First recognized U.S. martyr; first U.S.-born priest to be beatified
By Diane Clay
The Sooner Catholic
OKLAHOMA CITY – Nearly 20,000 faithful gathered in downtown Oklahoma City Saturday to honor Oklahoma priest, missionary and martyr, Blessed Stanley Francis Rother.
A native of Okarche, Father Rother was beatified during a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints; Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City; and Most Rev. Eusebius J. Beltran, Archbishop Emeritus of Oklahoma City.
“This is a day of rejoicing for the Catholic Church in Oklahoma, the United States and indeed for the Church in Guatemala and beyond. I am grateful for everyone who joined us to witness this historic and grace-filled event and to share our joy as we give thanks to God for the witness of Blessed Stanley Francis Rother, priest and martyr,” Archbishop Coakley said.
Beatification is a declaration by Pope Francis that Father Rother lived a holy life and is a good example to follow. The ceremony declared Father Rother lives in heaven and intercedes for the faithful. Beatification is the final step before sainthood.
During the Beatification Mass, the official painting and tapestry for Blessed Stanley Rother was unveiled, featuring Blessed Stanley Rother standing in front of his parish mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, while clutching a copy of the New Testament he helped translate into the villagers’ native Mayan language.
In each corner of the tapestry, is a parish or seminary that was significant in Father Rother’s life – Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Okarche, The Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Oklahoma City where he was ordained, Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., Saint James the Apostle in Guatemala, and Holy Family Cathedral in Tulsa. The tapestry also includes native plants and flowers from Oklahoma and Guatemala.
“The beatification of Father Stanley Francis Rother is an historic event not only for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, that witnesses one of its heroic priests raised to the honors of the altars, but also for the Catholic Church in the United States of America that celebrates, for the first time, the beatification of a priest, missionary and martyr,” Cardinal Amato said during his homily.
“His martyrdom, if it fills us with sadness, also gives us the joy of admiring the kindness, generosity and courage of a great man of faith. The 13 years spent as a missionary in Guatemala will always be remembered as the glorious epic of a martyr of Christ, an authentic lighted torch of hope for the Church and for the world.”
Blessed Stanley’s story inspired so many people to come to the ceremony, three overflow spaces were opened to accommodate more than 4,000 faithful who couldn’t fit into the arena. Some of those who arrived had to be turned away; many watching the beatification in nearby hotel lobbies and on the large jumbotron outside of The Oklahoman building.
“The beatification in Oklahoma City was one of the largest ever held outside of Rome,” Archbishop Coakley said. “The unexpectedly large number of people was more than we could accommodate here, and while it’s deeply regrettable that we couldn’t bring all 20,000 people into the arena, I hope all of the faithful who came to celebrate our first martyr remain inspired by Blessed Stanley’s witness of service, love and grace.”
Blessed Stanley Rother was born in his family’s farmhouse in Okarche in 1935. After discerning a call to the priesthood, he attended seminaries in Texas and eventually in Maryland. He was ordained in 1963. After serving for five years in what was then the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, he volunteered to serve at the diocese’s mission in Guatemala, Micatokla, in 1968.
While he served in Guatemala, a civil war raged between the militarist government forces and the guerrillas with the Catholic Church caught in the middle. During this conflict, thousands of Catholics were killed.
The violence soon came to the highlands and Santiago Atitlan. Catechists began to disappear, people slept in the church for protection and death lists began to circulate in the towns.
Eventually, Father Rother’s name appeared on a death list. For his safety and that of his associate, Father Rother returned to Oklahoma, but he didn’t stay long. He was determined to give his life completely to his people, stating that “the shepherd cannot run.”
He returned to Santiago Atitlan. Early on the morning of July 28, three men entered the rectory, fought with Father Rother and then executed him. His death shocked the Catholic world. No one was ever held responsible.
On Dec. 2, Pope Francis officially recognized Father Rother as a martyr for the faith.
Blessed Stanley is the first recognized martyr for the United States and the first U.S.-born priest to be beatified. His remains eventually will be moved to a new shrine in Oklahoma City.
Diane Clay is editor of the Sooner Catholic.