Irish immigrant Father Patrick Peyton reached millions with his “the family that prays together stays together” call-to-action. But despite being religious, a friend described him as “no saint” in his young days. And when Patrick came to the United States in 1927 with his brother Tom, his intention was to become a millionaire.
So how did his path in life change so dramatically? That story, which includes a miraculous healing, is told in the new documentary “Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton” (opening in theaters October 9th). Father David Guffey, one of the film’s executive producers and the national director of Family Theater Productions, which Father Peyton founded, joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” to discuss the project.
Father Guffey said, “[Patrick] and his brother, Tom, immigrated to the United States from Ireland, probably because they had to. There wasn’t really much going on for them work-wise, and they had a vision that the United States’ streets were paved with gold and that this was the land of opportunity – which it was, but not in the way they thought….Tom got a job in a coal mine. Pat…finally found a job as a janitor in St. Joseph Cathedral in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The time that he spent alone in the church – first one to open up in the morning, last one to close at night – brought him close to God in an ever deeper way, so that when a Holy Cross priest came through doing a parish mission, he was eager to talk to him and he joined [the order of] Holy Cross, [as did Tom].”
Years later, Father Patrick Peyton contracted tuberculosis, which was often a death sentence in the early 20th century because antibiotics had not yet been created. His case became severe, and doctors told him to make his peace with God, and called in his family to say goodbye to him.
Father Guffey continues the story: “An old Holy Cross priest, who had been a philosophy professor of Father Peyton’s at Notre Dame, came in to visit him, prayed with him, and he said, ‘Pat, we know that you have faith. We know that you’re close to the Blessed Mother. Let her intercede for you. Turn to her. If you believe in her, she’ll believe in you.’ And he believed in her, and he prayed like he’d never prayed before. The very next day, he felt a physical healing. He felt a physical change in his body. It took a while to convince the doctors to do another chest X-ray, but when they finally did a few weeks later, the tuberculosis was just gone and there was no medical explanation of what could have happened.”
Deeply humbled and grateful to God and the Blessed Mother for his second chance at life, Father Peyton thought back to what a great gift it was to pray the rosary as a family when he was growing up. Believing that other families could benefit from this practice as well, he started holding rosary rallies to promote this message. Eventually, he decided to use mass media – initially radio, then television – to further spread the message. Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Lucille Ball to Jackie Gleason to Frank Sinatra, lined up to help him.
And though Father Peyton appealed to many Catholics, he also took an ecumenical approach to his message. Father Guffey said, “He recognized that not everybody was Catholic, so when he went into an area, he would say, ‘If you’re Catholic, we urge you to pray the rosary. If you’re Protestant, pray as your tradition would have you. If you’re Jewish, pray as your Jewish tradition would have you. If you’re Islamic, pray as your Islamic [tradition does]…So, he recognized that there was a difference, and people would pray in different ways. But the big thing was be together with your family and point your family toward God by praying together.”
One of the appeals of Father Peyton’s approach was how positive it was, Much like the founder of The Christophers, Father James Keller, Father Peyton believed in lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. When he was once asked what he is against, Father Peyton responded that he is so busy supporting the things he’s for, he has no time to focus on what he is against.
This approach has helped Father Peyton’s message live on beyond his lifetime. The film includes interviews with numerous people about the ways that praying together as a family has bonded them more closely together. Former Kansas City Royals Mike Sweeney even credits the practice with saving his marriage.
In conclusion, Father Guffey hopes that viewers of “Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton” will be “entertained. I think it’s a beautiful story beautifully told. But I hope it will encourage them in their own vocation to gather with the people that they love most, especially families, and consider praying together.”
More information about the movie can be found at PrayTheFilm.com. This includes a list of theaters that are showing it – and ways that you can request that a theater show it. It will come out digitally in January.
(To listen to my full interview with Father David Guffey, click on the podcast link):