September 29, 2017

Editorial

Father Stanley Rother: First U.S.-born citizen to be declared a martyr

This could become a Catholic trivia question some day: Who was the first U.S.-born citizen to be declared a martyr? The answer: Father Stanley Rother, from Oklahoma, who was killed in Guatemala on July 28, 1981. Pope Francis declared him a martyr last December, and he was beatified on Sept. 23 during a ceremony in Oklahoma City presided over by Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes.

Stanley Rother was born in 1935. His parents were farmers, so he grew up learning the many tasks required on a farm. He was also active in the Future Farmers of America, now known simply as FFA.

Upon graduation from high school, he followed a vocation to the priesthood. It’s said that his father was pleased with that decision, but said to him, “Why didn’t you take Latin instead of working so hard as a Future Farmer of America?”

Indeed, Stanley found Latin difficult in the seminary and, after six years of study, the staff at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio advised him to withdraw.

However, after consultation with his bishop, he was sent to Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and was ordained for the Diocese of Oklahoma City-Tulsa (now the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City) in 1963. The diocese had a mission to the Tzutujil Mayan people in Guatemala. In 1968, Father Rother volunteered to serve there.

This was not the only diocese that had missions in Guatemala. When I traveled there, I also visited a parish at Lake Atitlan sponsored by the Diocese of New Ulm, Minn. Msgr. Gregory Schaffer had been there 30 years, and Father John Goggin had been there for 25; both were diocesan priests from New Ulm. San Lucas had 30,000 parishioners being served by the two priests and 140 catechists in 22 chapels that the priests had built.

Father Rother was in Santiago Atitlan for 13 years. Among other things, he learned Tz’utujil, an unwritten and indigenous language. In a letter he wrote in 1973, he said, “I am now preaching in Tz’utujil.” He celebrated Mass in that language and even translated the New Testament into it.

He also put the skills he learned on the farm of his boyhood to work. On one occasion, he operated a bulldozer from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to clear land on local farms, stopping only to celebrate Mass. He won the respect of the people by working closely with them. He went on to found a farmers’ co-op, then a school, a small hospital and a radio station.

But these were the days of violent conflicts in Guatemala that raged from 1960 to 1996. They were fought between the autocratic government and rebel forces supported by the Mayan indigenous people whom Father Rother was serving. Before the conflicts were over, more than 200,000 people were killed.

Father Rother’s parishioners began to disappear and later were found dead, their bodies showing signs of torture. Eleven members of his community were kidnapped and killed. His radio station was destroyed, and its director murdered.

Eventually, he was told that his name was on a death list and he was warned to leave Guatemala. He did, in January of 1981. But in April he asked his archbishop for permission to return. “A shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” he wrote in a letter.

On July 28, three men broke into the parish rectory and shot Father Rother in the head. He was 46. His body was flown back to Oklahoma, but his heart was buried under the altar of the church where he served.

The best book about Father Rother is Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda’s The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma, published by Our Sunday Visitor.

As Cardinal Amato said during the beatification ceremony, “His saintly life has become well known beyond boundaries of Oklahoma and Guatemala, and the faith of those familiar with his life has been greatly strengthened. How grateful we are to almighty God for the beatification of Father Rother.”

—John F. Fink

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