Commitment to dignity. The absolute dignity of every human being on this earth must be priority number one, along with the requirement that they be respected as children of God. No matter who we are or where we come from, our lives have value and we deserve to be treated with dignity, at home, at work, under the law. Surely this is something we can all agree on.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps That Each of Us Can Take to Proactively Help Heal Our Country’, I had the pleasure of interviewing Father Willy Raymond, C.S.C., president of Holy Cross Family Ministries (HCFM).
Holy Cross Family Ministries is a family of Catholic ministries that inspires, promotes, and fosters the prayer life and spiritual well-being of families throughout the world. Its founder, the Venerable Patrick Peyton, coined the phrase, “The family that prays together stays together.” Father Willy entered the congregation of Holy Cross in September 1964 and became an ordained priest in April 1971. Prior to his current role as president of HCFM, Father Willy served as national director of Family Theater Productions, a media company producing impactful family, faith-based entertainment in Hollywood, Calif.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Father Raymond! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in the great state of Maine, in a city on the Penobscot River called Old Town. The population of Old Town was small, fewer than 10,000 people, so it was a close-knit community. My family heritage, like many families in Maine at the time, is French Canadian. I was one of 12 children in our family. We grew up in a mixed-language household in which we spoke French at first, and then, when we went to school, began to favor English. If you had visited my home, even in the last days of my parents’ lives, you would have heard them speaking to us in French, and we would typically answer them in English.
I grew up on French Island in Old Town, which meant that there were always tons of children around, where we all played in the streets of this densely populated island in the middle of the river. The local parish church was not just the religious center, but also the social center of our lives. Growing up in the 50’s and early 60’s in a large family, some of the advantages I think I had were that I learned to share and “make do.” We were not a wealthy family, but we grew up with a lot of faith and a good deal of love for each other.
I went to a Catholic grade school. The pastor of the school devised a vocation promotion program in which the eighth-grade boy who had the best grade point average would receive a scholarship to St. Joseph’s University in New Brunswick, Canada. It was a bilingual university, which I was very interested in, so I worked hard, and I got that scholarship. I went to high school in Canada and then did two years of college there. Then, I transferred to Stonehill, a Catholic college, and also entered the seminary for the Holy Cross order. As much as I loved going to school in Canada, I knew that I wanted to be a priest in the U.S.
During this time, I was surrounded by very faithful people. The nuns in our grade school and the priests at St. Joe’s and Stonehill were incredible and inspiring. I’d say it was a pretty traditional Catholic education. I thank God for that. At Stonehill, the philosophy department was by far the largest and strongest department at the college. That was where I was exposed to all the great philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and many more. That was a great gift for me, because it taught me not just to believe, but to think critically.
From the age of nine or 10-years-old, when I was an altar server, this started my thinking about becoming a priest. I remember considering it as I was waking up early on cold winter mornings to serve the 6:30 a.m. Mass. It was a small part of the world, but I felt as though the Church had a great impact.
During my time at Stonehill College, I became a postulant, or candidate, for priesthood. During this time, we postulants were looking at joining the congregation, and the congregation/order was also evaluating us. This is when candidates decide, is this a happy relationship or not? At the time I joined, there were 37 other young men who joined as postulants that same year, and by the time I finished my last year of studies seven years later, we were down to four. There was a gradual dropping off and discernment as more of them came to realize that they were meant for other paths. Some of them left to get married and raise families. This is supposed to be the time for discovering whether you’re really being called to the priesthood or not; whether you’re suitable. For me, it was a seven-year process of discernment leading to ordination as a priest.
Why did I become a priest, when others decided it wasn’t for them? When I felt that I was old enough, and knew enough about the world and religious life, it became clear to me that this was the best thing I could do with my life: serve people and serve God. That choice has enabled me to serve in many capacities as a priest. Some of them were very typical, and others were not. For example, I led a media production company, Family Theater Productions, in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, from 2000 to 2014. This organization, founded by Father Patrick Peyton in the 1940s, created family and faith-based media for radio, television, film and social media. It was an incredible opportunity for me, someone from very humble beginnings, to be working in that capacity.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Certainly, I would have to say the Gospels more than any other: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, and almost anything by Charles Dickens, have stayed with me since college. More recently, an author, named Patrick Lencioni, wrote a book called The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues that has had an impact on me. It deals with how a leader forms a team by choosing people who are “humble, hungry and smart.”
