WASHINGTON (CNS) — Father Patrick Peyton may have been a child of God, but he also was a force of nature.
His relentless quest to encourage family prayer, which became the hallmark of his priestly ministry and led to the formation of Family Theater Productions, is highlighted in a new documentary of his life titled, simply, “Pray.”
“I’m for prayer, for peace, for mercy, for justice, for faith, for truth, for love. I’m for racial harmony,” the Irish-born Father Peyton — who popularized the adage “The family that prays together stays together” — told one interviewer. “The things I’m for crowd out the things I’m against. But first of all I’m for prayer,” he added. “The world hasn’t got a prayer without yours.”
“We’re really excited about it finally getting out to the world,” said Holy Cross Father David Guffey, the current executive director of Family Theater Productions.
“Pray,” subtitled “The Story of Patrick Peyton,” will make its debut on a limited number of movie screens Oct. 9; for those who can’t catch it at their local multiplex, it will be available for streaming in January.
Father Guffey, in a Sept. 25 phone interview with Catholic News Service, said he started digitizing material from old Family Theater footage 10 years ago, and that work on “Pray” began in earnest in 2017.
Like any film production, there are the inevitable stumbling blocks. But in the case of “Pray,” it was “picking which parts of the story” to include. “There are so many stories that people had told us.”
One of those stories features Mike Sweeney, a former first baseman and catcher who spent 13 of his 16 big-league seasons with baseball’s Kansas City Royals, and his wife, Shara. When they experienced difficulties in their marriage, they decided to give daily family prayer a try. And it has worked.
“Without prayer,” Mike Sweeney said in the documentary, “we would be like empty shells.” Other first-person testimonials adorn the movie.
The story of Father Peyton, who was declared venerable by Pope Francis in 2017, is itself remarkable. He was the sixth of nine children — four girls and five boys. A working-class Irish family, the Peytons engaged in family prayer every night. Young Patrick Peyton felt he had a vocation to the priesthood, but at a time when Ireland had a surplus of vocations, his poor grades kept him from being accepted as a seminarian.
Patrick convinced his brother Tom to head for the United States, where three of their sisters preceded them. Getting a job as the janitor at the cathedral in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Patrick felt the call to a vocation grow — and both he and his brother were accepted into the Holy Cross order’s seminary on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
While still a seminarian, Father Peyton was hospitalized with tuberculosis. His favorite seminary professor told him to pray for Mary’s intercession: “If you’re a 50 percenter, she’ll be a 50 percenter. If you’re a 100 percenter, she’ll be a 100 percenter.”
After continuous prayer, he felt a change within his body, and had to convince the doctors he had been cured. After they conducted further tests, according to Holy Cross Father Willy Raymond, Father Guffey’s predecessor at Family Theater Productions, and found their young patient’s claims to be true, they told him: “Nobody should be living after what you’ve been through.”
After being ordained, along with his brother Tom, in 1941, Father Peyton kept looking for ways to repay Mary. At his first assignment in Albany, New York, he started the Crusade for Family Prayer and started a letter-writing campaign that resulted in 20,000 “circular letters” being written — that era’s equivalent to reply-all email — on the crusade’s behalf.
He also secured an hour on an Albany radio station to pray the rosary, which received a favorable response among listeners. This led to interviews with executives at the nation’s second-largest radio network at the time, the Mutual Broadcasting System, in New York City. But to get network radio time, he had to think big. So on Good Friday 1945, he cold-called one of the entertainment world’s biggest stars, Bing Crosby, asking him to lead a family prayer broadcast.
Crosby agreed, and the resultant program on Mother’s Day that year “was celebrated for the emotional impact on the whole country,” Father Raymond says in “Pray.”
But to get more top-caliber stars, Father Peyton had to go to Hollywood, where most of them worked and lived. His success rate was tremendous, and the number of “Family Theater” radio, TV and film episodes in the ensuing years totaled more than 1,000.
When entertainment wasn’t enough, Father Peyton himself led family-rosary crusades that drew hundreds of thousands. Father Peyton did more than 500 crusades himself during his life, Father Guffey said.
“It’s more difficult to imagine the massiveness of them,” he told CNS. “You cannot imagine what 2 million (people) look like in Manila when you get them together, and 500,000 in Golden Gate Park (in San Francisco) when you get them together. It’s mind-blowing.”
Father Peyton led such a public life that few things would seem to have been overlooked. But in the Family Theater’s vaults lie episodes of a talk show called “A Matter of Faith” in which Father Peyton had guests the likes of Rose Kennedy, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, plus Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens and other figures of the Second Vatican Council.
“We think of Father Peyton as someone who was quite pious,” Father Guffey said, “but there was an intellectual foundation to what he did.”