The CIA and the Rosary Priest: Venerable Patrick Peyton, CSC

There was a time when Fr. Patrick Peyton was a household name. It was a time when he regularly spoke to crowds of over a million, when souls lined up to be saved and hardened hearts were transformed by grace everywhere he went. And then Rome told him to back off. And he did. He did not start a schism. He did not complain to the press. Rome had spoken. Case closed. Fr. Peyton’s covert million-dollar deal with the CIA was off.

Venerable Patrick Peyton (1909­–1992) was born in Ireland, the sixth of nine children raised in a three-room farmhouse in County Mayo. There his life was filled with hard work and deep joy as his mother and his chronically ill father eked out a living on their small plot of land. However hard they worked, though, they never collapsed into bed before joining as a family to pray the Rosary. From infancy, Patrick Peyton was steeped in the family Rosary, the pious practice that drove him to every corner of the world and led him to preach to some twenty-eight million people over the course of his life.

Patrick was a fifteen-year-old dropout when he preached his first sermon on the family Rosary—to a man for whom Patrick had been working as a hired hand. It was the boy’s first time staying with a family that did not pray together. After a long week of worrying about them, he finally decided to speak, though with less eloquence than he would employ years later when his Family Rosary Crusade took him around the world.

But between this sermon and the seminary lay a path of some years. Patrick had to first spend his days literally breaking rocks to earn his bread. His temper made his attempt to earn a living rather difficult. As a teen, he stormed out of school—permanently—because he was mad at his teacher. After that, he kicked his ailing father for critiquing his work and lost a job after mouthing off to his employer. At eighteen, volatile Patrick saw no path forward in Ireland, so he and his brother Tom set off for America, where they settled in Pennsylvania with their older sisters.

Though he had often dreamed of the priesthood as a child, there had not been money for schooling and his temper had complicated things as well. Disappointed, Patrick had laid that dream to rest, sure that he could please God in other ways. But his big sisters kept dreaming for him, and when he arrived in Pennsylvania they introduced him to a priest who had been prevailed upon to employ Patrick as a janitor—a job he only reluctantly accepted after many weeks of unemployment. He was not ready to hope for a vocation again, but God was working, and as Patrick cleaned the Scranton cathedral day in and day out, the silence made space for him to hear God’s call again.

Finally, one day, he was overcome. He dropped his work and ran into the priest’s office, calling out, “I want to be a priest!” That practical man began by quizzing Patrick on grammar, then sent him over to enroll in high school (with a promise that he would take care of the tuition). And so the 6’4” nineteen-year-old squeezed himself into a desk beside high school freshmen; he was soon joined by his brother Tom. After making the acquaintance of some Holy Cross missionaries at the end of that year, the brothers discerned vocations to the Congregation of Holy Cross and bade their Pennsylvania family goodbye as they set off even further west to Notre Dame.

After three more years of high school in South Bend, Patrick and Tom entered the Holy Cross novitiate and earned their bachelor’s degrees in 1937, when Patrick was twenty-eight years old. Then they were off to major seminary, but Patrick contracted a serious case of tuberculosis shortly before he was to be ordained. The doctors had little hope for his recovery and eventually presented him with a choice: either to undergo a surgery that might save him but would certainly leave him permanently disabled . . . or to resolve himself to prayer. Patrick was torn for a time but ultimately entrusted his health to the Blessed Mother; after a year of serious illness, he began to expect a miracle and soon found himself completely healed. Convinced that Mary had saved him and that he had to serve her in return, Patrick returned to his seminary studies and was ordained with his brother in 1941 at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of Notre Dame.

As the United States entered World War II, Fr. Peyton’s mind turned again and again to the fighting across the world. Anxious to find a way to help, he thought back to the thousands of evenings he had spent praying the Rosary with his family. He became convinced that the way to peace was the family Rosary; if he could convince families to pray the Rosary together, surely the world would be changed.