Another one of my favorites is called Mister Blue by Myles Connolly. It was written in 1928 about a modern, urban St. Francis of Assisi-type of character. I read it as a college student, and it moved me. Myles Connolly went to Hollywood and became a mentor to Frank Capra, the great film director who made “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” He encouraged Capra to make more serious films that showcased true humanity — the kind of films I think are so difficult to find today in the media. I suppose on some level, my love for this book prepared me for later in life when I was working in Hollywood with Family Theater Productions on creating that type of inspiring media.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I have so many from the Gospels. But the first that comes to mind is from Léon Bloy: “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only real tragedy in life, is not to be a saint.” To me, this quote means that the alternative to being a saint is not very appealing.
Another is from Pope John Paul: “You must decide.” Whenever he met young people, Pope John Paul would tell them this. That has shaped my relationship with young people or anyone who looks to the Church for guidance and leadership — the great responsibility of counseling someone who is coming into confession, baring their hearts. The great spiritual leaders do not try to take over someone’s life — they help them be free to decide and make their own way towards the faith.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A great leader, in my mind, is someone who is a servant. To me, the model of leadership is Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, when he washes the feet of the disciples. They’re embarrassed, and he tells them, what I have done for you, so you must do for others.
Another great leader that I have always admired is Abraham Lincoln — by far our greatest president. Being president during the Civil War brought him to his knees, often. He put many of his rivals in the cabinet — they all thought they were smarter than he was. But he did this because he had a vision of keeping the country together. He had determination, grit. He would not give up. I’m sure there were many moments during the Civil War in which he was tempted to give up, but he knew the future of the nation was at stake and this was much larger than his own personal destiny.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our country, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I’d like to talk more about human rights and civil rights, because these topics affect everyone in the country. Even as we talk about the pandemic, we are seeing that certain disadvantaged people are more at risk because they are at the periphery of our society.
I watched the funeral service for Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights hero. I was impressed by the number of people who spoke about him as a person of faith. The minister of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta; Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King, and even the former presidents who spoke at his service, they all commented on his faith. I was so amazed. He had unwavering trust in God. His faith made him know that he was a child of God who was equal in dignity to anyone else in the world. Also, what stood out to me was his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater cause of equality. On the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, he was beaten almost to death by state troopers with dogs and batons. He was brought to a Catholic hospital in Selma and the nurses who took care of him were nuns. Later, he went to see them in their retirement in Rochester, New York, to thank them.
He was someone who was so determined, so filled with faith, that even people who disagreed with him spoke about the love this man exuded. I think that’s one of the things that is needed to bring healing to this country: faith and love that cross all barriers. John Lewis was committed to non-violence and to standing up and speaking and acting when he saw something that was wrong and unjust. He often spoke of the “beloved community” that he lived to foster wherever he was.
This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
If you set aside the violence we have seen in some places at late-night protests, I was encouraged by the contrast between the civil rights protests of 1968 and those happening now in 2020. Back then, most major U.S. cities were burning, and anger and hatred were in the air. The peaceful protesters were not welcomed by anyone. They had few allies outside of themselves.
By contrast, in 2020, a majority of the peaceful protests we are seeing have involved people of all different races, backgrounds, ages, and walks of life. I just feel things are qualitatively different this time. When I see people of all ages, all colors, marching in the streets, it says to me that all of us are human beings and children of God. I think it’s clear that Black lives do matter. There’s a lot of hope in that. If we take away the politicians and people who are out there to divide through mayhem and violence, I think this is an amazing moment of opportunity in our national life, a moment in which we really have a chance to move to a different level of respect and understanding of each other. I am hopeful. I believe we are close to achieving a just society for everyone, all races and classes. I’m not looking to politicians to accomplish this. There are other impressive leaders who are stepping forward.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?
