’s interesting: A student says to him that “Well, I don’t have time to pray the rosary” and he responds with. “Well, let me go in reverse. What are you doing now?” I know I hear the comment all the time. ‘Oh, I don’t know how to pray the rosary’ even in Catholic schools. They’re not teaching it as much as they used to, obviously.
They’re not but there’s some really great signs with the rosary. One thing: there’s an explosion of the family rosary apps. Our own organization has an app called Family Rosary app and over a million people have downloaded it.
I think the best way to learn the rosary is to pray it with somebody else. If you try to learn if you try to learn the rosary yourself with a little booklet, it can be helpful, especially to go deeper. But you’re trying to look at the book and hold the beads and pray the prayers all at the same time.
If you pray it with a group or the next best thing with an app where you’re hearing people pray it’s really that easy to get into the rhythm, get the sense of the prayers and that’s the best way to get into it.
There are people doing it. There are rosary groups popping up in parishes or many Rosary rallies happening across the country and I think people are finding now that it’s a contemplative form of prayer.
That leads people to a place of contemplation. It can lead to a place of meditation too of course, but the other thing is it is a way for people to gather together and be in the presence of one another with prayer and that’s a powerful thing that many people have come to appreciate. So I think it’s the devotion coming back in a lot of ways.
Oh, that’s that’s a great idea, that’s powerful. So, it seems that that he has very powerfully sowed the seeds. And with that these seeds are still continuing.
There that’s powerful.
So he died in what 1992. So the mission goes on and does Family Theater still continue?
Yeah, we’re producing media content right now. We’re doing feature films or doing internet series and we’re doing social media out there and then our sister organization Family Rosary has a huge social media outreach. They have over 1.2 million followers on the social media platforms and they’re you know, they’re really out there in the world. So, the media work continues his ministry his media work and here we are today.
And still that saying still comes out “The family that prays together stays together.”
[Pope Francis declared Fr. Patrick Peyton Venerable in December of 2017.]
For more information about the legacy of Father Patrick Peyton, the work of Holy Cross Family Ministries and the Movie Pray, please go to HCFM.org