It began small: he wrote letters to bishops, visited Catholic organizations, and recruited Sisters to help him spread the word. Then letters went out to every pastor in the country—all 12,600 of them—and soon Fr. Peyton and his crew were printing hundreds of thousands of pamphlets while he began to travel the country preaching on the family Rosary. To increase his reach, he began work on a regular radio show but knew he needed something to draw audiences in, so Fr. Peyton hopped on a train from Albany to Los Angeles to knock on the stars’ doors and ask them to participate.

He had already gotten Bing Crosby to appear on a radio special—by cold-calling Hollywood’s biggest name; now Gregory Peck, Shirley Temple, and Maureen O’Hara joined the growing list of celebrities that would one day include Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra, and nearly all the who’s who of Catholic Hollywood (and plenty of Protestants besides). These stars were featured in Family Theater’s weekly radio program, which aired for nearly a decade, and later in film and television projects.

As Fr. Peyton began to travel internationally, he also commissioned thousands of men to go door-to-door and collect pledges from families who vowed to pray the Rosary together daily. Next came short films on each mystery of the Rosary. Then the Family Rosary Crusade was spreading throughout the world, with Fr. Peyton begging for free airtime and advertising space from every newspaper and TV or radio station he could find. Weeks of preparation, advertising, press releases, pastoral letters, homilies, and personal invitations to each crusade led to crowds of over a million in multiple cities. Fr. Peyton would tell his story, of his family praying in County Mayo, and his miraculous healing through Mary’s intercession, and would insist on the power of the family Rosary to save the family and the world. “The family that prays together stays together,” he would say, and the people believed him, pledging by the millions to pray the Rosary in their families.

Though his ministry was initially focused on English-speaking countries, Fr. Peyton soon found himself in south Asia and Africa, where he often employed translators. But when he finally arrived in Latin America—after ten years of crisscrossing the globe—he preached in mediocre Spanish; this was no great loss, as he was not a particularly talented speaker in English either. Actress Loretta Young, who supported Fr. Peyton with her talent as well as her finances, spoke frankly about his talent: “a terrible speaker—very unsophisticated.” His lack of skill made his success all the more obviously a gift from God through the hands of the Blessed Mother. Through her prayers, a simple man spoke with great conviction and sincerity and millions upon millions recommitted themselves to prayer.

But Fr. Peyton was doing more than just encouraging family prayer. He was convinced that the family Rosary was a path to peace, which meant the defeat of communism. “The Rosary is the offensive weapon that will destroy communism,” he claimed; many agreed with him and trusted him to lead the campaign. In 1948, Fr. James Gillis, CSP, a national commentator, insisted that Fr. Peyton’s Family Rosary Crusade would “sweep the world of communism.” Fr. Declan Flynn, OFM, agreed, declaring, “Fr. Patrick Peyton [is] a twentieth-century knight [who] rides out to meet the devil of Communism with the flashing sword of the Rosary.”

It was this anti-communist work that led to Fr. Peyton’s unexpected alliance with the CIA. His friend and benefactor Peter Grace was convinced that Peyton’s work could be instrumental in preventing the spread of communism in Latin America. Shortly after the Family Rosary Crusade first arrived in South America, Grace met with Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, to suggest as much. Grace and Dulles then met with Vice President Richard Nixon and a month later $20,000 was passed to Fr. Peyton to assist him in his work—the first installment of the CIA’s support which eventually added up to over a million dollars. Fr. Peyton had been planning to go to Bolivia next, but Chile was suggested instead, so to Chile he went.

It is important to note that the overarching plan for the Family Rosary Crusade did not change, though dates and locations may have. But the preaching remained the same, the films the same, the door-to-door ministry the same. Fr. Peyton took the money (and suggestions) of the U.S. government because he believed, it seems, that they just wanted to help him do what the Blessed Mother had asked him to do. In this matter, he was something of an innocent, especially as regards the activity of the CIA in supporting or destabilizing various Latin American regimes.

To him, this was money that Mary had sent so that he could keep bringing families to prayer. Besides, he trusted Peter Grace completely, writing in 1961, “Of all the men in the entire world, Peter is the one, and the only one to whom we can look for financial protection, defense and security of the Crusade. To be away from Peter for many months is to be away from the very source that enables us to continue financially.” Clearly whatever Grace recommended, Fr. Peyton would have been inclined to accept, however imprudent it might have seemed to others.

