By Eddie O'Neill
History has it that St. John Vianney was rarely seen without a rosary in his hand. What a powerful image in this month, dedicated to the Rosary in this the Year for Priests, which honors the holy life and example of St. John Vianney.
In his proclamation announcing this special year, Pope Benedict XVI spoke extensively on the gift of the Curé of Ars to the priesthood and called upon the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin to "awaken in the heart of every priest a generous and renewed commitment to the ideal of complete self-oblation to Christ and the Church."
This special relationship between Mary and the priesthood is nothing new. In fact, the Church has long held Mary as the mother of priests, and the one to turn to for support on the path to holiness, for comfort in times of trial and as a source of strength in ministry.
In Corpus Christi, Texas, Father Jim Kelleher knows well the reward of having a heavenly mother at his side, and he is eager to introduce the world to her. Since 1997, Father Kelleher, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity and president of Our Lady of Corpus Christi College, has been organizing global living Rosaries.
"The definition of a global living Rosary is that you have people be the living beads of a living Rosary, and they say the first half of the Hail Mary in their native language, and the second half is recited in English," said Father Kelleher.
His initial global living Rosaries took place while he was a pastor at Immaculate Conception in Skidmore, Texas. He later led a regular candlelit global Rosary at Corpus Christi College when he ministered there in the early 1990s, and then it hit him.
"I knew that the role of the Virgin Mary was to lead us to her Son. And I began to sense that she wanted to lead us to her Son on an elevated altar at the 50-yard line in a major football stadium," said Father Kelleher.
Fast-forward to May 2005, and Bishop Charles Grahmann, then-leader of the Diocese of Dallas, was leading the opening procession for an evening of eucharistic adoration with a living Rosary before 22,000 faithful at the Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas. It was aired around the world by EWTN.
"You have to understand that we were walking in faith. None of us had any idea on how many people were going to come. So, when 22,000 people came, we were amazed. We all knew that this was God at work and the Virgin Mary interceding very powerfully," said Father Kelleher.
His next event was even bigger. On the feast of Corpus Christi in May 2008, more than 25,000 people came to Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., for an evening of praise and worship music, eucharistic adoration and the Rosary.
Father Kelleher said that he is already laying the groundwork for the next global Rosary event to be held on the East Coast sometime in early 2010.
Father Kelleher said much of his inspiration came from reading the biography of Father Patrick Peyton, popularly known as "the Rosary priest." Born in 1909 in County Mayo, Ireland, Father Peyton, along with his brother Tom, immigrated to the United States as a teenager to pursue the priesthood.
The two joined the Congregation of Holy Cross and were sent to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., for studies. However, before his ordination, he was stricken with a near-deadly bout of tuberculosis. He was told by a fellow Holy Cross priest to pray in order to be healed.
Father Peyton prayed the prayer he knew best, the one that was recited each night as a family growing up -- the Rosary. Day-by-day the young seminarian got better. Shortly thereafter, doctors could not find any trace of tuberculosis in him. Father Peyton and his brother Tom went on to be ordained together in 1941.
In thanksgiving for the gift of healing, which he credited to the power of the Rosary, Father Peyton dedicated his life to doing the work of the Blessed Mother.
"He promised to Mary to do her work his entire priesthood," said Father John Phalen, the president of Family Theater Productions, the organization founded by Father Peyton. "When he was thinking and praying about how he would do this, it came to him that he could encourage families to do what he had been doing all his life -- pray the Rosary as family."
Not long after, he began leading a 15-minute radio program in Albany, N.Y., where the family Rosary was recited. The program was quite popular and inspired Father Peyton to think bigger.
On Mother's Day 1945, the priest was on the air along with Bing Crosby promoting the Rosary and family prayer across the nation.
Due to the success of this broadcast, less than two years later Father Peyton had a weekly radio broadcast of his own called Family Theater, which aired on Sunday nights. Each program -- a radio drama -- starred some of Hollywood's biggest stars of the day.
The basic message of each episode stressed the importance of God, family and prayer. Each week, Father Peyton's famous slogan -- "the family that prays together, stays together" -- was worked into the show.
According to Father Phalen, Father Peyton's "boss" at Family Theater Productions was the Blessed Mother. He would often take scripts and proposals, said Father Phalen, and place them on the altar to Mary and let her decide what the next move was.
"He was very close to Mary and prayed innumerable Rosaries every day. He wasn't a great speaker, but he was so sincere in what he said that [he] really captivated everyone."
Dan Pitre, director of public relations for Family Theater Production said that throughout his lifetime Father Peyton's message remained clear: encourage the daily family praying of the Rosary.
That is why in 1947 Father Peyton began his Rosary crusade. Over the next 40-plus years, the Irish priest conducted more than 40 rallies that drew close to 28 million people. In countries such as Columbia or the Philippines it was not uncommon to have more than a million people coming together to pray the Rosary.
"The Rosary rallies were a dynamic way of drawing families together to pray the Rosary and to encourage them to keep praying the Rosary daily as a family," Pitre said.
"He believed that through the Marian devotion and intercession, especially through the Rosary, that Mary would draw families closer together by drawing them closer to her Son Jesus Christ."
Father Phalen would agree.
"People need to remember today how simple it is to take 15 to 20 minutes a day to pray a Rosary together as family in order to build up the trust in the family that will help to unify them," he said.
This is a message that is good to take to heart not only during this month dedicated to the Rosary but year round.
In June of 2001, nine years after his death, Bishop Sean O'Malley, then-bishop of Fall Rivers, Mass., formally opened the cause for Father Patrick Peyton's canonization.
With the opening of the first step in the canonization process, Father Peyton now has the title, "Servant of God," which can be used on all prayer cards, pamphlets and articles that refer to him.
In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, priestly vocations are on the rise. And according to the vocations director for the archdiocese, Father Luke Ballman, so is Marian devotion.
"It is widely recognized that our Blessed Mother plays a key role in the spiritual journey of each seminarian," said Father Ballman. "It is common at our seminarian gatherings for men to pray the Rosary. Mary is always present at our retreats and Holy Hours."
Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Atlanta ordained eight men. Around 45 men are currently in formation. These are numbers that, according to Father Ballman, have been steady over the last several years in a diocese he describes as having a traditionally strong vocations program.
As for any man discerning a call to the priesthood, Father Ballman's advice is to stay close to the Blessed Mother: "Mary guides us regardless of the need. It is always beneficial to seek her intercession. Praying the Rosary is an excellent way to pray when we don't know how to pray or don't feel like praying. Mary carries us through, especially during the dry times."
We pray that the Blessed Mother will wrap her mantle around her priests, and through her intercession strengthen them for their ministry.
We pray that Mary will guide your priests to follow her own words, "do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5).
May your priests have the heart of St. Joseph, Mary's most chaste spouse. May the Blessed Mother's own pierced heart inspire them to embrace all who suffer at the foot of the cross.
May your priests be holy, filled with the fire of your love, seeking nothing but your greater glory and the salvation of souls. Amen.
Eddie O'Neill writes from Wisconsin.
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