June 2, 2017

Editorial

Remember our missionaries who died serving others

We celebrated Memorial Day earlier this week, a time when we as a nation remember and honor those who died while serving our country’s armed forces both here and abroad.

While the federal holiday is always observed on the final Monday of May, we believe family members who lost military personnel take time to remember their loved ones each day.

It is also an appropriate time for all of us to thank God for the brave men and women who ventured into harm’s way, and made a difference through their unwavering commitment to their mission.

Though they are not recognized on Memorial Day, we as Catholics know of modern-day American missionaries who died in service to others.

Father Stanley Rother, the first-born American martyr who will be beatified on Sept. 23 in his native Oklahoma, comes to mind.

Father Rother, who served for more than 12 years as a missionary to the indigenous people of Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, was murdered there on July 28, 1981.

Priests and religious in Guatemala were targeted when government forces cracked down on leftist rebels supported by the rural poor, and Father Rother, like so many, gave his life for Christ during that country’s brutal civil war from 1960-96.

During his ministry, the bodies of some of Father Rother’s deacons and parishioners were left in front of his church, and he started receiving death threats over his opposition to the presence of the Guatemalan military in the area.

Though he went back to Oklahoma for a brief period, Father Rother returned to the Guatemalan village to remain with the people he had grown to love during the time he ministered there.

“There was a moment when, after hearing news of what was going on in his parish, he said: ‘A shepherd should never flee,’ ” Bishop Gonzalo de Villa Vasquez of Solola-Chimaltenango, the diocese where Father Rother lived, worked and died, told Catholic News Service in a recent story. “He returned to Guatemala to be with his people, to be with his flock, his faithful. It was there where they found him and killed him.”

More recently, we remember the lives of Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill, who were slain in their Durant, Miss., home on Aug. 25, 2016. Though the sisters were not martyrs for the faith, they were recognized during a dedication and blessing ceremony of a monument to honor their lives of service.

Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Miss., later confessed to fatally stabbing the two women and stealing their car. He was charged with capital murder, burglary and grand larceny.

Sister Paula was a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth based in Nazareth, Ky., and Sister Margaret belonged to the School Sisters of St. Francis congregation based in Milwaukee. The two nurse practitioners worked at Lexington Medical Clinic and were members of St. Thomas Parish in Lexington, Miss., located about 10 miles from their home.

Through their medical ministry, the sisters touched countless lives during the 15 years they served the poorest of the poor in rural Mississippi.

Mary James, who worked with the sisters at Lexington Medical Clinic, said that she and the other staff members at the clinic were truly blessed to have known the two women.

“They took me under their wings, and we became family,” James said during the May 20 blessing and dedication ceremony. “The sisters’ angelic presence was so great. We miss them daily. ... Whenever we get a little down or teary-eyed, we remember these words, ‘Let love win.’ If the sisters were here today, they would probably say something like this: ‘There’s no love like forgiveness, and there’s no forgiveness without love.’ ”

“I think it isn’t just their deaths that are important, it’s their lives,” added Sister Tonya Severin, vice provincial for the Western province of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. “They lived with the message of Jesus, that we are to give of ourselves in loving service to others, and that’s what they did so unobtrusively.”

The priest and religious sisters are examples of missionaries living their lives with the message of Jesus, giving themselves in loving service to their sisters and brothers in Christ. There are many others who did so as well.

Let us never forget their witness and sacrifice, and the example they offer for all of us.

—Mike Krokos

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