Fr. Peyton was not the only missionary to work with the CIA; many American missionaries—both Catholic and Protestant—passed information to the government and received funding to support their work. These relationships were largely unknown to the wider world and seem only to have been publicly revealed and condemned by the Church (and shortly thereafter by the CIA itself) in the 1970s, leaving us the very likely possibility that Fr. Peyton (naively) saw absolutely no conflict of interest in his relationship with the CIA.

With their support, he continued his work for seven more years, with government observers sending glowing reports to Washington, insisting that each crusade was a turning point in the fight against communism in whatever country he was in. Though Fr. Peyton had no direct connection to the events that transpired, there was even an anti-communist coup in Brazil that took place in the midst of a campaign of Rosary Crusades throughout the country, only two months after one was held in the capital. The new president of Brazil explicitly said that the Family Rosary Crusade formed the people such that they were able to revolt—a claim that Fr. Peyton did not dispute.

But while Fr. Peyton saw nothing untoward in all this, other Holy Cross priests were more aware of the political ramifications and potential scandal of seeming to be aligned with one political movement or another—or of an actual alliance, as in the case of Fr. Peyton and the Family Rosary Crusade. Fr. William Belyea wrote, “I think the danger we must avoid is that of permitting any political party to identify itself with us.” Fr. Peyton, on the other hand, had eyes only for the mission. He would promote the family Rosary and devotion to Our Lady, whatever the cost. Fr. Jerome Lawyer, CSC, was entirely unsurprised by the arrangement, saying, “It was simply another way to get money, and Pat would do anything to get money for Our Lady.” His single-mindedness had made him a tremendously successful evangelist but had also blinded him to the dangers posed by an alliance between the Church and any government organization, especially one such as the CIA.

Fr. Peyton’s superiors were concerned. Fr. Germaine Lalande, CSC, superior general of the Congregation, wrote a warning to Fr. Peyton, encouraging caution, “in order that the Crusade, in the mind of the people, may not be interpreted as having political overtones.” Lalande was far wearier than Fr. Peyton, far more suspicious of the CIA’s intentions and of Fr. Peyton’s ability to resist (or discern) anything unseemly. He cautioned Fr. Peyton’s provincial, Fr. Richard Sullivan, of the possible scandal as well as the danger of political influences, but Fr. Sullivan thought it worth the risk.

Then Fr. Ted Hesburgh came to know of the situation, informed by Peter Grace who had orchestrated the whole thing. He wrote to Fr. Lalande immediately, saying, “I cannot alter my opinion that this situation is extremely dangerous . . . I believe that all of the good would be destroyed, as well as many other innocent works, if the facts of the matter ever came to light.” Fr. Lalande agreed and summoned Fr. Peyton to Rome, where he defended himself and his situation, intent on clarifying why he felt it was an appropriate arrangement. Lots of missionaries got aid from the U.S. government, Fr. Peyton insisted. If he did not, it would bankrupt his religious community. There was no way he could continue this work without this support. In this matter, the Church and the nation were working toward the same end: the destruction of communism.

Lalande was unconvinced. He urged Peyton to distance himself, insisting that he must try to find another source of funding. He warned of the danger. But he did not forbid him. Still, Lalande’s conscience was not at ease. He reached out to friends at the Vatican for counsel; those friends were so shocked they arranged a near-immediate meeting with Pope St. Paul VI in the summer of 1965, who declared unequivocally that the Family Rosary Crusade must immediately cease accepting any funding at all from the CIA.

Fr. Patrick Peyton, a poor boy from Ireland, had obtained over a million dollars from the CIA, merely for doing the work he would have done anyway. Fr. Patrick Peyton, a manual laborer who had dropped out of high school, was a household name, speaking to millions of people. Anybody might have felt proud. Anybody might have resisted such a directive, believing such success to be the very work of God. Anybody might have been forgiven a few years’ delay, if not an outright refusal to submit. How often do we justify our defiance of ecclesiastical authorities because we are sure we know better than they do?

