Becoming the heart of Christ: Servant of God Fr. Stanley Rother

July 28 marks the 35th anniversary of his murder

By María Ruiz Scaperlanda
For the Sooner Catholic

It was dusk. An unusual chill in the evening’s breeze testified to the fact that it was January in the remote lakeside village of Santiago Atitlán. Father Stanley Rother, the parish pastor, sat in the rectory’s living room listening to music, as was his custom at the end of a busy day – or at times, as a much needed respite before an evening full of visitors and parish activities.

Suddenly, Associate Pastor Father Pedro Bocel ran into the living room, swinging open the door and yelling a panicked call.

In a matter of seconds, Father Stanley grabbed a jacket and dashed out of the rectory’s front door – just in time to witness three kidnappers who had already pried 30-year-old Diego Quic from the rectory porch railing dragging Diego down the long steps of the parish church, and shoving him into the back seat of a car parked at the bottom of the stairs.

“.¡Ayúdame, ayúdame!” (Help me!), Diego cried loudly. Bewildered by his inclusion on a death list, Diego, an educated parish catechist and father of two sons, had requested asylum at the parish rectory. “I have never stolen, have never hurt anyone, have never eaten someone else’s food,” he had said to Father Stanley, “why then do they want to hurt me and to kill me?”

On that fateful Saturday in January of 1981, the kidnappers and Diego’s violent struggle broke the banister on the elevated porch between the church entrance and the rectory. Father Stanley stepped out and stopped where the rail had broken.

“I just stood there wanting to jump down to help, but knowing that I would be killed or be taken along also. The car sped off with him yelling for help but no one was able to do so. Then, I realized that Father Pedro, Frankie Williams from Wichita and I had just witnessed a kidnapping of someone that we had gotten to know and love and were unable to do anything about it,” Father Stanley wrote to his friend Father John Steichen, the official contact with the Church of Oklahoma.

“They had his mouth covered, but I can still hear his muffled screams for help. As I got back in the rectory, I got a cramp in my back from the anger I felt that this friend was being taken off to be tortured for a day or two and then brutally murdered for wanting a better life and more justice for his pueblo.”

Soon after the car sped away from the plaza, the stunned group from the mission walked the area and found Diego’s hat in front of the Church and his right shoe at the bottom of the steps. Someone found a hand grenade on the church porch, apparently dropped by one of the kidnappers.

Right away, Father Stanley walked to the village’s telephone office and called the police in nearby San Lucas, asking them to keep an eye out for a car coming their way. He specifically stressed this was a kidnapping and that the kidnappers were armed. The San Lucas police replied they would see about it, “but they probably hid instead,” Father Stanley wrote in his Jan. 5 letter.

When Father Stanley returned from the telephone office, he suggested to the dazed group that they stand in a circle, hold hands and pray – for Diego, for his family and for peace for the village.

Later the group at the rectory drifted into the living room where they sat mostly in silence, with only occasional comments. Father Stanley turned and said to Frankie, “I am so glad you are here and experienced this with us. You can go back home and tell people what happened.”

Counting Diego Quic, “that makes 11 members of this community who have been kidnapped and all are presumed dead,” Father Stanley wrote in a letter, as if counting bodies, morgues and places of burial were a normal topic for anyone. “Only one body has been positively identified and buried here; there are possibly three buried in a common [grave] in Chimaltenango. They were picked up in Antigua and the following week I went to all the hospitals and morgues in the area and got a list of their characteristics and clothing. … For these 11 who are gone, there are eight widows and 32 children among the group. These people are going to need emergency help.”

Perhaps writing in a stream of consciousness, trying to make sense of the senselessness, Father Stanley continued the letter by listing the parishioners affected by the violence who needed help: the widows; the children; the people who left for fear of their life and can’t find work in exile; parishioners who were salaried by the radio station, artisan coops and health promoters. Still, “other towns in the diocese are being hit harder than us at the present,” Father Stanley acknowledged. “In the past couple months three priests of the diocese have had to leave because of direct threats, and two others got scared and left. All but one were foreigners.”

Days later, a close friend of Diego Quic came to the rectory to see Father Stanley, distraught, still in grief over the loss of his friend. Frankie remembered how “impressed” she was by Father Stanley’s patience. “Stan stood there for an hour with his arms around this man, listening,” she remarked, amazed by her friend’s ability to “console a person with such tenderness and patience.”

The Missionary of Mercy

How a 46-year-old priest from a small German farming community in Oklahoma came to live and die in this remote, ancient village inGuatemala is a story full of wonder and God’s Providence.

During his seminary years in San Antonio, Stanley Francis Rother struggled in his studies, even failing his first year of theology. When the seminary suggested that he should consider a different vocation, Stanley requested another chance, and the supportive Oklahoma bishop agreed. He successfully completed his studies at Mount Saint Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., in 1963.

When Pope John XXIII requested in the early 1960s that North Americans send missionaries to South and Central America, the Oklahoma Church responded.

In 1964, the then-Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa took over the care of the church of Santiago Atitlán, the earliest parish in the Diocese of Sololá, dating back to the 16thcentury. But, no resident priest had served the indigenous Tz’utujil community of Santiago Atitlán for almost a century. 

From the onset, that first Oklahoma missionary team understood that the Tz’utujil are an agricultural people who retain much of their ancient Mayan culture and pride.

Ordained in 1963, Father Stanley served the first five years of his priestly ministry without much notice in various Oklahoma assignments. But, everything changed when he answered the call to serve at the mission in Guatemala, a decision that led him to find his heart’s vocation as a priest to the Tz’utujil people.

