One year ago today, Pope Francis officially declared the Rev. Stanley Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City the first martyr from the United States.
On Sept. 23 of this year, Cardinal Angelo Amato, as representative of the pope, celebrated the Liturgy of Beatification in Oklahoma City with 52 bishops and 20,000 people. I was present. What a powerful, spiritual experience!
Born March 27, 1935, on a farm near Oklahoma City, Rother did his farm chores, played sports and was an altar server. He began to discern a vocation to priesthood while in high school. After entering San Antonio Seminary, he had trouble with his studies, particularly Latin, and was asked to leave.
After entering a second seminary, Rother was ordained a priest on May 25, 1963. At age 33, Rother was assigned to mission work at the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City parish mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.
Santiago Atitlan is a beautiful area and has lots of very poor Mayan Indians. During his 13 years at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, which dates back to the 17th century, Rother collaborated in building a hospital, school and radio station. He was a driving force in translating the New Testament into the language (Tz’utujil) of the Mayan people he served; even though, it was at that time hardly a written language. With his farming background, he developed agriculture and built an irrigation system.
Most importantly, Rother invited his very poor people to hear the scriptures and share in the Eucharistic meal. Like an Oklahoman farmer, his faith was grounded in holy confidence, a virtue that sees God as present, regardless of the circumstances.
A horrible 36-year war was going on between the government with the military against the guerrillas and others. By ministering to the poor, the Catholic Church was often seen as the enemy by the right-wing military dictatorship. The Church was also accused of being communistic. Lay people, religious sisters and brothers and priests were murdered simply for ministering to the Indians and other rural poor. Violence spread from the cities to the rural areas.
In early 1981 Rother was placed on a death squad hit list, together with several members of his parish staff and catechists. He was murdered in his rectory at 1 a.m. July 28, 1981, by three men, probably from the military, for his support of the native poor. He was 46. Known as Padre A’plas (Fr. Francis), he had served the people for 13 years. TNo one was ever arrested.
The utility room in which Rother was murdered/martyred is now a small chapel. I was there in 2001 and remember seeing the dried blood.
Rother’s body was brought back to the United States for burial in his home town, but his heart was buried in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. On May 10, 2017, his earthly remains were removed and examined by medical professionals in preparation for beatification. Relics were also obtained. His casket was then sealed and moved to Resurrection Cemetery in northwest Oklahoma City, near the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center.
Rother’s spirit lives on, not only in Oklahoma, but also in Guatemala. At St. Francis of Assisi Parish, he was called “a missionary of mercy”. Yes, his heart is still there. I’m told that his blood, which was placed in a jar early that morning, is still fresh and has not coagulated.
The Rev. Stanley Rother’s life in Christ went through a major transformation. He knew the transfigured Christ. He knew what it meant to leave Oklahoma City behind and live with the Mayan Indians. He also knew what it meant to stay at his parish when his days were numbered.
In Rother’s last Christmas message to people back home, he said, “If it is my destiny that I should give my life here, so be it. I don’t want to desert these people … .The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”
At the liturgy the Rev. Tom McSherry, the priest who followed Rother at Santiago Antitlan, had the privilege to carry the relic of his rib in procession. I had been with McSherry in Guatemala in 2001. During the procession, I cried. I concelebrated with him at his present parish the next day.
Bishop Paul Coakley, archbishop of Oklahoma City, said, “His beatification is an unexpected blessing for Oklahoma and the United States, as we celebrate this ordinary man from humble beginnings who answered the call to serve an extraordinary life. His witness will continue to inspire us for generations.”
“Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us.”
The Rev. John Schultz is a Catholic chaplain at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital, Eau Claire.