Following Stan Rother’s example

How we can say “yes” in everyday life

By Father Don Wolf
For the Sooner Catholic

The fundamental challenge we all face as we participate in the beatification process is simple: What does Father Stanley Rother’s example hold for us? What does a life rooted in the fields and farms of Okarche, beginning in 1935, have to say to someone born in, say, 2002? Stanley’s life is a gift: How do we unwrap it?

As you know, I am a relative of Father Stan. My mother was a Rother from Okarche; she grew up on a farm one mile west of Stanley’s parents. My grandfather and Stanley’s grandfather were brothers.

I always have been proud of my association with Stan through this family we share. Our common heritage bonds us to one another in a real way. And, I have always been very proud of the priesthood we have shared. We were ordained 18 years apart, but this two-decade separation is nothing. Stan and I are united by blood; the Oklahoma priestly connection we share is just as strong and just as remarkable.

This is no small thing. If you have even a passing knowledge of the history of the Church in Oklahoma and the many extraordinary men who have served here, it will not surprise you to find the first native born priest named a martyr in the United States is an Oklahoman. This is the legacy we all have inherited. When I think of Father Stanley Rother, I am more likely to emphasize the connection we share because of the “Father” in his title than to make a claim on the “Rother” in his name.

But, beyond these connections we share, the greatest of all connections to him is the sacrifice he was willing to make for his people. In the midst of the civil war going on in Guatemala during the murderous days of the early 1980s, Stan could have driven to Guatemala City, bought a plane ticket, presented his American passport and flown off to safety at any moment. But, he decided to stay. And, he remained, not because he didn’t know the dangers facing him or the threats to his life or the possible outcomes of his presence, but because he did.

When we look at the saintly example Father Stan gave, and as we celebrate his martyrdom, it’s easy for us to affirm his example as a real act of holiness. But, we don’t usually imagine ourselves in such circumstances. We are not faced with the prospect of death squads or the complications of living our lives threading the needle between competing claims to loyalty. But, while Stan’s example is the bright shining torch lighting up the darkness, it is a version of the decision we all must make. Our opportunities for holiness might be dim, but they are just as real.

Stan began his sacrifice when he gave his life away in service at his ordination; it resulted in his martyrdom 18 years later. We begin our service just the same; where it will end up is God’s to know. But, we do begin it when we give our “yes” to the call we have received. Talk to any parent; speak to any spouse; spend some time with any teacher; any call from the Lord of Life is a call to lay down our lives in service to another. The circumstances are different; the call is the same. The results will be the same as well.

Think about it. On the day we draw our last breath, we will be surrendering everything. We won’t die in a pool of blood on the floor of a rectory in Guatemala, a victim of civil war, but if we have surrendered our lives to God’s call, we will die a servant to God’s Will; we will be a witness (‘martyr’ means ‘witness’ in Greek) to following Christ.

And, our witness will begin as it began for Father Rother: when we say “yes” to the call we receive. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on the day when we slip a ring on the finger of our spouse, when the ultrasound technician says “It’s a girl!” when we say “I love you enough to say ‘no’” or when we hold the hand of a stranger we’re visiting at hospice. Father Stan’s example is for all of us in every part of life.

We should never forget Father Rother’s ordinary life in the midst of his extraordinary example. God works through the natural to bring us to the supernatural. Since grace is built on nature the nature of Stanley became the gateway to his holiness. He became blessed because of who he was.

All of the circumstances of his life became the palette God used to paint the picture of his life. And, God did not simply use Stan’s talents to achieve the Divine Will, but all the other parts of his life as well. The broken and the weak, the incomplete and the unused, the fearful and the mistaken; all of these were the raw material for his saintly example. Stan didn’t have to become someone else in order to become Blessed Stanley Rother; neither do we.

Of course, God will purify our motives and sanctify our character. It is what holiness is after all. But, in the end, we will not become another version of ourselves, we won’t be replaced by imposters or clones in order to make it to heaven; it’ll be the “us” we are and no one else. If we are going to be saints, it will be because of who we are, not because of who else we might become.

The French novelist Charles Peguy wrote: “Life holds one tragedy, ultimately: not to have become a saint.” It is tragic, not because heaven needs to have more people, but because the only way to really become human is to live for God; according to God’s call. When we live this way we are becoming saints. Stan Rother walked the contours of his life with all of their uneven pathways. His weaknesses and his strengths were his constant companions through the darkness and light of his days.

At the end of his life he was faced with the temptation he had faced his whole life, a temptation facing us all: to leave or to stay? He chose to stay. When he did, he authored the final chapter of a life of extraordinary holiness and deep sanctity.

We have our own contours and our own path and the questions come to us at different moments, but if we can answer with the same “yes,” we can trust we’ll imitate the same result: our final chapter will to have become a saint.

Father Rother’s example is an example for all of us. We have only to answer “yes!”
Father Don Wolf is pastor of Saint Eugene Catholic Church in Oklahoma City, and cousin of Father Rother.