By: Matt Moran
Fr Patrick Peyton - the Rosary Priest - has been declared as Venerable by Pope Francis. The title means that the Holy Father has recognised Fr. Peyton's heroic virtues and sanctity of life. This is one rung on the ladder to possible sainthood. The next step is to be named "blessed" once a miracle is attributed to his intercession. After a second miracle is attributed to Fr Peyton's intercession, the Pope can canonise him to sainthood.
News of the Pope's declaration has been met with joy and jubilation at the Fr Peyton Centre located in Attymass Parish near Ballina in Co Mayo in the west of Ireland. "What a great Christmas gift we have just received. We are filled with joy at this" they said.
His congregation expressed similar joy. "We are filled to overflowing with joy at this news" said Fr. Wilfred Raymond CSC, President of Holy Cross Family Ministries in the USA. "How exciting and encouraging it is just to write the designation 'venerable' This designation represents a rare recognition by the universal Church that Fr Peyton is a person of heroic virtue and a life worthy of veneration by all Christians."
Evidence from witnesses and supporting documents on Fr Peyton's life, virtues, and reputation of holiness were approved by a panel of nine theologians and fifteen cardinals and archbishops who voted to recognise his heroic virtues. Hundreds of testimonies to his heroic virtue and holiness of life have been collected.
Patrick Peyton was born on 9 January 1909 on a small farm in the townland of Carracastle in Attymass parish. He was sixth in a family of nine children of John and Mary Peyton. John was in poor health. Patrick's wish from boyhood was to be ordained a priest but his family were unable to meet the cost of his education. He wrote to the Capuchins but didn't receive a reply. His parish priest thought that maybe he could get a scholarship through the Society of African Missions but they rejected him on the grounds: "We are sorry but Patrick is not up to the required standard in mathematics."
At the age of 19, like so many other young Irish at that time, he and his brother, Tom, emigrated to the United States to join their three sisters and three uncles in Scranton, Pennsylvania. They lived with their sister, Nellie. Tom found work in the coal mines. Patrick found a job as a sexton in the Cathedral of Scranton. There his dream of becoming a missionary priest was re-awakened in a new land but it was challenged again by his lack of education so he enrolled at St. Thomas High School. Nellie introduced him to Monsignor Kelly who was very impressed, and wrote a letter of recommendation stating: "I envy the community or the bishop that finally gets him".
Following earlier rejections, he and his brother joined the Holy Cross Seminary at the University of Notre Dame to study. Patrick, who received honours in his arts degree, also studied at Holy Cross College on the campus of the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. During his final year in the seminary he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. At that time tuberculosis was incurable. Fr Peyton was very weak and was given little hope by the medical team of recovering to full health. He had great faith and prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary for a recovery to good health. His prayers were answered and his health began to improve to the amazement of the medical profession. He and his brother were ordained to the priesthood in the Congregation of the Holy Cross on 15 June 1941.
Father Peyton's first assignment was as chaplain in Albany, New York where in 1942 he launched Family Rosary to promote family unity through praying the rosary daily. He had a special devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary after attributing his recovery from tuberculosis to her intercession. His particular mission was to the family - encouraging family prayer and especially the rosary. He had two especially famous mottos: "The family that prays together stays together" and "A world at prayer is a world at peace." Quickly he became known worldwide as "The Rosary Priest."
He was a Catholic media pioneer in the 1940s using radio and later television to produce popular programmes featuring Hollywood and Broadway stars and other celebrities to promote family prayer. He founded Holy Cross Family Ministries which includes Family Rosary, Family Theater Productions, Father Peyton Family Institute and Family Rosary International.
For decades, he produced faith-based, family radio, film and TV dramas featuring such stars as Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck, Rosalind Russell, Jimmy Stewart, Helen Hayes, Ronald Reagan, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Robert Young, Raymond Burr, Lucille Ball, Bob Newhart, Jack Benny, Loretta Young and Frank Sinatra. Not all of these were Catholic. His ministry produced over 600 radio and television programmes and 10,000 broadcasts. The crowd at the launch of one of his books was described at the time as "a fiesta of stars" because so many attended.
