By Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick
A 23-year-old seminarian failed out of seminary. He did not pass Latin. Ten years later, as a 33-year-old priest, he volunteered for the Guatemalan mission. He, of seemingly limited linguistic talent, followed the call to minister in Spanish and Tz’utujil, the native Mayan language.
What courage it must have taken! After failing out of seminary, he bravely reiterated his desire to be a priest and enrolled in another seminary. Then, five years after his ordination, he willingly goes to shepherd a flock whose language he doesn’t speak, when his experience with foreign tongues is that they are difficult to learn.
With this habit of fortitude, is it any wonder that Father Stanley Rother had the strength and bravery to continue to live among his flock even while in grave danger and, eventually, accept death?
His whole life was an example of fortitude, one of the four cardinal virtues and one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Fortitude encompasses courage, bravery, grit, resilience, steadfastness, and moral fiber; it includes both the bravery to face danger and hardship and the resilience to keep working toward the good even when the outcome isn’t clear.
Josef Pieper, in his book “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” writes, “Fortitude presupposes vulnerability; without vulnerability, there is no possibility of fortitude. To be brave actually means to be able to suffer injury. The ultimate injury, the deepest injury, is death.”
Pieper says that only the truly brave know and value what they would lose. They are not reckless. The martyr values his own life highly, but not as much as for that which he sacrifices.
He writes, “That man alone is brave who cannot be forced, through fear of transitory and lesser evils, to give up the greater and actual good, and thereby bring upon himself that which is ultimately and absolutely dreadful.”
Father Rother valued his own life. He took precautionary measures while in Guatemala such as not leaving the rectory at night. He even returned home for some months when he knew he was in danger. But, ultimately, he knew the sacramental presence was worth more. In a 1980 letter, he wrote, “If it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it.” He continued, “I don’t want to desert these people, and that is what will be said, even after all these years. There is still a lot of good that can be done under the circumstances.”
The bravery required to face danger necessitates endurance, which encompasses both patience and attack. Patience is not passive waiting, with sighing and gnashing of teeth, but the preservation of cheerfulness and serenity even amidst wounds. During Father Rother’s 13 years as a missionary priest in Guatemala, he showed just such patience. He saw many priests and missionaries come and go – yet he stayed and became, as the people said, “our priest.” He worked with them to establish the first farmers’ co-op, a school, the first hospital clinic and the first Catholic radio station – all while engaging in his primary priestly duty of administering the Sacraments.
Throughout his last year of life, Father Rother’s courage and bravery became even more evident. He knew he was in danger, yet he was concerned for the people who had been harmed by the army. Even after he knew he was on a death list, he stayed in the country until his fellow priest, Father Pedro, had a visa to leave Guatemala with him. While in the United States, he had the chance to seek counsel, pray and prudently consider the situation. He did not rashly choose danger. In the end, he knew he needed to stay with his people amidst the violence, pain and fear.
Like all virtues, fortitude needs to become a habit for us, as it was for Father Rother. This begins with the pre-moral order of mental health, then in natural ethics or the moral realm. Finally, the highest order of fortitude is the order of the supernatural life, which is the fortitude of the martyrs and is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Father Rother’s example of fortitude inspires us all to build our confidence in God’s providence and grow closer to Christ in the practice of this virtue, in matters large and small.
With trust in God, we can let go of our self-centered concern for security. We can accept an unknown future – whether that be what the next hour holds or the next year – and release our need to control with a certainty in the loving sovereignty of our Lord.