It was astonishing to see thousands thronging the Jai Alai arena in West Palm Beach a few years before the death of Rev. Patrick Peyton (1909-1992) when I helped him with a Rosary Crusade, but I should have known that by his standard it was an unexceptional number, even smallish. No priest, unless he happened to be a modern pope, has ever addressed such crowds: 2 million in San Paolo, another 2 million in Manila, 1.5 million in Rio de Janeiro, and half a million in San Francisco, not to mention the hundreds of other congresses not much smaller. While he rode the crest of a mini-religious revival after World War II, he slogged on through the chaos after Vatican II when some benighted priests were telling the faithful to toss out their rosaries.
He began as one of nine children in a cottage in the Mayo village of Carracastle; January 9, 2009, will be the centenary of his birth. Their pious father consecrated him and his brother Tim to the Sacred Heart before they emigrated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1928. Travel for the poor was a thing rare in itself and rarely repeated, so bon voyage meant farewell, and Patrick remembered the last sight of his mother waving a handkerchief as his train pulled out of the station. He worked as a sexton in the Scranton cathedral, while his brother worked in a coal mine. Both entered seminary, and a year before ordination in the Congregation of the Holy Cross, Patrick fell to what was diagnosed as incurable tuberculosis and was miraculously cured, in his estimation, by the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary. The ordination took place at Notre Dame University just as Germany was about to invade the Soviet Union. A year later, his superiors gave him permission to launch a project in Albany, New York, for promoting rosary devotion and family life.
With audacity born of guilelessness, he cajoled celebrities to help. In 1945, as soon as the Mutual Broadcasting Company promised him a half hour of radio time on May 13, he telephoned Bing Crosby, who returned the call after shooting a scene for The Bells of St. Mary’s. After Crosby volunteered, he signed up the parents of the five Sullivan brothers who had drowned together when their ship was torpedoed. Add all that to the fact that Truman declared May 13 a day of thanksgiving for the German surrender, and Father Peyton was off and running.
With the advent of television, he easily made the transition with Family Theatre Productions, giving the impression of Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show, arranging guest stars in productions that, refracted later through a more cynical lens, were not always absent of unction or kitsch. It became obligatory in those halcyon Eisenhower years of civic religiosity for Catholics and their friends to do their duty in cameo roles: Grace Kelly, Loretta Young, Frank Sinatra, Irene Dunne, James Cagney, Margaret O’Brien, Helen Hayes, Maureen O’Hara. And they reached beyond parochial borders: Lucille Ball, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny, Shirley Temple, and Ronald Reagan. George Lucas got his first film credit as an assistant cameraman for a feature with William Shatner, and James Dean made his first credited film appearance. All in all, there were 800 radio programs and 83 television specials through 1969.
Father Peyton was Hollywood’s ultimate un-Hollywood personality, but the sophistication of holiness can outwit the worldly — an alembic to disordered culture. When we preached on the same platform, I quickly learned that his art was in his artlessness. I dozed a little during his rambling hour-long discourse, punctuated with those signature phrases, "The family that prays together stays together," and "A world at prayer is a world at peace." He began with a sentimental word portrait of his father saying the rosary by the fireside in Mayo, and 60 minutes later we were back in the same Mayo cottage. Had he been a prodigy of rhetoric, what he did would be only his, but there was another inspiration at work, and soon his impressive frame seemed hidden behind his rosary. In an age of celebrity preachers with their own cults, he really meant "cupio dossolvi." The requirement of his broadcasting contract that there be no doctrinal apologetic might have resulted in anodyne moralism, were it not for his transparency to higher things.
In the 19th century, Archbishop Ullathorne, who resembled Father Peyton in his rough elegance, said of the rosary: "Many a proud spirit has been brought down by it — many a faddy spirit has been made patient by it. . . . ‘The weak things of this world hath God chosen to confound the strong.’"