Missionary and Martyr

Author: LOR

Missionary and Martyr

Pope Francis

Fr Stanley Rother, first US-born priest beatified

The Beatification of Father Stanley Francis Rother, killed in hatred of the faith in 1981 in Guatemala, was an historic moment not only for his native Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, but also for the Catholic Church in the United States. Rother (1935-1981), the first missionary priest from the U.S. to be beatified. This was stressed by Cardinal Angelo Amato who, on behalf of Pope Francis, presided the Rite of Beatification at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City on Saturday, 23 September [2017]. Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City concelebrated at the liturgy.

The Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Amato recalled that during his apostolic visit to Guatemala in 1996, Pope John Paul II read out a list of 78 people considered to have been martyrs for the faith, and the last name on the list was that of Fr Stanley Francis Rother.

The American priest was sent as a missionary to Guatemala in 1968 during a turbulent period of socio-political unrest. The local population, Cardinal Amato observed, was mostly made up of indigenous Tzutuhil, descendents of the Mayans. The community had long been abandoned on a spiritual level and also had been suffering from poverty, illness and malnutrition. Thus, in taking up his new post as pastor, Fr Rother set out a plan for religious instruction and social formation, and began studying Spanish and the local language which he eventually mastered to the extent that he could preach in the local dialect; he also produced a translation of the New Testament.

Rother, however, very nearly risked never becoming a priest. He grew up in a very religious family of farmers in rural Oklahoma. Because of some difficulties in his Latin studies, he had been turned away from the first seminary where he was enrolled. But, after transferring to Mount St Mary’s, he was later ordained in May 1963. At his ordination, he chose St. Augustine’s words as his motto: “For my benefit I am a Christian, for the benefit of others I am a priest”.

With the Oklahoma mission in Guatemala, Rother was assigned to the parish of Santiago Atitlán, where he was affectionately known as Padre A’plas (or “Francis” in the Tzutuhil language).

In addition to his pastoral work in Guatemala, Rother drew on his knowledge of farming to help his local flock create cooperatives for farmers and weavers, and a credit union. He also participated in the building of a school, a hospital, and the region’s first Catholic radio station.

Recalling that in the ten year span between 1971 and 1981, “numerous killings of journalists, farmers, catechists, and priests, all falsely accused of communism, took place in Guatemala”, Cardinal Amato described the period as “a real and true time of bloody persecution for the Church”.

Despite the violence, the Cardinal noted, “Father Rother, aware of the imminent danger to his life, prepared himself for martyrdom, asking the Lord for the strength to face it without fear. He continued, however, to preach the Gospel of love and nonviolence” and to remain steadfast beside his small community of faithful. In a letter to the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City just months before his murder, Fr Rother said he had decided to stay “in the face of physical harm” because “the shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger”.

Rother was 46 when he was killed by three masked gunmen on July 28, 1981, in the rectory of his church at Santiago Atitlán. The assassins have never been identified.

Soon after his death, the priest’s body was returned to his family for burial in Okarche, Oklahoma, but at the request of the faithful in Guatemala, his heart and blood were entombed in the church at Santiago Atitlán. After the box containing them was recently opened for examination, Bishop Gonzalo de Villa of Sololá-Chimaltenango described the blood as “still fresh — after 36 years. It was as if it had been buried the day before”.

In order for Fr Stanley Rother to proceed one step further on the path towards sainthood, a miracle must be confirmed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 September 2017, page 9

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