When he arrived at Santiago Atitlán in 1968, the farmer who loved the land and recognized God in all of creation, instantly fell in love with the volatile and stunning land of volcanoes and earthquakes, but above all, with its people. Never afraid to dig in and get his hands dirty alongside his farming parishioners, he was called Apla’s by the Tz’utujil, which translates “Francis” or “Francisco” in their native language.

As a missionary,Father Stanley helped develop a farmers’ co-op, a nutrition center, a school, a hospital clinic and the first Catholic radio station, which was used for catechesis. And, although he did not institute the project, he was a critical driving force in developing Tz’utujil as a written language, which led to translations of the liturgy of the Mass, the lectionary, with the New Testament in Tz’utujil being published after his death.

The Violent New Normal

Father Stanley was a pure spirit, one of 13 priests – and the first American priest – slain during Guatemala’s 36-year-guerrilla war, a tragedy that ultimately claimed an estimated total of 140,000 lives. 

It is very difficult to assess how far circumstances – no matter how grave – shape and modify ordinary life, especially when those changes are gradual. Yet, by the late 1970s, nothing was normal about the mission’s new normal.

Once Guatemala’s bloody civil war found its way to the peaceful villages surrounding beautiful Lake Atitlán, Father Stanley’s response was to show his parishioners the way of love and peace with his life and through his actions.

By January 1981 when Diego Quic was kidnapped, Father Stanley’s missionary workhad become one of presence. Most of the parish classes and meetings were cancelled. The farmers neglected the fields, market activity was minimal, and no one walked the streets at night. Even the necessary tasks of hauling water and gathering firewood were kept to a minimum.

“Sometimes we even have to change the places where we sleep just in case they look for us. But, we have no direct information that we are being sought. The radio is no longer on the air, and most of the equipment is being stored. … All the workers there, some of the catechists and many of the leaders in town are in hiding in other parts of the country. … I guess we will get used to it little by little,”  Father Stanley wrote to a friend.

One essential thing, however, remained unchangeable – and that made all the difference for the loving pastor. “[O]ur presence here means a lot for the people,” Father Stanley wrote. “When I hear the people during Mass here on Sunday or Thursday, the cacophony of prayers going up to the Lord, His presence must be there. I am delighted to be a part. … At first signs of danger, the shepherd can’t run and leave the sheep to fend for themselves.”

A mere few days after Diego Quic’s abduction, 18 defenseless civilians were executed and tortured by members of the military in what came to be known as la masacre delpato, The Duck Massacre, because the victims were caught as they carried out their everyday tasks such as hunting ducks on the shores of the lake.

One after another, the bloody bodies were carried into town and set down on the municipal plaza at Santiago Atitlán – laid out like decorations across the stoned plaza. The anguish of thefamily members was exacerbated by the accusation that came with claiming their loved one’s body, equivalent to branding oneself a subversive.

Father Stanley walked across the church plaza and down the steps to the municipal plaza. With armed soldiers and their officers monitoring him, the Tz’utujil waited silently for any clue from their pastor. Finally, one brave Tz’utujil woman stepped forward and pointed, “This is my husband.” Without any need for explanation, Father Stanley had walked over to stand beside her. And he waited for the next Tz’utujil to take the lead. Every time someone stepped up to claim a body, their faithful pastor walked over and stood with them.

For most of the women in the crowd, however, the fear for their lives and for their families was paralyzing, and many could not bring themselves to identify the corpses of their spouses. At the end of the evening, Father Stanley ordered the seven unclaimed bodies to be carried into the church, and he arranged for coffins to be made for each of them. One of the Santiago Carmelite Sisters who was present, described what she observed about Father Stanley during those days. “[Padre Francisco] cried a lot. It was the first time I had seen him cry. He felt very powerless. He couldn’t do anything.” Nothing, except stand in tender communion with his suffering flock.

In the most tangible way, in addition to serving his people through the formal Sacraments, the loving pastor became himself the presence and the oil that nourished and healed his suffering people in this very dark period in the history of Guatemala and for the Americas. He fed the hungry. He sheltered the needy. He looked in on the Tz’utujil in hiding. He visited the persecuted in prison. He clothed and took care of the widows and fatherless children. He was the face of Christ and the heart of Christ. And Apla’s was hope for his people.

A Martyr or Charity

“Who are martyrs? They are Christians who have been ‘earned’ by Christ, disciples who have learnt well the sense of that ‘love to the extreme limit’ that led Jesus to the Cross,” remarked Pope Francis in October 2013 on the beatification of 522 Spanish martyrs killed during the anti-Christian persecutions of the 1930s.

“Christ ‘beats’ us in love; the martyrs imitated him in love until the very end. … We implore the intercession of the martyrs, that we may be concrete Christians, Christians in deeds and not just in words, that we may not be mediocre Christians, Christians painted in a superficial coating of Christianity without substance – they weren’t painted, they were Christians until the end. We ask them for help in keeping our faith firm, that even throughout our difficulties we may nourish hope and foster brotherhood and solidarity.”

There was nothing “painted” in Stanley, the young man who chose to follow Jesus as his disciple:

*Stanley, the seminarian who endured difficulties, even failure, yet persevered in his calling to the priesthood;

*Father Stanley, the young parish priest who put aside his fears, courageously agreeing to serve the People of God in Oklahoma’s mission in Guatemala;

*Father Stanley, the man who struggled to pass Latin and learn Spanish, yet succeeded in learning the rare and challenging Mayan dialect of his Tz’utujil parishioners;

*Father Stanley, the Okarche farmer who believed plowing the fields manually next to the Tz’utujil farmers was part of his vocation as a minister of God’s love;

*And finally, Father Stanley, the shepherd who chose to face death rather than abandon his flock – the shepherd who didn’t run.