As a fairly new Catholic, I always enjoy learning about new saints whenever I can. Thanks to all my friends who have referred different saints to me, I have learned about many holy men and woman of various ethnicities, ages, cultures, and periods. When I someone recommends an American figure, I always want to learn more. Recently, someone suggested that I watch a short documentary about the life of Blessed Stanley Rother. I had never heard of him before. By the end of this mini-story, I was in awe at the life, ministry, and legacy of the soon-to-be first American martyr-Saint.
Stanley Rother was born in 1935 in a small town in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Raised on a farm, his parents were very committed to instilling the importance of faith in their children. Because he was a very skilled farmer, everyone in his community assumed that after he graduated high school, he would work in the agriculture industry. However, Stanley amazed his town by declaring he wanted to be a priest.
As a seminarian, Rother struggled greatly with his Latin courses. After six years, the administrators requested that he withdraw due to his inability to keep up in the subject. But Stanley was persistent in following his call to the priesthood, so he stayed. Finally, in 1963 he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Oklahoma City. After serving as a priest in several parishes throughout the 1960s, he finally received the call for which he is known. In 1968, Stanley heard about his diocese’s Guatemala mission. He discerned that this was the where God was calling him to go, and he was approved to go.
When Father Rother arrived in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, the local situation was dire. There were high mortality rates and abject poverty. Because he had no knowledge of the Spanish or native Tzʼutijil language, he worked hard to learn both. This helped him as a Guatemalan pastor: in time, he celebrates the Mass in the people’s language and translated the New Testament into their native tongue as well.
His ministry extended beyond his pastoral duties, he shared Christ’s love for others with his people. Father Rother undertook projects such as building a hospital, increasing literacy among the native people, developing an educational radio station, and showing the natives farming techniques. Rother was a frequent visitor to his parishioners, and he demonstrated his care for them with his willingness to eat with them and help them in their homes. Father Rother became well-loved among the people of the area because of his reputation for being a charitable pastor.
As the years went by, the political situation in Guatemala became increasingly hostile. The country was engaged in a long civil war, and his parish found soon itself in the center of a military state. Father Rother began to hear rumors that his name was on a murder list of the new militia. When officials in his diocese heard about this, they requested that he come back. Out of concern for his safety, Father Rother returned to Oklahoma. While he was safely in Oklahoma, he regretted leaving his flock abandoned. Father Rother believed it was a pastor’s duty to protect those entrusted to him. Friends remember him saying, “The shepherd cannot run. I want to be with my people.”
Giving a bold example of concern and care for his flock, he went back to Guatemala. Just three days after he returned, a few armed individuals broke into his rectory at night, shooting him twice in the head on July 28, 1981.
Father Rother is the first US-born martyr to have been beatified. He has become a symbol of standing firm in the face of danger. I was deeply moved by the way his life demonstrated powerful love. A love so powerful that he was willing to embrace his potential death, when he could have chosen to live safely in the Diocese of Oklahoma City. Because of his death and extraordinary witness of faith, his martyrdom has inspired many vocations to the priesthood since 1981. Since Fr. Rother’s death, the Guatemalan region where he served and his parish, which was once lifeless, has seen an influx in vocations to the priesthood. Father Rother planted that seed and the Church is growing!
The life of Blessed Stanley Rother reminds me of the words Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” He saw those who were entrusted to him as his own. As a shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to go find the one sheep that has gone astray, so did he too model the same concern for his church in Guatemala.
As his life is still fresh in the memory of so many Americans, I am astonished by their memories of so many of Rother’s various acts of mercy in the name of Christ. He met people where they were. With a little bit of grace, he was able to transform the well-being and lives of the people of a remote area in Central America. To me, this is the heart of the Gospel. In every age of the Church, there have been those who offer their lives to assist the people with their needs. The Apostolic Church gave us the example, and countless saints have followed.
This brings to mind Pope Francis’s recent message for the Fourth World Day of the Poor, “We cannot feel ‘alright’ when any member of the human family is left behind and in the shadows. The silent cry of so many poor men, women, and children should find the people of God at the forefront, always and everywhere, in efforts to give them a voice, to protect and support them in the face of hypocrisy and so many unfulfilled promises, and to invite them to share in the life of the community.” This whole message of the Holy Father radiates in the life of Blessed Stanley Rother. He saw his privilege and security in America as something that he had to lose for the sake of upholding the eternal well-being of his flock, the people he was responsible for. This same flock to whom he devoted countless years of service; he elevated their culture with the liturgy. In the process of him serving the Tzʼutijil people, he united their customs, expressions, and language to the rich mystery of Christ.
If only one thing is to be learned from this very recent saintly model, it is only love. Love requires Christ to live in our lives and abandon our “me” mentality. We must leave behind this poisonous self-love that can only cripple our will to serve and assist those left behind and will cause us to go numb to the welfare of others. Father Rother was remarkable in how he lived a life of selfless spiritual and physical concern for others. Similarly, Pope Francis has expressed sentiments against the pervasive culture of individualism:
“There is no place for selfishness in the soul of a Christian: if your heart is selfish, you are not Christian, you are worldly, if you seek only your favor, your profit.”
The saints challenge us to emulate their lives as they submitted to God. This is rooted in the words of St. Paul: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). With Pope Francis’s beatification of this selfless American priest, his has given the Church an empowering servant and example.
Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for our hearts so that we too may have the same love as you for our neighbor.
With thanks to Where Peter Is and Efran Menny.