Stanley Francis Rother, a shepherd who didn’t run

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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: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.