The Apostle of the Family Rosary, The Anchor, January 9, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
January 9, 2009

100 years ago today in Carracastle in County Mayo, Patrick Joseph Peyton was born, the sixth of nine children. Like so many born in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century, he belonged to a materially poor but spiritually wealthy Catholic family. Every night, after a long day of work, school or chores, the family members would help each other get richer, as John Peyton would lead his wife and kids in the recitation of the family rosary. Many years later Fr. Patrick Peyton would say this daily liturgy of the domestic church was his “earliest memory and the most abiding,” and from it, he added, he derived “the entire pattern and purpose of my existence.”

He would end up spending 50 years of priesthood crisscrossing the globe, speaking before crowds numbering as many as two million people, using radio, television, movies, billboards and every means of social communication available to help tens of millions of other families learn how to stay together by praying together the family rosary. That “pattern and purpose of existence” was so exemplary that in 2001, nine years after he was reverently buried at Stonehill College in North Easton, Bishop Sean O’Malley, in cooperation with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, formally announced the opening of his cause for canonization. That cause is now on-going.

In preparation for his centennial, Holy Cross Family Ministries, which continues the Servant of God’s work, called on Catholics to pray a novena to God through Fr. Peyton’s intercession, no doubt anticipating that if God wishes to raise this humble priest to the altars, the time of his centennial would be a propitious occasion for God to grant prayers for miracles. On the feast of the Holy Family I encouraged my parishioners to join me in praying this novena for families, for peace, and for any healings needed. To augment my own prayer, I got my hands on Fr. Richard Gribble’s superb 2005 biography, American Apostle of the Family Rosary, and joyfully spent half-a-day absorbed with it.  

I found the time prior to his priestly ordination particularly gripping. He received a substandard education due to the poverty of his surroundings. At the age of 19, he and his brother Thomas, because job prospects were poor at home, said a tearful goodbye to their parents, and emigrated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where two of their sisters had preceded them. Patrick first sold American flags, then worked construction, before he became sacristan of St. Peter’s Cathedral. The time he spent in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament after locking the cathedral rekindled the thoughts he had as a young boy of becoming a priest. He mentioned this to the rector of the cathedral. Msgr. Kelly responded by offering to pay for Pat and Tom to go to the local Catholic high school, even though they would be many years older than their freshmen classmates. After meeting some Holy Cross priests who had come to Scranton to preach a mission, the boys transferred to the Holy Cross high school seminary in South Bend, Indiana, where they spent the next twelve years.  

In 1938, Peyton’s life took a dramatic turn when one morning he began to spit up blood. After a few weeks of keeping his condition quiet, he began hemorrhaging blood and was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis. For a year his condition progressively worsened until he was presented with two last resort options: highly risky surgery to collapse his lungs (thorocaplasty) or prayer. A former priest professor visited him and challenged him to turn to the Blessed Mother with faith, promising him that Mary had never failed someone who had persevering recourse to her. “Since you have faith,” the priest asked, “why don’t you use it?”

Peyton prayed to his celestial mother for a cure and a few days later sensed a total healing within. Subsequent tests revealed that the effects of the tuberculosis had reversed themselves with no scientific explanation. He vowed to spend the rest of his life “paying Mary back” for the “miraculous healing” he had received. “She took me off the sickbed, and she put strength and health in me again,” he said, “and that is why as long as I have life, I intend to use the health and strength, not in a sentimental way, but in a challenging way so that men will go down on their knees in their homes and recite the family rosary night after night for a lifetime.” A few months after his priestly ordination in 1941, he followed through on that resolution and committed himself to spending himself “until death to bring the family rosary back to 10,000,000 homes in America… not for the month of May or October or Lent, but for always.”

Why did he prioritize the family rosary? There were two reasons. The first was because he believed that family prayer was the only glue strong enough to keep the family bonded in the midst of the centrifugal forces of the industrial economy and modern culture. Second, he believed that the rosary in particular would be a bridge that would bind the family to God. He believed that Mary was the way to Christ and the Rosary was the “pavement which enables you to get” to Christ, through the meditation on the mysteries. “The person with the rosary in hand,” he wrote, “has the key to learning the most important of all lessons: the love of God for us, the destiny he has in store for us and the way he is helping us to reach that destiny. In other words, the rosary, by its very essence, tells a person who uses it wisely and well who Christ is, what he has done for me, and what he has a right to expect from me.”

This summons for the family to pray the rosary together received explicit papal approbation from Pope John Paul II in his 2002 Apostolic Letter on the Rosary. “The family that prays together stays together,” the Pope stated, explicitly recalling Fr. Peyton’s famous words before presenting why the Rosary is especially powerful in uniting the family: “The Holy Rosary, by age-old tradition, has shown itself particularly effective as a prayer which brings the family together. Individual family members, in turning their eyes towards Jesus, also regain the ability to look one another in the eye, to communicate, to show solidarity, to forgive one another and to see their covenant of love renewed in the Spirit of God.

“Many of the problems facing contemporary families, especially in economically developed societies, result from their increasing difficulty in communicating. Families seldom manage to come together, and the rare occasions when they do are often taken up with watching television. To return to the recitation of the family Rosary means filling daily life with very different images, images of the mystery of salvation: the image of the Redeemer, the image of his most Blessed Mother. The family that recites the Rosary together reproduces something of the atmosphere of the household of Nazareth: its members place Jesus at the centre, they share his joys and sorrows, they place their needs and their plans in his hands, they draw from him the hope and the strength to go on.”

Holy Family Ministries chose as the theme for this centennial year of Fr. Peyton’s birth, “Honor his memory. Continue his mission.” There would be no greater way to live this year of grace — especially those of us who are fortunate to have the tomb of this great apostle of the rosary within our diocese — than to respond anew to his ever timely appeal by continuing his mission of praying the Rosary at home each day with those with whom we live. That would be one means, God-willing, by which we will be able to stay together with our family members into eternity.