Peyton’s deserved place on primetime TV

Peyton’s deserved place on primetime TV Fr Peyton at a rally

Every now and then a programme comes along that you’d like to shower with awards.

And so it is with the provocatively (and inaccurately!) titled Guns and Rosaries (RTÉ1, Thursday) – definitely my top religious programme of the year so far. It was a fascinating documentary on the life of Fr Patrick Peyton, known as ‘the Rosary Priest’, and while there were lots of rosaries, there were very few guns!

Fr Peyton believed he was saved from an early death to tuberculosis by the intercession of Our Lady, and dedicated himself to spreading devotion to her, especially through the Rosary. Born in Mayo, he became a priest in the Holy Cross order in the US and sought to spread the Rosary devotion by canny use of the media.

The networks (radio initially) were reluctant to give him air space without celebrities attached and so began one of the most distinctive and successful aspects of his venture – attracting the Catholic stars of Hollywood to appear with him and endorse the rosary crusade.

It was fun spotting the stars he enlisted – James Stewart, Loretta Young, Maureen O’Hara, Frank Sinatra and many more. One of my favourites was Bob Newhart, one of the few still alive, and it was great to see him in a recent interview talking about the persuasive powers of Fr Peyton. Before his name tag popped up I knew I recognised those sparkling mischievous eyes from somewhere.

All this was fairly well known before, so the more intriguing part of the programme was the exploration of his Fr Peyton’s dealings with the CIA. In Cold War times the fight against the threat of Communism was synonymous with the fight to defend country, family and religion. With South American a fertile ground for evangelisation, but with the poverty being too great to sponsor the Rosary rallies, Fr Peyton was drawn indirectly, through well connected friends, to accept funding from CIA sources – the CIA finding that his cause suited their political agenda in the region, especially in Brazil, where a military coup ensued (hence the guns).


The crusades were something of a one-man show, and there were conflicts when his superiors and also authorities at Notre Dame University (run by the Holy Cross order) showed concern about these political affiliations. As one contributor put it, it was wrong politically and theologically, and also could cause severe embarrassment to the Catholic Church if revealed. Even when the Vatican wanted this to stop Fr Peyton was reluctant.

In a way the programme showed how he was of his time, and with the fading of the Cold War and the revolutions of the 60s (including Vatican II) things, in a sense, moved on without him. However, he got a new lease of life in the 80s in the Reagan era, and we saw one late and gigantic Rosary rally in the Philippines.

I was reminded of World Youth Days and papal visits, and though the programme didn’t make the point, the equivalent in the Protestant world were the Billy Graham crusades, happening roughly around the same time, also fed by the same cultural and political context.

Martin Sheen did a fine job with the narration, all the contributors were thoroughly engaging and the archive footage, especially the less familiar material from his Irish visit of 1954, was apt and absorbing. Much credit goes to director and producer Peter Kelly, who was interviewed on the Ryan Tubridy Show (RTÉ Radio 1) on Thursday morning. Kelly’s enthusiasm and professionalism came across, and as for any new information he said that the influential priest had organised a Rosaries for Russia campaign in 1991, a year before he died.  Just one of his many legacies was the slogan ‘The family that prays together stays together’.

While I’m on a positive roll, I have to complement the Marian Finucane Show (RTÉ Radio 1) last Saturday morning for the interview with two inspiring religious sisters. Both had interesting vocation stories – in common they had religious parents, fear of telling parents, inspiring role models and a reluctance to enter religious combined with a strong calling towards that life.

Over and above that was the strong spirit of service – Sr Orla Treacy bringing education to young girls in South Sudan, Sr Helen Culhane pioneering the Children’s Grief Centre in Limerick.

I’d recommend catching up with all these programmes on RTE’s radio and TV players.


Pick of the week
RTÉ1, Sunday, March 31, 11 am 

From Cashel Community School, Co. Tipperary. The celebrant is Fr Enda Brady, the musical director is John Murray.

BBC1, Sunday, March 31, 1.15 pm

For Mothering Sunday, Katherine Jenkins finds out more about the history of this Christian festival.

EWTN, Monday, April 1, 9.30 pm

Fr Owen Gorman STL and Fr John Hogan explore the 1879 Marian apparition of Knock and what it tells us about the Eucharistic heritage of Europe.