A very “ordinary” priest, who almost didn’t make it to his ordination because of his struggle with Latin, has achieved an extraordinary thing: Father Stanley Rother has become the first martyr of the Catholic Church born in the United States.
“Father Stanley was not a superstar. He was not the best or greatest or brightest or finest in anything. His gift to us is that he was ‘ordinary,’ like us,” said Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, his biographer. “He was a farmer from Okarche, Oklahoma, who served the Church as a devoted priest both here and in the Oklahoma mission in Santiago Atitlán — where he literally farmed the Guatemalan fields side by side with his parishioners.”
Scaperlanda, author of The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma, spoke in the wake of Friday’s announcement in Rome that Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of Father Rother. The recognition of his martyrdom clears the way for the beatification of this priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
Father Rother served as a missionary for the Oklahoma diocesan mission in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, for 13 years. “Once the Guatemalan civil war found its way to their village, Father Stanley not only remained faithful to his service to the Tz’utujil Mayan community, but he also embraced his role as a shepherd willing to stand with and suffer alongside his people,” Scaperlanda explained. “Even with his name on a death list, Father Stanley emphasized (in a letter to Oklahoma Catholics published in the two diocesan newspapers Christmas 1980-81), ‘the shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people.’”
That danger was vivid and terrifying: bodies of some of Father Rother’s deacons and parishioners were left in front of his church and soon he received numerous death threats over his opposition to the presence of the Guatemalan military in the area, according to Catholic News Service:
He was gunned down at the age 46 in the rectory of his church in Santiago Atitlan. Government officials there put the blame on the Catholic Church for the unrest in the country that they said led to his death. On the day he died, troops also killed 13 townspeople and wounded 24 others in Santiago Atitlan, an isolated village 50 miles west of Guatemala City.
Many priests and religious lost their lives and thousands of civilians were kidnapped and killed during the years of state-sponsored oppression in the country.
While his body was returned to Oklahoma, his family gave permission for his heart and some of his blood to be enshrined in the church of the people he loved and served. A memorial plaque marks the place.
Father Rother was considered a martyr by the Church in Guatemala and his name was included on a list of 78 martyrs for the faith killed during Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war. The list of names to be considered for canonization was submitted by Guatemala’s bishops to St. John Paul II during a pastoral visit to Guatemala in 1996.
“Pope Francis has publicly and persistently challenged all of us to take our spiritual journey seriously, to follow the Good Shepherd’s example of service, love, mercy, compassion,” Scaperlanda commented. “Those committed to a consecrated life, as Father Stanley was, live out a unique and important prophetic role for the universal Church. Their radical and generous commitment strengthens and inspires us. This is especially true of martyrs, those whose love of God in service to His people is so deep, so profound, that they willingly give their lives, confident in God’s promises.”
“The truth is that martyrs call us to holiness,” the author concluded. “We need their radical witness. It shakes us out of our complacency and comfort zone — and reminds us that we are all called to holiness.”
More background on Fr. Rother’s martyrdom from Currents, a news broadcast from the Diocese of Brooklyn: