Stanley Francis Rother, a shepherd who didn’t run

Father Stanley Francis Rother, an Oklahoma native, knew his life was in danger. Why? Because he was a missionary priest in Santiago de Atitlán, Guatemala, an area affected by the conflict between the government and guerrillas in the 1980s.

“The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” he told his friends when they encouraged him to leave his mission field.

This priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City will be beatified Sept. 23; the Holy See has recognized him as a martyr. Father Rother was killed because of his faith on July 28, 1981, in Guatemala.

Denver Catholic spoke with the postulator of his cause of canonization, Andrea Ambrosi, who noted that the priest faced adversity with “courage, a smile, prudence, and readiness to serve.”

His life

Stanley Francis Rother was born March 27, 1935, in Okarche, Oklahoma, to a very religious farming family of German descent. He received solid religious formation at the Holy Trinity school and parish, and at home. The seed of faith fell on fertile ground and he heard a call to the priesthood.

His time in the seminary was not free of obstacles, however, particularly in the academic realm. Stanley struggled to learn Latin and even left the school for a time, until the bishop, Victor Reed, suggested that he transfer to Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland. After great effort, he managed to complete his theology studies and was ordained a priest on May 25, 1963.

In the spring of 1968, Oklahoma was visited by Father Ramón Carlin, who came seeking priests who might feel called to serve in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, responding to a call that Pope John XXIII had made to US priests, inviting them to work as missionaries in Central America.

Father Stan felt this call, and was assigned to the mission at Micatokla, part of the Catholic Mission of Santiago de Atitlán in the region of Sololá, Guatemala. The Oklahoma priest left for his new mission that same year, in 1968. He was 33 years old.

Father Rother baptizing a baby in Guatemala. (Photos provided by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City)

He began to serve a population of some 30,000 inhabitants in the Tz’utujil community, made up of descendants of the Mayans, Ladinos and Spanish. The area was very poor, dependent on farming, fishing, commerce and handcrafted goods. At the beginning, the new pastor could communicate only with gestures, but little by little he learned Spanish and Tz’utujil.

His work was not solely focused on pastoral ministry and liturgy, however. With the great advantage of having grown up on a farm, he quickly began to assist in building structures so that the sololatecos (residents of Solola) could live with greater dignity. He would go about fixing a bathroom floor here or a light fixture there. He eventually worked to build a hospital, personally assisting in installing the electricity, and digging a 300-foot well. He worked out a system of irrigation with the rain, and also experimented with fertilizers to improve the soil of Santiago de Atitlán.

Between 1972 and 1975, he spent his time “helping the sick and dying, bringing all types of aid, and working with the catechists,” Ambrosi explained.

“He presided over daily Mass, celebrated many baptisms, marriages, and frequently heard confessions,” he continued.

Father Stanley also collected donations for the mission, as well as spending time on the farms and teaching the people about agriculture.

“If the people had anything that needed to be repaired, they went to him for help,” the postulator explained.

“He visited newlyweds, bringing them a photo from their wedding, blessing their home, and staying to have dinner with them. The pastoral work of the Servant of God and his collaborators had impressive results: He celebrated between 500 and 1000 baptisms a year, as well as hundreds of marriages and First Communions. He distributed Communion to close to 2,000 people a week,” Ambrosi said.

Father Rother also worked so that the lectionary of the Mass and the New Testament would be translated to Tz’utujil, a project that was completed and published after his death.

Signs of danger

Guatemala’s civil war was spreading and reaching new regions. Many people began to disappear from the communities surrounding the Lake of Atitlán. Many of these were catechists, since the government was prohibiting religious practice. Father Rother walked along the roads to find the bodies of the slain, in order to give them a proper burial. He also brought food to the orphans and widows left by the war.

After receiving threats himself, he returned to Oklahoma at the beginning of 1981. But in spite of the many people who urged him to stay in his homeland, he decided to return to Tz’utujil and celebrate the liturgies of Holy Week with his faithful.

Father Rother died a martyr in Guatemala during the country’s civil war in the 1980s. He is recognized as the first American-born martyr and will be beatified Sept. 23.

Easter passed and summer came. On the morning of July 28, three armed men came into his house, dragged him to his room and shot him. His parish vicar, Father Francisco Bocel, found his body after the assassins had fled.

With his testimony of a life given entirely to his neighbor, to the simple and needy of Soloa, Stanley Francis Rother, the first of 13 priests who died during Guatemala’s civil war, will be raised to the altars.

Days before being killed, he wrote in one of his letters: “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”

COMING UP: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.