In the ’60s, the most trusted man in the country was Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchor and journalist. Unfortunately, there’s nobody today that we can look to and say, this person is telling the truth as far as it can be told. And we need that very badly. The cable networks, social media, and the way we hear the news is just not serving us well. Overall, I have some disappointment in some of our religious leaders who should be stepping forward and showing leadership, unity, and courage the way they did in the ’60s. Pope Francis is an exception. He is not afraid to speak out on this, even if others don’t agree with him. Pope Francis called out George Floyd by name, twice, in remarks from the Vatican and offered support to an American bishop who knelt in prayer during a Black Lives Matter protest. He displayed grace and courage that was inspiring to me and many others.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country? Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Prayer. Faith is absolutely essential now as it always is. We have to keep hope for the future alive. Prayer helps us achieve this by focusing our intentions and attention on the eternal. The Truth, the Beautiful and the Good are transcendent qualities essential in every age. Jesus says, “The Truth will set you free.” Dostoyevsky loved to say, “Civilization will be saved by beauty.” And the truly good person is the one who loves God and neighbor. When we pray together to God and the saints, we are closer to becoming instruments of grace. Our living belief in God and His plan for us is what energizes us to make a powerful choice for good and for change. If you have faith, you will have hope, and you can accomplish anything. Whole countries have changed course because of prayer. The peaceful overthrow of the dictatorship in the Philippines followed the Rosary rally in Manila the year before. Cardinal Sin, archbishop of Manila, said it was the Blessed Mother and Father Peyton who inspired the people to confront the military with Rosaries and flowers. The army backed down and the dictator fled.
- Commitment to dignity. The absolute dignity of every human being on this earth must be priority number one, along with the requirement that they be respected as children of God. No matter who we are or where we come from, our lives have value and we deserve to be treated with dignity, at home, at work, under the law. Surely this is something we can all agree on.
- Democracy. This holds the key to healing as well, and the nice thing is, this power lies with all of us, even though it’s true that we get the leaders we vote for, and sometimes, deserve. I still believe in the democratic process. We’re so blessed in this country. The Holy Cross Family Ministries is a global organization. We have friends in other countries who do not have the rights that we do, and it’s important to remember and honor them and never take these rights for granted. We can make change.
- Courage. President John Kennedy called courage “grace under pressure,” but I think it’s more than that. When you’re a person of faith, you believe in a transcendent good, in God, and, for me, that means the fullest revelation of God is Jesus Christ. I think of Nelson Mandela, and how, when he was released from prison, he ran for president. He did not seek retaliation upon those who imprisoned him. He wanted to heal his people. His trials forged in him a deep spiritual relationship with God. He said that knowing that people were praying for him was a profound source of strength that helped him survive his imprisonment. When you have courage, faith and hope, your life is full of purpose and meaning.
- Humanity. We learn and share through stories of humanity, and I fear that this is being lost. I would like to see a return, in our storytelling and our media, to humanity. Our young people need to see examples of that in the media, in our leaders. We have a responsibility to show them the way, by showing our own humanity to others. It’s one of the reasons that HCFM is releasing a new documentary about our founder, Father Patrick Peyton, this fall. His story is so inspirational; it’s what we need right now.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality? What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen? Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?
I don’t think these five things are just based on a wish; they’re based in reality. The root of courage is based in hope.
One way, that anyone can practice these five things, is to do something for someone else. I am reminded of when Princess Diana became friends with Mother Teresa. At the time, Diana was going through some hard times with her marriage and she was not feeling good about herself. She confided in Mother Teresa that she was unhappy. Mother Teresa advised her that, the best way to move past those feelings is to do something kind for someone else. And that’s when Diana started her campaign to remove land mines in Angola. You could see a change in her. Imagine if we all did that. When you are feeling overwhelmed and sad, help someone else. Your neighbor, someone in your family; even a stranger. Reach out, even beyond your comfort zone. It sounds simple, but there is great power in this act.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Yes, as I said, I do have a great deal of hope. Maybe it’s because I have lived a long time and I’ve seen the world go through these rough periods, many times.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Reach out to people who are very different from you. Find common ground. Go in peace. And where you see a lack of leadership, don’t be afraid to stand up and take that role, no matter how old you are. You can make change. You don’t have to wait for others to do it. If you are peaceful and treat others with respect and dignity, there’s nothing you can’t do.
I would also say, believe in God. There is very little hope in human life if we do not have a meta-narrative, an understanding that a good God created the world and each of us and that there are no coincidences. Everything that happens is part of God’s plan and the eyes of faith allow us to see and appreciate what God is doing. He’s got the whole world in his hands.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Donald Trump. I think that somehow, he is craving someone to listen to him. Even though I don’t agree with most of his policies, the way he speaks about the less fortunate, or the way he has divided people, I would take breakfast with him. And I would listen to him and show him compassion, too. Somehow, I think he needs it.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!