Great evangelists are “fools for the sake of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10). To win souls for the kingdom of God, many heralds of the Gospel demonstrate a total commitment to Christ that may look a bit reckless in the eyes of the world.
Fr. Patrick Peyton was just such an evangelist, and the new film Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton, directed by Jonathan Cipiti, tells his tale. Fr. Peyton left humble circumstances in his native Ireland as a nineteen-year-old in 1928 for a new life in the United States. He desired a fortune in material wealth, but he soon found his reward in a life of total devotion to Christ, to Mary, and to the families of his adopted country. Cipiti’s film shows how Peyton miraculously survived tuberculosis by committing himself entirely to the power of prayer, eventually graduating from Notre Dame and becoming a larger-than-life priest who was famous for coining the expression, “The family that prays together stays together.”
Pray depicts Fr. Peyton’s activity as a mission-minded, media-savvy leader. He was not a public intellectual like Fulton Sheen, but his cultural impact was nearly as profound. As a young priest in Albany, New York, Peyton began the Crusade for Family Prayer, which had a stated goal of inspiring 10 million Americans to pray the Rosary together in their homes. Fr. Peyton lived to achieve his goal many times over. One of his assistants in Albany described Peyton as “a simple man, but a big-time operator.” At another point in the film, we’re told Fr. Peyton “would never be accused of aiming too low.”
Before long, Peyton was able to get introductions to radio and television producers, dropping to his knees and touching the hearts of his startled hosts by praying aloud in their offices. Again, he was a true fool for Christ (and our Lady). Peyton ended up broadcasting to the nation over the radio, and then went to Los Angeles in 1945 to try television. In 1947 he founded Family Theater Productions, which still exists today (and produced Pray). In its heyday, Peyton’s TV show featured a long roster of A-list Hollywood celebrities, whom he commissioned to speak about prayer and act in small-screen biblical dramas, including Bing Crosby, Maureen O’Hara, and even James Dean in his television debut. Eventually, Family Theater was able to reach into millions of American living rooms with one overwhelming message: Pray.
Peyton extended his ministry with worldwide Rosary rallies, sullied only slightly by questions about receiving funding from the CIA for foreign ministry trips. The film touches only briefly on this issue, stating matter-of-factly that Peyton did not care much who gave him the money to inspire people to pray. Towards the beginning of the film we hear him say, “I’m not against anything. I’m so busy being for things that I don’t have time to let things I’m against encroach on my schedule.” Pray brings to the forefront the sweet, blustery voice of the priest crying out for God’s mercy for the families of the world, using whatever means he had at his disposal. He did, however, finally stop taking the government funds.
Pray features interviews with various figures in the Church, including several members of Peyton’s own Congregation of the Holy Cross, and others who have carried forward his media ministry at Family Theater Productions since his death in 1992. We hear briefly from Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who recounts how Peyton’s 1972 Rosary rally in Manilla gathered over 2 million people, and may have played a role in a peaceful political transition. There are also several interludes in the film featuring a diverse collection of modern families that have experienced transformation by praying the Rosary together. These scenes will be of particular interest to church groups watching the film in a parish setting, as well as Catholic families looking for inspiration for their life of faith together at home.
Pray addresses the fact that among Mass-going Catholics, praying the Rosary has declined since the 1970s. Toward the end of his life, Peyton lamented the loss of popular devotions despite his best efforts to promote them, insisting in speech after speech on the “domestic church” model that Pope Francis would later champion in Amoris Laetitia. As Mass attendance continues to be difficult during COVID, Peyton’s message may find itself in an unexpectedly target-rich environment. Peyton’s challenge is especially aimed at fathers, and at this unusual moment in history, Pray could provide special encouragement for men to transition from just being the guys who get everyone out the door for Mass to being the guys who drop to their knees, work the beads, and show their families how to rely on Mary’s intercession. Maybe with Fr. Peyton’s example, dads can be fools for Christ in front of their wives and kids in these trying times.
Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton is a short, endearing film that is stylishly shot, offering an inspiring vision of the power of prayer for everyone. It opens in theaters on October 9.