Praying the Rosary with Catholic celebrities

21 celebrities, the vision of a 20th-century priest, and a few burned-out computers work together to bring the Rosary to today’s young Catholics

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By Julie Rattey


A pro soccer player used it to help find his future wife. A Rwandan woman hiding from her would-be murderers relied on it for faith and radical forgiveness. An unemployed actor used it to find peace of mind and, ultimately, a path back to the Church.

To some Catholics, the Rosary — the praying of a prescribed number of Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Bes accompanied by meditations on events in the lives of Jesus and Mary and often achieved with the aid of a string of prayer beads — seems an old-fashioned prayer with no relevance to the modern world. But for many other Catholics, including those described above, the Rosary is an anchor, a trailblazer, a lifesaver.

The power and relevance of the Rosary in today’s world is the message “Rosary Stars: Praying the Gospel” is trying to send young Catholics. The DVD, produced by Family Theater Productions, a Catholic television and radio production company in Hollywood, features 21 Catholic celebrities who pray the Rosary with viewers and offer reflections on the Mysteries and on how prayer has made a difference in their lives.

The stories they share are as varied as the Mysteries they accompany. They speak of joyful times as well as tough times — of coping with addiction and betrayal, of poor choices from the past. Director Jake Alba says he urged the cast to not present a “glossy” version of these struggles; he wanted young people to be able to relate.

“I don’t want to preach to the masses that already pray the Rosary,” Alba recalls telling the cast. “I want young people who don’t typically pray the Rosary to watch this and go, ‘Wow, this is something I could do.’”

The result is a rich collection of stories. Soccer player Luke Vercollone talks about praying to Mary for a “virtuous wife” and then meeting her on October 7, the Feast Day of Our Lady of the Rosary. Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza says praying the Rosary helped her learn to “forgive the people who were hunting me and who were killing my family.” Actor Chris Kramer shares how, after the Rosary helped restore his faith, prayer helped him overcome the fear of living that faith openly. Actor Eduardo Verástegui of “Bella” says he believes his mother’s daily Rosary for him and his siblings helped him reject immoral behavior. Television host and actor Matt Gallant shares how prayer helped him comfort a terminally ill friend.

Though the stories are different, the core message is the same: Prayer is a powerful tool that helps us cope with challenges in the present and build a faith foundation for the future.

“In any walk of life,” even for celebrities, says Gallant, “there are going to be ups and downs. And what is going to sustain you in the down times? That’s why, for me, the Rosary’s been a very strong tool.”

The project began taking shape in 2002, when Father Wilfred Raymond, CSC, national director of Family Theater Productions, began organizing informal focus groups around the country to determine how to best bring the Rosary to young Catholics.

“What would make the Rosary appeal to you?” they were asked. One, they said, if it were electronic. Two, if the Rosary’s instructions, history, and purpose were accessible online. Three, if professionals visible in the culture — like actors and sports figures — were involved.

After several years of development, hard work, and, as director Jake Alba laughingly points out, the burning out of three computers in the production process, “Rosary Stars” was complete. It features a host of celebrities, information about how to pray the Rosary and about its history, and even a virtual rosary with beads that light up as each prayer is said. The project premiered in Hollywood on February 7, 2009 to a positive response and now has a Website (rosarystars.org) as well as a presence on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The message is beginning to spread.

“I hope that each one of our reflections means something to [viewers], and I hope it encourages them to pray the Rosary. It’s a really great companion,” reflects actor Matt Marsden, sitting down to discuss “Rosary Stars” at this spring’s Catholic Media Convention in Anaheim, California. Comfortably clad in blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and sneakers, he sits with an arm draped over the top of the neighboring chair as he speaks earnestly about his faith.

Although Marsden says that the Rosary is not inherently old-fashioned, he does say it is a good idea to introduce the prayer to young people in a more modern light, especially because some Catholic videos made in prior years are, he says, “a bit archaic.” He describes a gap between what the culture finds cool and the coolness of our faith, which is often ignored or insufficiently presented. How is it, he muses, that in a culture obsessed with superheroes like Wolverine, we don’t look at Jesus, who created the entire world, as “the coolest thing ever”?

PHOTOS COURTESY OF FAMILY THEATER PRODUCTIONS
 
“I think there are a lot of people who are afraid to be spiritual and religious and have strong faith ’cause it’s not ‘fun,’” offers Matt Gallant. He hopes that young people seeing the DVD will say, “Hey, look, there’s somebody who’s successful, there’s somebody who’s funny… but, oh, that person’s actually really nice, and they’ve got some depth, and they have faith in God.”

Actress Sam Doumit also hopes to dispel some of the myths that the Rosary is repetitive and boring. “I’ve said the Rosary throughout many different times in my life; you’re saying the same Mystery, but at different times in your life it speaks to you in a different way,” she says enthusiastically.

“Why do we need the Rosary?” asks youth minister Justin Fatica in the program’s trailer. “It disciplines our life, it strengthens us, it encourages us to do better, and Mary, she strengthens us to love Christ. It is a prayer that’s been going on for centuries, and it’s a prayer linked throughout all the world where there’s many people praying, so you’re not only getting the strength of your prayer; you’re getting the strength of the Church as well.”

Being involved with the “Rosary Stars” project wasn’t just a chance for the cast and crew to share their faith with viewers, however; it was also a chance to strengthen that faith. Jake Alba was a new Catholic who wasn’t all that familiar with the Rosary when Raymond first began brainstorming with him for the Rosary Stars project. But Alba says his lack of familiarity with the Rosary gave him extra reason to delve into the project.

“I was on fire about it,” he says. “I thought it was a great opportunity for me to learn and pick up everything. Father Willy (Raymond) started feeding me books, anything that I could put my hands on. I really got to deepen my faith.”

Alba wasn’t the only Rosary amateur on deck. Some of the celebrities featured in the DVD, he explains, had said to Raymond, “I’m not too familiar with the Rosary. I don’t pray it often.” Raymond’s response, says Alba, was, “Well, we can change that.”

Raymond describes how when Major League Baseball player Jeff Suppan, one of the featured celebrities on the DVD, began praying the Rosary every day as a result of the project, it made his good marriage even better. “You can’t believe what this has done to our family,” Raymond quotes Suppan.

Matt Marsden is another example. “The Rosary’s something that grew on me,” he says. Initially uncomfortable with the Rosary, he began praying it when he became involved with Family Theater; now he prays it with his wife, often when putting their young son to bed.

As a self-described “nightmare” of multitasking, Marsden points out the importance of taking time out to pray, in order to find calmness and peace, keep God foremost in one’s mind, and find “fuel to get through the next day.”

The project also helped provide a support community for the participants.

“It’s been really wonderful meeting all these new people and seeing more young people,” says Alba. “I think what’s more exciting than anything is just knowing that there are other people out there who are kind of in our scene, walking the same path, and they choose to pick up the Rosary and make it part of their daily lives.”

So far, “Rosary Stars” has received positive responses from viewers of various ages. Alba cites a glowing review on the “Rosary Stars” Facebook site from a young filmmaker named Carlos de la Vega. Other positive testimonies are found there and on the “Rosary Stars” site.

“If you can share a story, and you can be genuine,” says Gallant, “nine out of 10 times it’s going to have a positive impact on somebody. My mom used to say something when I was a kid,” he continues. “She said if you can make one person smile a day, or you can impact one person’s life, then you’ve done your job.”  CD

PHOTOS COURTESY OF FAMILY THEATER PRODUCTIONS

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.