This past weekend, I traveled to Oklahoma City to participate in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist for the beatification of Father Stanley Francis Rother, a diocesan priest of Oklahoma and a martyr for the faith.
Blessed Fr. Rother gave up his life while serving as a missionary in Guatemala.
Cardinal Angelo Amato, S.D.B., prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, represented our Holy Father Pope Francis and presided over the Rite of Beatification.
The ceremony took place in the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City, and it was filled to capacity by a crowd estimated at 20,000 people.
Those taking part came from around Oklahoma and also from Guatemala and from all across our country and the world.
The state of Oklahoma has a Catholic population of 5 percent. They belong to either the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City or the Diocese of Tulsa. Their turnout for this celebration was a powerful witness of their faith.
Let me share with you the brief biography of Blessed Fr. Rother that appeared in the program for his beatification:
An Oklahoma farm boy, Stanley Francis Rother was born March 27, 1935, in Okarche.
Ordained a priest for what was then the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, he served in the diocese’s mission in Guatemala for 13 years.
Seeking justice in the midst of a protracted civil war, Fr. Rother fought courageously for the well-being of his people in combating a culture that was excessively hostile to the Catholic Church.
The oldest of four children born to Franz and Gertrude Rother, Fr. Rother grew up in Okarche and attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church and School.
He worked hard doing the required chores, attended school, played sports, was an altar server and enjoyed the activities associated with growing up in a small town.
While in high school, he began to discern the possibility of a vocation to the Priesthood. He was accepted as a seminarian at a seminary in Texas.
More practical than academic by nature, young Stanley struggled with Latin, which at the time was a critical requirement since the entire curriculum was being taught in Latin. Due to his difficulties, he was asked to leave the seminary as his grades were inadequate.
He sought the counsel of Bishop Victor Reed. It was decided that Stanley would be allowed a second chance, enrolling at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
He was ordained a priest on May 25, 1963.
Fr. Rother served as an associate pastor for five years in Oklahoma. Heeding the call of Pope St. John XXIII, he sought and received permission to join the staff at the diocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.
Fr. Rother’s connection with the people of Santiago Atitlan was immediate. He served the native tribe of the Tz’utujil, who are descendants of the Mayans.
He not only learned both Spanish and the Tz’utujil language, but his working knowledge of Tz’utujil enabled him to help translate the New Testament.
As the years passed, Fr. Rother tried to live a simpler life to be in communion with his people. He was surrounded by extreme poverty, with the Tz’utujil living in one-room huts and growing what they could on their small plots of land.
Fr. Rother ministered to his parishioners in their homes, eating with them, visiting the sick and aiding them with medical problems. He even put his farming skills to use by helping them in the fields, bringing in different crops and building an irrigation system.
While he served in Guatemala, a civil war raged between the militarist government forces and the guerrillas, with the Catholic Church caught in the middle.
During the conflict, thousands of Catholics were killed.
For a time, the violence was contained in the cities, but it soon came to the highlands and Santiago Atitlan.
Catechists began to disappear, people slept in the church for protection and death lists began to circulate in the towns.
Eventually, Fr. Rother’s name appeared on a death list.
For his safety and that of his associate, Fr. Rother returned to Oklahoma, but he didn’t stay long. He was determined to give his life completely to his people, stating that “the shepherd cannot run.”
He returned to Santiago Atitlan.
Early on the morning of July 28, 1981, three men entered the rectory, fought with Fr. Rother and then executed him.
His death shocked the Catholic world. No one was ever held responsible.
The people of Santiago Atitlan mourned the loss of their leader and friend. Because of the affection and veneration that the people of Santiago Atitlan displayed for their priest, they requested that Fr. Rother’s heart be kept in Guatemala, where it remains enshrined today.
His body was returned to his family in Oklahoma for burial. In 2007 his cause for canonization was opened.
On Dec 2, 2016, Pope Francis officially recognized Fr. Rother as a martyr for the faith. He is the first recognized martyr for the United States and the first U.S.-born priest to be beatified.
The Church will commemorate Blessed Fr. Rother’s feast on July 28, his heavenly birthday.
Those of you familiar with the legacy of the missions of our diocese in Peru will recognize that the apostolic works in both of these countries had much in common.
O God, Who gave Your priest Blessed Stanley the heart of a pastor and the fidelity of a martyr, grant, through his intercession, that the humble flock may reach where the brave shepherd has gone before. Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Blessed Stanley, pray for us!