New Arkansas mission inspired by Blessed Stanley Rother

By Tim Muldoon
Catholic Extension

Among the throng gathered at the Beatification Mass on Sept. 23, was a small group of pilgrims from Decatur, Ark. They were clad in light blue shirts that read “Iglesia Católica Decatur, AR” on the front with an image of Father Rother on the back. They were members of the soon-to-be-dedicated Beato Padre Stanley Rother Mission, and were proud to be the first community in the world about to bear the name of the new blessed.

When I visited the community the next day, they were gathered in the local Decatur school for a Mass with Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock. They listened intently to the bishop’s 90-minute presentation on the life of Father Rother – an attention that was all the more impressive for the fact that there were many children in the audience. They understood that something historic and profound was unfolding there: establishing a living memorial for a man who had given his life for the people he served.

Since the members of the new parish are Central American, the connection to his life is very real and, for some, a matter of living memory.

José Zamora, who is in training for the diaconate, grew up in neighboring El Salvador, not far from the city of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, where Blessed Stanley Rother ministered. He told a news reporter that he remembers vividly when the government was “killing everybody.”

He said, “When I was hearing about (Father Rother’s) story, in El Salvador we saw catechists disappear, our priests were crying. It was familiar. We know what he went through.”

He described crying through the previous day’s beatification Mass, moved by the story of the pastor who, in Rother’s own words, could not abandon his flock at the first signs of trouble.

What is stunning about Rother’s story – a story aptly told by María Ruiz Scaperlanda in her book “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run” – is that he fled Guatemala and returned to his home in Okarche for time to contemplate what lay ahead for him. Seldom has there been such a choice so much in the shape of the Paschal mystery: a man called to go to those whom he loved, very mindful of the possibility (and even likelihood) that he would be killed. Okarche was Rother’s Gethsemane; Santiago Atitlán was his Jerusalem. He returned to Guatemala and was killed only a few months later.

As Bishop Taylor told the details of Rother’s story, I looked around the room. The members of the community were riveted. Rother had died for people like them; in a sense he had died for them. This is a community unaccustomed to being told how valuable they are, how beloved by God. After the Mass, the mood was joyful, exuberant. Serving plates of rice, beans and meats, they beamed at the photographers and reporters gathered to witness the founding of a new mission church.

Most of the men of this small mission work in local chicken-processing plants, many supporting large families. Some work multiple jobs. In very many cases, they were drawn to the United States to escape violence in places like El Salvador, Guatemala or southern Mexico.

The promise of work and a safe place to raise a family stands in stark contrast to the reality from which many fled. For them, the fact that a man from the United States spent his priestly ministry in the kind of danger from which they themselves escaped is enough to persuade them of his heroic virtue.

In his funeral homily in 1981, then-Archbishop Charles Salatka of Oklahoma City said of Father Rother that, unlike the image of a self-centered “ugly” American, Stanley Rother was a “beautiful American” – a man willing to shape his life according to the pattern of Christ and love profoundly.

The members of the new Blessed Stanley Rother community have a patron and friend in heaven, one whom they – and we – will do well to imitate in our pilgrimage toward God.

Tim Muldoon is Catholic Extension's director of mission education.