Blessed Stanley Francis Rother (1935 – 1981)
By Cardinal Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
1. 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. During his Apostolic Visit to Guatemala in February of nineteen ninety-six, Pope John Paul the Second read the list of seventy-eight persons considered Martyrs of the Faith. At the seventy-eighth place on that list the Pope read the name of Father Stanley Francisco Rother.
In a period of grave social and political turbulence in Guatemala, Father Rother lived as a perfect disciple of Christ, doing good and spreading peace and reconciliation among the people. Unfortunately, his immediate recompense on this earth was persecution and a bloody death, in accord with the word of Jesus: “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit”. (John 12:24). His blood, united to that precious Blood of Jesus, purifies and redeems even his enemies, who are loved and also forgiven.
2. Who was Father Rother? Coming from a family of farmers, as a youngster he had known about the hard work of tilling the land. During his seminary years, Stan (as he was usually called) also made use of his ability in the manual labor of gardening, of repairing and of maintaining machines and structures. Everyone admired his willingness to serve and to work together. His work-ethic, good sense, human wholeness and a life of prayer and zeal for souls were qualities that gave life to his young existence. On one of the commemorative cards chosen for his ordination was written: “To bless, To baptize, To offer sacrifice, To govern, To preach”. On another card, the young man decided, however, to use the words of Saint Augustine: “For my benefit I am a Christian, for the benefit of others I am a priest”.
In June of nineteen sixty-eight, he was appointed Assistant Pastor to the mission of Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala. The population of the place was made up of an overwhelming majority of the Tzutuhil, descendants of the Mayans. The community, abandoned for many years, lived an apparently catholic religious life, but in reality was syncretistic. Furthermore, it was afflicted with sickness and malnutrition. The missionaries, the “Oklahomans”, began a program of both religious instruction and social formation.
Father Rother devoted himself to learning and speaking the language of the place, so much so that he was able to use it in preaching. He was diligent in his visits to newlyweds, visiting their homes, baptizing and catechizing their children. His pastoral work began to bear fruit: thousands of baptisms every year, hundreds of marriages and first communions, and frequent participation by the people at Mass.
He was tireless in helping his neighbor during the disastrous earthquake in February of nineteen seventy-six. With courage he climbed ravines in order to help the very poor, pulling the wounded out of the ruins and carrying them to safety on his shoulders. His love for the needy and emarginated was great. Nicholas, an old Tzutuhil, poor and alone, ate lunch with him every day in the parish house. The respect and love that the young missionary showed towards the native population was great, and they responded with admiration and the respect of children.
3. How did his martyrdom take place? From nineteen seventy-one until nineteen eighty-one, numerous killings of journalists, farmers, catechists and priests, all falsely accused of communism, took place in Guatemala. This was a real and true time of bloody persecution for the Church.
In this situation, Father Rother, aware of the imminent danger to his life, prepared himself for martyrdom, asking the Lord for the strength to face it without fear. He continued, however, to preach the Gospel of love and non-violence.
Both his remaining in the mission and the aid he gave to the widows and children of those who were assassinated, were seen as subversive acts. The good shepherd – he writes in a letter – cannot abandon his flock in danger.
In the face of kidnapping, murder and violence, Father Rother felt helpless because he did not succeed in changing the situation with his words of reconciliation and forgiveness. He often cried in silence. To a Carmelite Nun, who asked what to do if he were killed, our martyr responded: “Raise the standard of Christ Risen”.
Around one o’clock on the night of the twenty-eighth of July nineteen eighty-one, he was killed with two gunshots to the head by three armed masked-men. He was found dead in a pool of blood. It was precisely on that very morning that our courageous missionary was to go to the national hospital of Sololá in order to give blood to a patient who needed an operation. His body was brought back to his homeland, while his heart and blood-soaked bandages were interred in the pavement of the Church in Atitlán. Great was the sadness of his faithful people, especially of the native Tzutuhil, who cried for him as they would for a beloved father who spoke their very own language. From that time, many mothers give their children at Baptism the name Francis or Apla’s (in the local language).
4. The murder of Father Rother was a real and true martyrdom in odium Fidei (in hatred of the Faith). He was a man with a noble heart. Merciful towards sinners, he did not spare himself.
He spent long hours in the confessional, listening to penitents. In this way, he showed that God forgave them and, as a consequence, they too had to forgive others.
He was available to, and generous with, the poor. He brought the sick to the hospital and obtained medicine and money for their care. The words of Jesus can be applied to him: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. (John 15:13)
He left his beloved homeland to share the love of Christ with his beloved brothers and sisters Tzutuhil. Upon hearing the news of his murder, the Church square filled up with the faithful who, staring up at the Church, cried and prayed in silence. Their good shepherd had been killed, the priest who loved them with all his strength and defended them from the abuses of their oppressors.
5. 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 thirteen 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. Formed in the school of the Gospel, he saw even his enemies as fellow human beings. He did not hate, but loved. He did not destroy, but built up.
This is the invitation that Blessed Stanley Francis Rother extends to us today. To be like him as witnesses and missionaries of the Gospel. Society needs these sowers of goodness. Thank you, Father Rother! Bless us from heaven!
Blessed Stanley Francis Rother, pray for us!