The boy with a temper had grown into a stubborn man with a laser-focused will—in regard to his work for Mary, at least, and that work was now under threat. But Fr. Peyton wanted, more than anything, to be faithful to the God who had called him and to the Blessed Mother who had saved him when he was dying of tuberculosis. And he knew that sainthood is not found in defiance (however well-meaning) or in pride (however well-earned). Though it took a few months to tie up the loose ends (according to the directives of his provincial, who had permission from Rome), Fr. Peyton wrote the Holy Father as soon as an exit strategy was approved by his superiors. He had fought hard to keep his funding. His request had been denied. So he would do it without government money. He was the Crusade’s good servant, but God’s first.

This was not the only time Fr. Peyton’s single-mindedness led him to act imprudently for the sake of his mission. He spent the 1960s embroiled in a legal battle after he had encouraged Sarita East, a wealthy widow, to rewrite her will in favor of his apostolate (also at the prompting of Peter Grace). When Mrs. East died, the diocese that had previously been her primary beneficiary brought a lawsuit against Grace (and Peyton), alleging that the men had used undue coercion on her. The public battle that ensued caused great scandal as churchmen fought for money and slung all the mud that often accompanies such disputes. Fr. Peyton had little to do with the affair (other than being named as an alleged co-conspirator); his attention remained fixed on his ministry, sometimes to the detriment of that same ministry.

His unwavering focus on the Family Rosary Crusade made it difficult for him to form fraternal bonds with other members of his Congregation, leaving his relationship with them rather strained. He was interested in little outside his work, which made him a stilted conversationalist until talk turned to Mary, and he was so convinced of being directed by the Blessed Mother in prayer that he often ran roughshod over others’ work, insisting that months of planning be scrapped in favor of whatever new revelation he had been given.

Pious and effective and well-intentioned as he was, Fr. Peyton was not always an easy man to be friends with, let alone to be one’s brother in religion. He was stubborn and controlling when it came to his work, unceasingly demanding of those who worked with and for him and uncompromising with his expectations. He took a much looser view of obedience than most other members of the Congregation, especially when his vision for his work was threatened, often claiming that he was submitting to a higher obedience: obedience to the will of the Blessed Mother.

But every bit of it was in service to the Gospel. Irish journalist George Gill said of him,

In my more than twenty years in Irish journalism . . . never had I come face to face with a man so humble, so saintly, so sincere, so unostentatious, so absorbed in his noble ideal and single-hearted purpose, and so preeminently equipped with the qualities of mind and heart for his glorious global mission as Fr. Peyton, CSC.

Actress Loretta Young, who knew Fr. Peyton well, marveled at the love of Mary that drove him, saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man, ever, in this world anyway, in love with a woman the way he was with her. There was no pretense about it. You could see him just glow when he would talk about her.”

But no amount of fervor could push Fr. Peyton’s ministries through the struggles they were facing in the mid-1960s. As radio became obsolete, Family Theater found itself unable to break into film and television as it had into radio. Meanwhile, popular piety was moving away from the Rosary in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. And all the while, there was not enough money coming in to replace the loss of CIA funding for the Family Rosary Crusades. Fr. Peyton tried to adjust, pivoting to a Crusade for Family Prayer and inviting non-Catholic families to lead assembled crowds in prayers from their traditions as well. It was too much—or, perhaps, not enough. Regardless, the numbers began to dwindle as the years went by. The Crusade continued to travel through Latin America, now emphasizing social justice as well as prayer, and enjoyed some success, but less and less as the 1970s began.

Fr. Peyton remained confident—not in himself, perhaps, but in the eternal power of the Rosary that had lost so much popularity of late but was experiencing, in his words, an eclipse. “It is exactly that,” he insisted, “an eclipse. The Rosary is like the moon. When the eclipse is over, it will be all the brighter.” Though the Rosary was at the center of his preaching, it was by no means the entirety of his spiritual life. Throughout his priesthood, Fr. Peyton remained committed to daily Mass and a daily Eucharistic Holy Hour. Still, he believed the Rosary to be the most important of all devotions. Even when his ministry shifted toward a broader approach to family prayer, Fr. Peyton insisted, “It goes without saying then that we must advocate Family Prayer—but cannot stop there. We must do all in our power to lead the family to pray the Rosary.”

