by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This past Saturday (Sept. 23) in Oklahoma City, I concelebrated the beatification Mass for Father Stanley Francis Rother who has been recognized by Pope Francis and the Congregation for Saints’ Causes as the first U.S.-born martyr and became, on Saturday, the first priest from our nation to be beatified.
Stanley Rother grew up in a strong Catholic family in Okarche, Oklahoma — a small rural community. After high school, to the surprise of his family and friends, he entered the seminary. He struggled with the study of Latin and was dismissed from a seminary in Texas for his poor academic performance.
Fortunately for the church, Bishop Victor Reed decided to give him a second chance, sending him to Mount St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore where he received special tutoring in Latin. He was ordained a priest in 1963.
Father Rother served as a parish priest for five years in Oklahoma. In 1968, he volunteered and was assigned to serve in the diocesan mission located in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.
To serve his parishioners, Father Rother became fluent not only in Spanish but also in the native dialect. The former seminarian, who had difficulties learning Latin, helped to translate the New Testament into the native language.
In addition to his sacramental ministry, Father Rother helped with the formation of native catechists to teach the faith, with the establishment of a local radio station, and was instrumental in opening a medical clinic.
The former farm boy from Oklahoma helped his parishioners improve their yields from their farms by developing an irrigation system as well as introducing new crops.
Unfortunately, Father Rother’s missionary work in Guatemala coincided with a time of civil unrest and military corruption.
Eventually, this political strife reached the remote rural area of Santiago Atitlan. Some of his parishioners were kidnapped and killed. Eventually, Father Rother was informed he was included on the military’s death list. Several Catholic priests had already been killed in Guatemala.
At the encouragement of his bishop for reasons of personal safety, Father Rother returned to Oklahoma.
However, after a few months, he sought permission to go back to Guatemala. He told family and friends that a shepherd cannot abandon his flock at the first sign of danger.
He returned to Guatemala in the spring of 1981 in time to celebrate Holy Week with his parishioners.
In the middle of the night on July 28, 1981, Father Rother was murdered in his rectory. His body was brought back to Oklahoma but, in response to the request of his parishioners, his heart was left in Guatemala as a relic in the parish church.
The parish of Santiago in Atitlan is more than 400 years old. For four centuries, there had never been a single priestly vocation from the parish.
After Father Rother’s martyrdom in 1981, nine men have been ordained to the priesthood from the parish and seven young men from the community are currently in the seminary.
There is much that we can all learn from the life and death of Father Rother. His life is a story of openness and perseverance in following God’s will. He did not yield to discouragement after his initial failure with seminary studies.
It is a testament to what God can accomplish through us, when we are determined to follow his call: that a young man who struggled with Latin became not only multilingual but sufficiently proficient to be able to assist with translating the Gospel into the local dialect of his parishioners.
In the words of Pope Francis, Father Rother was a pastor who smelled like his sheep. He became deeply immersed in the lives of his parishioners and was delighted to work alongside them on their farms.
Father Rother was courageous in refusing to abandon his people because of the threats and intimidation of the military. Very aware of the grave danger to his life, Father Rother was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, if it was God’s will, for him to follow the example of Jesus the good shepherd in shedding his blood for his people.
Father Rother provided a powerful witness to his parishioners that the goal of the Christian life is not to grasp desperately at preserving life in this world.
Certainly, we are called to be stewards of our health, but life in this world is fleeting no matter how many years we live. The purpose of our lives on earth is to prepare us for our eternal destiny.
Please pray for me and the priests of our archdiocese that we can become more and more shepherds after the example of the good shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Pray that we can imitate the example of Father Stanley Rother in striving daily to lay down our lives, setting aside our own personal desires and preferences, for the good of those whom Our Lord has entrusted to our spiritual care.
Pray that we can become more and more generous spiritual fathers who are willing to make any sacrifice and bear any burden for the good of our parishioners.