Remembering the message of Fr. Peyton

On February 13, 1947, actor Jimmy Stewart, the star of It’s A Wonderful Life and future star of movies such as Rear Window and Vertigo, spoke on national radio about the importance of prayer. “The most powerful help a man could ask for,” he said, is utterly attainable—“you just [have to] pray.” Stewart was the first host of a new radio program called Family Theater, a program created by the venerable Fr. Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., that would end up hosting Gregory Peck, Bob Hope, Irene Dunne, Bing Crosby, Shirley Temple, and nearly every other Hollywood A-lister of the time. All these celebrities endorsed the same timeless message popularized by Fr. Peyton: “The family that prays together stays together.”

In 1961, nearly fifteen years after the inception of Family Theater, 500,000 people flooded the Golden Gate Park of San Francisco for a Fr. Peyton “rosary rally.” News outlets declared it the largest public gathering the city had ever seen. It was not even close to the largest that Fr. Peyton would host.

Venerable Fr. Patrick Peyton, the subject of the new documentary PRAY: The Story of Patrick Peyton, was an Irish-American priest who dedicated his whole life to Mary and the promotion of the family rosary. 

“We were digitizing old footage and old audio of Patrick Peyton,” said Fr. David Guffey, C.S.C., national director of Family Theater and executive producer of PRAY, “and [Fr. Peyton’s message] seemed so contemporary. It seemed like the message that he had about the centrality of family prayer in grounding a person for life in the world seemed so relevant.”

Fr. Peyton was born in 1909 in Attymass, Ireland, to a poor family of nine kids. He came to America with his brother, discovered the Congregation of Holy Cross, and was ordained a C.S.C. priest in 1941 in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, right here on Notre Dame’s campus—a seemingly unremarkable chapter in the long and storied history of the Congregation at Notre Dame.

Of course, Fr. Peyton’s life was anything but unremarkable. In October 1938, while Fr. Peyton was dying in the hospital after years of struggling silently with tuberculosis, Fr. Cornelius Hagerty, C.S.C., longtime professor at Notre Dame, gave him the following advice: “The blessed Mother will be as good to you as you believe she’ll be.” Fr. Peyton spent the night praying the rosary unceasingly. He told Mary that, if he were healed, he would consecrate himself to her and spend the rest of his life promoting the rosary. Fr. Peyton was miraculously healed that very night. “Mary’s donkey,” as he would later deem himself, was born.

Wasting no time at all, Fr. Peyton immediately strapped on his armor and started the Crusade for Family Prayer, a grassroots movement that would eventually lead to the establishment of Family Theater. Fr. Peyton’s message was clear: the family is the domestic Church, and we must consecrate it through daily prayer. He aimed to have ten million American families commit to the daily rosary in his lifetime, but his impact spread far beyond his expectations. Rosary rallies in Manila and Sao Paulo attracted two million people each, and many people have attributed the peaceful overthrow of Manila’s totalitarian regime in 1986 to Fr. Peyton’s inspiration. By the end of Fr. Peyton’s life, over 28 million people had tuned in to watch Family Theater’s television programs.   

“[Fr. Peyton] was never deterred,” said Guffey. “He prayed—prayed often, prayed almost constantly.” When Fr. Peyton recognized that he was receiving a call to action from God, he just did it. He found a way, and he grounded everything in prayer.

The last words on Fr. Peyton’s lips were, “Mary, my queen, my mother.” To his very dying breath, Fr. Peyton never stopped spreading the faith and the importance of the family.

“We in the Catholic tradition have something to offer by show[ing] people the way that family can be,” Guffey said. Fr. Peyton knew that and spent his life promoting it with the resources at his disposal. “With technologies today,” said Guffey, “Catholics and people of faith have access to [media] that wasn’t even thought of in Fr. Peyton’s day. We have the ability to take religion-based content to the people.” In a post-Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ world, we have innumerable opportunities to spread the Gospel message through modern forms of media. 

Though we may not get actors of the same caliber as Jimmy Stewart or Bobe Hope to ask families to pray, we should still have hope. “There are so many people of faith in the industry who would really love to make faith-based projects if given the opportunity,” said Guffey.

PRAY: The Story of Patrick Peyton is only one such example of people in the media spreading the faith. It will be released in select theaters throughout the U.S. on October 9. View the trailer here, but, above all, pray:

“I hope that when people watch the film,” said Guffey, “that first of all they are entertained by the great story that we try to tell in a beautiful way, and, secondly, that people will be inspired to take the next step in their life with God, whatever that is […] At the end of the film, Fr. Peyton gives a challenge: will you be part of this?”

Fr. Peyton’s challenge is simple: pray or don’t pray. Though the choice is up to us as individuals, we can and should find strength in the Notre Dame community to follow in the footsteps of Fr. Peyton and make prayer an inseparable part of our relationships.

“At Notre Dame, praying at the grotto, praying at Masses, praying for classmates, learning how to pray with one another, how to lead prayers and be comfortable talking about prayer […] all those skills are going to help you when you have a family of your own,” said Guffey. The support system is there—it’s time for us to act. 

John Burke is a junior from St. Louis double majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and Economics. John in a bad mood is almost assuredly a result of St. Louis Cardinals bullpen problems. He can be reached (on non-game days) at