A health crisis brought on by merciless overwork compelled Fr. Peyton to take some time to rest just as filming was beginning on The Messiah, a film into which he had invested an inordinate amount of money. When he recovered, he continued his work advising the film, but was devastated when it was released to terrible reviews. This stress could only affect his health negatively, and Fr. Peyton soon began to decline. He had diabetes and developed a significant heart condition. As his health suffered, other Holy Cross priests began to take over leadership of different aspects of Fr. Peyton’s apostolates.

Always a micro-manager, Fr. Peyton struggled mightily with the need to watch others make decisions he would not have made, especially when they continued to de-emphasize the Rosary that was the driving force of Fr. Peyton’s life—and especially where they were successful where Peyton had ceased to be. He became embroiled in conflicts with men who were leading ministries that were offshoots of his own, with money often at the root of the problem. There were clearly faults on both sides of the issue, but for Fr. Peyton’s part they continued to be the faults that plagued him throughout life: a rigid inability to surrender his work into the hands of Providence.

Even this speaks to the virtues for which his supporters feel he should be canonized: sincerity, devotion, and the complete dedication of his life to the will of God through Mary. Though he rubbed elbows with the stars, Fr. Peyton remained remarkably down-to-earth, always willing to take a moment to pray with someone or to listen to people’s woes. He may have been brusque and forceful when it came to his work, but he had no pride when it came to himself. This is what makes sense of a cause for canonization being opened for a man who acted as Peyton did: for Mary he was willing to do anything, knock on any door, burn any bridge; for himself, he would do nothing of the sort.

Even those who did not care for Peyton never seem to have asserted that he was selfish or proud, though his actions might have seemed so; instead, they insisted that he made imprudent financial choices and grasped at control not for himself but in an attempt to serve the Blessed Mother as faithfully as she deserved. And canonization, mercifully, is not a declaration that a person did everything right, nor even a seal of approval on his personality. Canonization is an assertion that a person is in heaven, that his life is worthy of imitation. For all Fr. Patrick Peyton’s flaws, he was wholeheartedly given over in service to the Lord, his Mother, and his Church—even when it cost him mightily. That is worth emulating.

Fr. Peyton spent the 1970s and 1980s continuing his work throughout the world, though to less acclaim in most cases. One exception was a 1985 Crusade in Manila that drew two million people; two and a half months later the twenty-year reign of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was brought to an end in a bloodless revolution. But this time there was no question of CIA involvement or of politicization of the Rosary; instead, it seems the spiritual renewal inaugurated by the Crusade really had worked a miracle. Peyton grabbed headlines another time when he pledged to gather a million rosaries to send to countries in the former USSR—and managed to collect that enormous number in less than a year. But mostly his last decades were a series of attempts to recapture the magic: constant pleas for funding and repeated pitches to different studios and networks as Fr. Peyton tried to continue his role as the Rosary Priest. Eventually, he realized that his work would die with him if he did not figure out a way to restructure the organizations he founded and train men to take his place, so he did just that, finally willing to let go of control of the work that had brought him so far.

Eventually, his many years of overwork caught up to him and Fr. Patrick Peyton died in 1992 at the age of seventy-three. His last words, there in the home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, were, “Mary, my queen, my mother.” He had spoken to millions, been lauded by popes and presidents, and changed the face of Catholic media forever. But in that moment, he was not a spiritual giant or a demanding and difficult man; he was the son of a Mother whom he had given his life to serve.

Fr. Patrick Peyton was a difficult man to work with. Despite the shocking amount of money that he was responsible for, he was not much of a businessman either. He was stubborn. Some might even say obsessed. He was also humble and holy and—when the chips were down—obedient. He chose faithfulness over fame and success. And that is what may one day win him the title of Saint: not that he brought millions to Jesus but that he chose Jesus over those millions. In the end, the Rosary Priest just wanted to hold the hand of the Blessed Mother and go home to the Lord he had served so well—and sometimes so poorly—all his life.