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: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.