This brings great joy to all those who love Our Lady and the Holy Rosary, because Father Peyton has probably been the greatest apostle of the Rosary since Saint Dominic and the first Dominicans.
"Good news of great joy for all the peoples" came a week early this year, when on December 18, Pope Francis authorized the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate that Father Patrick Peyton (1909-1992) lived the Christian life with heroic virtue and could be henceforth called Venerable.
This brings great joy to all those who love Our Lady and the Holy Rosary, because Father Peyton has probably been the greatest apostle of the Rosary since Saint Dominic and the first Dominicans. It also fills with joy also the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which nourished Father Peyton's religious and priestly vocation and shared in his tremendous apostolic fruits. And it a great cause of celebration for Catholics in eastern Massachusetts and especially in the Diocese of Fall River, where in 2001 then Bishop Sean O'Malley formally initiated his cause and where Father Peyton is buried, just off the campus of Stonehill College in North Easton.
This is the conclusion to the first major step on the road to canonization. It begins with a laborious process of collecting testimony from those who knew the person, reviewing all of his writings and videos, sending them to Rome and having the postulator of the cause prepare a document arguing from that evidence that the candidate not only lived the Christian virtues but lived them heroically. After the Congregation for Saints reviews all of the documentation, the Prefect may propose to the Pope that the person indeed ought to be considered a genuine Christian hero, and the Pope may accept or reject that conclusion. Pope Francis agreed with Cardinal Angelo Amato of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that Father Peyton is such a hero.
The next two steps of the process are left, for the most part, to God, through the working of medically-inexplicable, instantaneous, lasting miracles (that only God can do) through the direct intercession of that person. To be beatified, one miracle needs to pass through rigorous medical and theological reviews. To be canonized, there is the need for another miracle from after the time of the beatification. In Venerable Father Peyton's case, there are already two strong candidates for such a certifiable miracle, one from Albany of a man in his 60s who was healed from multiple organ failure after prayers through Father Peyton, and another from Kampala, Uganda, where a mother and a son, both of whom had tested positive for HIV, were retested after praying to the "Rosary Priest" and tests returned with no trace of the virus.
Patrick Joseph Peyton, the sixth of nine children, was born in Carracastle, County Mayo, Ireland, at the beginning of the 20th century. His family was materially poor but spiritually wealthy. 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 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 and was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis. For a year his condition progressively worsened until he was presented with two last resort options: highly dangerous 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 within a total healing. 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."
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. The Rosary, he believed, is a bridge that connects the family to God and to each other. Mary, he said, is the way to Christ and the Rosary is 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."
Since the December 18 announcement, I've been re-reading Fr. Richard Gribble's superb 2005 biography, American Apostle of the Family Rosary, watching videos of Father Peyton and reading various of his writings available on the internet. As we celebrate Christmas, I think it would be worthwhile to ponder one of his meditations on the third Joyful Mystery, because it not only teaches us a lot about Mary's and Joseph's participation in Jesus' nativity, but provides a real commentary on the interior life of Father Peyton and the secret of his holiness.
"Mary and Joseph found accommodations in one of Bethlehem's hillside caves," he wrote in his 1984 work, Father Peyton's Rosary Prayer Book. "It offered some protection from the biting cold of a December night, nothing more. Air, heavy with moisture seeping through damp earthen walls; stifling odors of cattle; darkness made all the more emphatic by a lantern's frail light and the smallest patch of night horizon, too low for starts -- yes, there would be room here. And here, Mary and Joseph loved God as He was never loved on earth." Then he gave the moral application, so that we might obtain the spiritual fruit the mystery contained: "God can be loved -- wholeheartedly -- anywhere. Loving God does not depend on the kind of a place I'm in. It depends on the kind of a person I am."
No matter where he was -- growing up in County Mayo, working in Scranton, evangelizing Hollywood, speaking in stadiums across the world -- he was the kind of person who loved God wholeheartedly with a love that overflowed into ardent, unlimited love of others. He learned this type of love from the Rosary, where from his youth he meditated on the love of God for him and derived from that contemplation the entire pattern and purpose of his existence.
From, we pray, his prized perch pondering eternally the fruit of Christ's ascension and Mary's assumption, we ask him to intercede for us that no matter where we are this Christmas, we too, might be inspired to become the type of people who love God with heroic virtue.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.