By Jay Nies
Attending the Beatification Mass of an “ordinary martyr” was an extraordinary experience for two seminarians of the Jefferson City diocese.
Ben Klebba and Ryan Bax, who are in priestly discernment at Conception Seminary College in northwestern Missouri, traveled to Oklahoma City Sept. 23 for the Beatification Mass for Blessed Father Stanley Rother.
The first U.S.-born martyr recognized by the Catholic Church, Blessed Fr. Rother was a priest of the Oklahoma City archdiocese. He served for 13 years in Guatemala before being murdered there in 1981.
“I think he shows us you don’t have to be extraordinary to be great,” said Mr. Klebba, a Linn native who is a sophomore at Conception. “You can be ordinary and do well in the little things and with God’s help become a great saint.”
“He reminds us that anyone can be a saint — you, me or the person walking beside me,” said Mr. Bax, a Jefferson City native in his first year of Conception’s pre-theology program. “You just have to dispose yourself to the grace of God and let Him work through you.”
More than 20,000 people attended the Beatification Mass, celebrated in Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Church’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes, presiding.
Joining him at the altar were Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City; his predecessor, retired Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran, who opened the Fr. Rother sainthood cause 10 years ago; and numerous other bishops and priests, including Bishop John R. Gaydos of Jefferson City.
When the beatification was announced, the dean of students at Conception decided to send the seminary’s community council, made up of elected representatives of the student body, to attend.
Mr. Klebba is the sophomore class representative, Mr. Bax is the pre-theology rep.
Born in 1935, Blessed Fr. Rother grew up on a farm near Okarche, Oklahoma, a state that is currently less than 5 percent Catholic.
Discerning a call to Priesthood in the 1950s, he struggled with theology and Latin and almost had to leave the seminary.
He persevered and was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in 1963.
A few years later, he answered a call to serve in the Oklahoma City archdiocese’s missions in Guatemala.
Dioceses and religious orders all over the United States at that time were answering Pope St. John XXIII’s appeal to send priests to countries in Latin America to help them stay rooted in Christ.
Blessed Fr. Rother became one with the people he served in Santiago Atitlán, attaining fluency in their language and making their culture and their poverty his own.
The Church’s efforts to stand against the Guatemalan government’s oppression of the indigenous people made priests and catechists targets for kidnapping, violence and murder.
With a price on his head, Blessed Fr. Rother was persuaded to return to the United States, but he quickly realized that God wanted him back with his parishioners.
He went back to Santiago Atitlán, serving until he was murdered July 29, 1981.
Pope Francis declared Fr. Rother a martyr for the faith in December 2016, opening the path to his being declared “blessed.”
“Fr. Rother was a humble, faithful Catholic who lived out the Christian life well and eventually gave his life as a shepherd for his sheep,” Mr. Klebba noted.
Miles to go
The trip from Conception to Oklahoma City was a whirlwind pilgrimage for the seminarians.
They traveled about eight hours each way, stopping overnight in Wichita on the way to Oklahoma City.
“It was really busy — go, go, go!” said Mr. Klebba. “Spending that much time in a car, running on little amounts of sleep, is an interesting experience. But it was definitely worth it.”
Together, they prayed the Rosary, the Office of Readings and the morning, afternoon, evening and night prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours.
They also undertook some spiritual reading, including information on the life of Blessed Fr. Rother.
When they arrived at the venue for the Mass, the first thing that caught Mr. Klebba’s eye was the size of the crowd.
“It was amazing to see so many people gathered to celebrate how God had worked through one man’s life,” he said. “There were people from all over the world. Yet, it felt like we were a big family.”
Fr. Rother’s was only the second beatification ceremony ever held in the United States.
It began with the showing of a documentary production about Blessed Fr. Rother’s life.
Mr. Bax and Mr. Klebba were startled at how well they could relate to his story.
“He was raised in a small town, in a faithful Catholic family,” said Mr. Klebba. “He wasn’t really strong in academics. But he kept persevering, and God gave him the grace to make it through the seminary so he could be a priest.”
“God works through our weaknesses and uses them for good,” Mr. Bax noted.
Blessed Fr. Rother is a reminder that “it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your culture is,” Mr. Klebba stated. “Christ is the same for everyone, and we all have the same longing to be one with Him.”
Mr. Bax believes struggling through Latin put Blessed Fr. Rother in a better position to learn another language, the native tongue of his people in Guatemala.
“Of course, he also spoke the universal language,” Mr. Bax noted. “Everyone understands the language of love, and Blessed Fr. Rother definitely spoke that language in people.”
Blessed Fr. Rother’s story reminded Mr. Klebba that academics are only part of priestly formation.
“The most important thing is God and what He wants me to be,” he said. “You can lose track of that if you focus too much on one area of seminary life, whatever part that might be.”
The beatification also reminded him of the importance of the first step: being present.
“Fr. Rother had to show up every day to serve his people, and that was probably a challenge some days,” said Mr. Klebba.
“But he did whatever he could to become one with the people,” he said. “It’s what Jesus did, and I think that’s what Pope Francis was talking about when he said ‘we must be shepherds with the smell of the sheep.’”
Mr. Bax was struck by how Blessed Fr. Rother felt drawn back to Guatemala after being convinced to leave during the persecution.
“Through prayer and spiritual direction, he knew what he had to do,” said Mr. Bax. “It was not an easy decision — he knew he would likely die — but he also knew it was God’s will.”
All Catholics can learn from that example.
“If we know something is the right thing to do, if it’s what God is calling us to do, then we should do it, even if it’s hard, even if it means giving up our lives,” said Mr. Bax.
They will be shown mercy
Mr. Klebba emphasized that honoring Blessed Fr. Rother’s life and martyrdom must be rooted in glorifying God.
“We can’t get caught up in thinking that he did this all himself,” said Mr. Klebba. “It was Christ working through him. Fr. Rother’s willingness to have that happen is what allowed him to be great.”
Mr. Klebba believes Blessed Fr. Rother’s beatification is also a reminder of God’s mercy and the need to pray for people who do terrible things.
“His violent death is hard to accept, but you have to try to be merciful as God is,” he said.
That includes praying for people who commit such atrocities, “but not in a way that puts us over them,” he said.
“It’s not like they need God’s mercy any more than I do,” he said. “We are all in great need God’s mercy.”
The group from Conception stayed around the convention center for a while after Mass, talking to people and stopping to venerate the relic of Blessed Fr. Rother and ask for his intercession.
Mr. Bax marveled at the possibility that there are future saints all around him.
“You can find Christ anywhere,” he said. “You have to have eyes for Him, and then you can find Him in anyone. And the people who completely reflect His love with all they are — they are the saints.”
He believes young people are drawn to modern-day saints whose lives they can relate to.
“We can look to them and see how to be a saint in this day and age,” he said.
Mr. Bax asked for prayers for him and all seminarians to be renewed in their faith every day, to have a deeper relationship with Christ, and to vigorously pursue whatever God has in store for them.
“I’ve experienced tons and tons of graces in my life over these last couple months, and I know it’s because people are holding me up in prayer,” he said.
Mr. Klebba asked for prayers for strength to follow God’s will, wherever it leads him.
“… Just like Fr. Rother followed God’s will,” he said.