by Barb Ernster –
Who doesn’t remember the phrase, “The family that prays together stays together”?
These words, coined by Ven. Fr. Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., are now enshrined in a moving documentary about his life and ministry called PRAY, which opens in theaters October 9. The renewed focus on his legacy and the power of prayer is timely, given the embattled family and breakdown in society.
“We started making this film about three years ago and it seemed then that Fr. Peyton’s message needed to be revived, but with the pandemic and all that’s happening to families, the timing is just right,” said Father David Guffey, C.S.C., executive producer of PRAY and national director of Family Theater Productions, the company founded by Peyton. “We thought we were making the film for Catholic audiences, hoping it would find its way to parishes, schools and other groups. But as we showed it to different audiences, there was a great deal of interest.”
Even secular audiences and TV networks were moved by the film, which seems to be the magic touch of Fr. Peyton, who attracted thousands, even millions, of people to his rosary rallies. By the time of his death in 1992, it is estimated he had preached to 28 million people over the span of 51 years as a Catholic priest, and had produced over 600 Catholic films. It seems this “Rosary Priest” as he was known, has much more to say to our embattled world, including these words of encouragement: “The Rosary has saved the world in the past. It will save the world now, by saving the family.”
Peyton came to America from Ireland in 1928 at the age of 19 and took a job as a janitor at a Cathedral in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This rekindled his desire to become a priest and he was drawn to the Congregation of Holy Cross priests after attending a parish mission.
During his seminary years, Peyton was stricken with tuberculosis and was facing death. His mentor encouraged him to pray with great faith to the Blessed Mother, which he did, and credits her intercession for his miraculous recovery. He was ordained in 1939 and dedicated the rest of his life to Mary and to preaching about the transformational power of prayer. Fr. Peyton traveled the world, spreading the family rosary and a message of love, justice, mercy and peace. “A world at prayer is a world at peace,” he famously intoned.
On one occasion, 500,000 people rallied in the streets of San Francisco, which was more than the population of the city at the time. Two million people showed up at his rally in the Philippines. The live footage of the massive crowds in the film commands respect, that a simple priest who loved and trusted in God so powerfully could get that many people together.
Drawn to Hollywood
Fr. Peyton began his media ministry with print and letter-writing campaigns, but was quickly drawn to the power of mass media, starting with radio. As someone who liked to begin things on Marian days, he debuted his first national radio show for Mutual Broadcasting System in New York City on May 13, 1945. Two years later, he moved to Hollywood and founded Family Theater Productions (FTP) on Sunset Blvd., where the stars were. The Catholic Church, at the time, was very active in media and entertainment and it was considered a positive for Hollywood celebrities to be on the side of good. Some of the biggest names in showbiz, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Cosby, Jimmy Stewart and Loretta Young, appeared in his films, TV shows and radio dramas produced at FTP. While things have changed dramatically in the world and in Hollywood, Fr. Peyton’s message bears repeating.
“I hope it will be a jumpstart to those who are Catholic, but not actively practicing or praying with their families,” said Fr. Guffey. “The family practice of faith and prayer is absolutely essential and is such a gift to the home and to the children.”
Megan Harrington, producer and co-writer of PRAY, came on board with FTP after working on The Dating Project. She was impressed with the team of Protestants and Catholics that brought this film together for the Blessed Mother despite their faith differences. “It is a wonderful testimony to Fr. Peyton and his ability to bring people together for what they are for, not what they are against.
Fr. Peyton’s legacy lives on in the films and projects produced by Family Theater Productions as well as its adoption of the Internet and other new media. Family Rosary also continues to host rosary rallies and promotions around the country.
Although Harrington never met Father Peyton, she says she knows him spiritually now, thanks to the legacy he left through others. “I do think he’s a friend and I pray to him many times. He showed up in my life in a number of ways.”
For her, the most powerful moments of the film are the testimonies of family members and co-workers, the scenes when Father is dying, and the unbelievable rallies.
“I hope the people who see the film feel inspired, empowered and feel a call to prayer. That in such dark times, it gives them hope of light and goodness and what’s possible,” she said. “I hope parents will realize the power that they hold in their hands with the Rosary to impact their children for life. That seed is planted, like it was in Fr. Peyton’s life, and at some point it will sprout and grow. If you’re not praying with your kids, I hope that you say, ‘we’re going to pray now.’ It is because of Fr. Peyton’s mom and dad giving him the gift of prayer that he was able to fulfill his mission. That’s how important the domestic church is. It’s such a wonderful thing for parents to be encouraged, not discouraged.”
For more information, visit PRAYthefilm.com.