"He was a media pioneer in Hollywood" said Fr Raymond. "He leveraged the use of radio, TV and film to get the message out far and wide that 'The family that prays together stays together' - a vision Holy Cross Family Ministries continues proclaiming, especially with the Rosary, in 17 countries. To me, it's a sign of the authenticity and the favour his work enjoys in God's eyes - which it continues today 23 years after his death. And in some ways, it's more active than when he died. Right now, he's all over YouTube, Twitter and Facebook - things not invented when he died." More than two million minutes of such video were viewed on YouTube last year. His programmes still appear regularly on EWTN.
Probably in no place around the world is there a more profound response than in the Philippines, noted Father Raymond. Recalling Cardinal Tagle's recollections, Father Raymond explained: "He told us when he was growing up … families in his neighbourhood would go to the neighbours and pray the Rosary as groups of families. He became one of the leaders, even as a little kid of 10 years old, because he knew the mysteries. Cardinal Tagle said the amazing thing is, in recent decades, the Family Rosary Crusade has become a very powerful and influential force in the Philippines."
In 1952, Fr. Peyton's crusades drew overflow crowds of 75,000 to the Polo Grounds in New York, 83,000 to Wembley Stadium in London and 80,000 to a stadium in Melbourne, Australia. In 1961, some 250,000 people heard him at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Crowds at rallies the next year in Bogota, Colombia, were estimated at 400,000 to one million. In all, his appearances on six continents drew an estimated 27 million people.
He visited Ireland on 25 April 1954 as part of his Rosary Crusade with the first rally being held in the GAA Stadium in Tuam presided over by Archbishop Walsh. About 15,000 people attended the Ballina rally on 6 June in James Stephens GAA Park, and over 40,000 participated in the 21st and final rally at Our Lady's Island, 14 miles from Wexford town on 15 August 1954. So significant was the crusade and Fr. Peyton's presence that the Irish Independent newspaper published a special supplement on the event. In the late 1980s, Fr. Peyton addressed a packed attendance in Knock Basilica on a number of occasions.
He died on 3 June 1992 in Los Angeles, and two days later the New York Times published a lengthy obituary on him indicating the huge popularity he had in the United States.
The Fr Peyton Memorial Centre was officially opened and dedicated on 10 October 1998 in his native parish of Attymass. The Centre commemorates his life and apostolic work and is a place of respite, prayer and peace. It is highly respected by pilgrims and is a popular tourist attraction in North Mayo on the famous Great Atlantic Way. It has a small book shop which I'm happy to say stocks my recently published book - The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On.
HYPERLINK "www.attymass.ie/peyton_statue.htm" Cardinal Seán Brady, then Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland led celebrations at the Centre on 26 April 2009 to mark the unveiling of a seven foot high bronze statue of Fr. Peyton by Joey Velasco - a religious artist and sculptor from the Philippines. In the opening words of his autobiography - All For Her - Fr. Peyton refers to the "picturesque beauty of Attymass" - set as it is between the Ox Mountains, the River Moy famous for its salmon fishing, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north.
His nephew, Canon Patrick Peyton, is currently parish priest of Coolooney, Co. Sligo in the Diocese of Achonry which also includes the Parish of Attymass. Another nephew, the late Monsignor John Gallagher ministered in Dunmore, Pennsylvania. His brother, Fr. Thomas, who served in parish ministry in the USA died on 30 June 1996.
In addition to the Centre in Ireland, there is a Father Peyton Centre in the United States at Easton, Massachusetts run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Visitors to the Centre can view a brief video about the life and work of this humble Irish immigrant, spend time in quiet prayer in the centre chapel or outdoor Rosary Walk, attend daily Mass at noon Monday to Friday, and browse the gift and book shop. Fr. Peyton's grave is nearby identified by a simple tombstone.
Fr Peyton was the subject of a 1983 biography - A Man of Faith - written and published by Jeanne Gosselin Arnold. He published an autobiography - All for Her - in 1967. A summary of his life and work can be found at www.fatherpeyton.org/chapters/chapter-1.
(Matt Moran is author of book - The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On - and a native of Ballina, Co Mayo)