The virtue of America’s first martyr

Model of missionary discipleship

By María Ruiz Scaperlanda
For the Sooner Catholic

In a world that idolizes MVPs, lauds superheroes and glorifies celebrities, for someone to be described as ordinary could be taken as an insult.

Yet, one of the most inspiring things about Stanley Rother – the farmer from Okarche – is precisely how average and ordinary he was.

“His beatification is a verification that God can do great things with relatively ‘insignificant’ people,” explained Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Seattle and an Okarche native. “God chose a humble virgin in Nazareth (an out of the way, no-place village) to be the Mother of His Son. In the same way, God chose a priest from a remote rural part of Oklahoma who couldn’t learn Latin and barely passed seminary to be the Proto-Martyr for the United States!”

Father Rother’s life is a reminder that heroic holiness is accessible to each one of us, “if we want it. It’s that simple … and it’s that challenging.” 

Saints are local. They come from ordinary places like Okarche and Santiago Atitlán, yet their holy witness strengthens the Church universal.

A life of discipleship

Stanley Francis Rother was raised in a staunchly Catholic, German farming family in the farmhouse where he was born on March 27, 1935. He attended Holy Trinity Catholic School for 12 years, and in between seminary semesters, Stanley returned to help with the harvest.

Life for the Rother family centered on the family, the farm and on the Church and its traditions. From an early age, Stanley and his four siblings (a sister died in infancy) learned the importance of prayer and of praying together as a family.

After supper every night, they knelt by their chairs around the kitchen table to pray the Rosary. Daily and seasonal religious practices “were integrated into our daily life,” said his sister, Sister Marita Rother, A.S.C. “We prayed a lot together as a family, and I know that’s what drew us closer.”

It is in this ordinary life that Stanley first experienced a personal encounter with the Good Shepherd, where he learned what it meant to live as a disciple of Jesus. This is where he learned to be a man of prayer, a hands-on servant – with a resolute desire to become a priest.

Years later, when 33-year-old Father Stan volunteered for Oklahoma’s mission in Guatemala, he found his heart’s vocation – as a priest to the Tz’utujil Mayan people of Santiago Atitlán. It is here where he experienced and integrated into his ministry the love and compassion that led him to lay down his life for the Gospel and for his sheep. 

Imitating Christ’s servant leadership

In Pope Francis’s words, “Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being” (The Joy of the Gospel, 8).

It is no coincidence that the same values Stanley learned growing up in an Oklahoma farming community – family-first, hard work, kindness, generosity, perseverance – are precisely the values that enabled him to become a missionary shepherd to the Tz’utujil when he first arrived to Guatemala in 1968.

At the young age of 40, Stanley Rother became the sole priest and pastor at the Oklahoma mission, which served 25,000 Tz’utujil Mayan parishioners.

He instituted a personal tradition of Sunday meals with his parishioners in their homes where he ate whatever they ate – a practice that also led him to have regular bouts of dysentery. 

When it came to celebrating the Sacraments, the numbers alone were staggering. In 1974, for example, Father Stanley celebrated 649 baptisms, 85 weddings and 150 First Communions. Two thousand people received Communion every week. 

By 1980, however, el conflicto armado interno – Guatemala’s violent war, had made its way to Santiago Atitlán and the other villages surrounding Lake Atitlán. In addition to his pastoral work, Father Stanley’s priestly and sacramental duties now included walking the roads searching for the bodies of the desaparecidos, parishioners who had gone missing.

Writing about his experience visiting Santiago Atitlán three years after Father Stanley’s death, author Henri Nouwen emphasized, his martyrdom needs to be told, for “martyrs are blood witnesses of God’s inexhaustible love for his people.” Ultimately, Nouwen wrote, we honor martyrs because they are reminders of God’s loving presence.

Patron of missionary discipleship

Even before Pope Francis began to challenge every Catholic to go to the “peripheries,” to live as missionary disciples, Father Rother had discovered his place and his mission in a remote part of Guatemala. “He had moved well beyond his comfort zone to embrace a life of missionary discipleship far from the familiar comforts of Oklahoma,” Archbishop Coakley said.

Salvador Atzip Sosof remembered during his wedding how Father Stanley told all the couples being married about Saint James and the apostle’s martyrdom, “then we went to confession one by one. Afterwards, he gave us a remembrance, a diploma (marriage certificate) and a medal,” which Father Stanley blessed.

Our missionary journey to the peripheries of our life will inevitably be different than the ones encountered by soon-to-be Blessed Stanley Rother. But, the question we face is the same. What brave thing has God put in front of me to face right now? Whether it’s with my marriage, or my children, or my health, or my need to forgive – will I say yes in trust that it will lead me to eternal life?

Let the martyr from Okarche show us how.

María Ruiz Scaperlanda is author of Father Rother’s official biography “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run.”