A case for sainthood: The story of Father Patrick Peyton
(Photo: Father Patrick Peyton (left) meets with Pope John Paul II, one of many notable people he worked with during his decades in ministry. Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Family Ministries)
NEW YORK – Can a broadcaster be a saint? Can a priest also be a broadcaster? These are just two of the many fascinating questions that come to the fore when the name Patrick Peyton comes up. Known as “the rosary priest,” Peyton coined the now-famous slogan: “The family that prays together stays together!” Before fake news, there indeed was faith news.
Peyton, the founder of Holy Cross Family Ministries, wasn’t a journalist in the traditional sense. Like Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Peyton was a media pioneer during a time when radio – and in the ensuing years television – captivated millions and become the primary source of trusted news and information for Americans. The trust people began placing in these forms of communication started in the 1940s, allowing Peyton to harness that power into a vehicle for good. He would go on to use those communication tools to produce programs that would, over the span of the next few decades, become both popular as well as help define the faith practices of a generation.
Peyton, who died in 1992 at age 83, now finds himself a step closer to sainthood. This past December, Pope Francis declared him venerable, which now places him two rungs below canonization. Peyton’s work during the golden age of Hollywood – while working with stars like Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart – would forever cement his legacy within Catholic media and American pop culture.
Those unfamiliar with the grand scope of Peyton’s work need to learn what an important figure this man was in the latter part of the 20th century. His ministry would go on to produce over 600 radio programs and 10,000 television episodes. Born in Ireland, Peyton, who had eight siblings, moved to the United States at age 19. He suffered from the advanced stages of tuberculosis as a seminarian, later crediting his miraculous recovery to the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary. In 1941, a year after his ordination, Peyton founded Family Rosary. The organization remains in operation.
By 1948, he had taken his crusade on the road, crisscrossing the globe. Like a Catholic version of the late Billy Graham, “Rosary Crusades” featured massive rallies in parks and stadiums. In 1952, 75,000 gathered at the Polo Grounds in New York. In 1961, 250,000 people heard him at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. He would go on to hold large-scale gatherings in London, Manila, Melbourne and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Peyton is remembered to this day in The Philippines, where his TV shows ran for years on Sundays.
Critics accused Peyton of being a front for American intelligence officials after a series of successful trips to South America. It was indeed true that Peyton's Rosary Crusades were funded and, to some extent, even directed by the CIA to combat Marxist forces in the region. By 1964, after pressure from Vatican officials, Peyton stopped taking money from the government.
Decades before the internet made it easy for anyone to disseminate information, Peyton used the airwaves to spread God’s word, understanding the power and impact mass media could have on people. Although his connection to Hollywood was fortuitous (it was a cold call to Bing Crosby that got the legendary singer to join Peyton on his show), the young priest’s first radio program aired on May 13, 1945 and featured an all-star cast. In addition to Crosby, his guests included President Harry Truman, Archbishop (and later Cardinal) Francis Spellman of New York and the Sullivan family from Iowa. Five brothers from that family had died in World War II and Peyton ended the program with a plea to families everywhere to pray the rosary.
“Father Peyton had a great gift for using the most up-to-date means of social communication. He was pioneering in his use of television to communicate the gospel and the power of prayer through the rosary,” Cardinal Sean Brady told The Irish Times in 2009. “He attracted the support of many famous film stars along the way. I am sure if there had been mobile phones in his day, Father Peyton would have been big into texting and Twitter. He would rejoice in the power of the internet and e-mail to join people together in prayerful solidarity instantaneously and across the world.”
Peyton wasn’t only a radio and TV pioneer. He also took his message to the streets starting in 1947. He initiated a brilliant billboard campaign and the motto was born: “The family that prays together stays together!” Peyton also preached inclusivity. While preaching to Catholic families to recite the rosary, he also urged followers of other religions to pray, according to their own beliefs, each day. Peyton worked to make prayer and spirituality – regardless of one’s faith – aware in all people.
To be named a saint in the Catholic Church, there needs to be proof that Peyton (whether in person or through his intercession) was responsible for any miracles. There have already been dozens of testimonies that claim Peyton has helped believers overcome cancer and drug addiction. The Vatican will now have to examine that evidence to determine whether Peyton will continue his path to sainthood. This process, in most cases, can take years.
In a 2008 interview with The Boston Globe, Rev. Hugh Cleary, who knew Peyton, said, “I was always in awe of him because he was so single-minded and persuasive. Everyone thought he was a saint while he was still alive.”