Update (March 14, 2017):
The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City announced March 13 that Father Stanley Rother would be beatified Sept. 23 in Oklahoma. Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of Father Rother Dec. 2, 2016
, making him the first martyr born in the United States. More here.
Stanley Francis Rother was an average farmer and priest from a small town in flyover country. He wasn’t anybody’s MVP. He didn’t excel at anything in particular. He didn’t win any honors or set any world records before being murdered in his parish rectory at the Oklahoma mission in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, at the age of 46.
Yet in a very real way, this humble, hard-working, diocesan priest continues to inspire and provoke. Not only because he died as a martyr, but perhaps even more significantly, because 35 years after his death, his life and his priestly service remain a testament to the difference one person can, and does, make.
In the words of Oklahoma City’s Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, “We need the witness of holy men and women who remind us that we are all called to holiness — and that holy men and women come from ordinary places like Okarche, Oklahoma.”
Here are five qualities this missionary martyr of mercy proclaimed with his life.
Like so many families living in the middle of the United States, Rother grew up in a close-knit farming community. Until he left for the seminary, he lived in the same house he was born — a house and farm still owned by the Rother family. He attended Holy Trinity School from first to 12th grade. And between seminary semesters, Rother came home to help with the farm.
It is this ordinary life that taught Rother the values of generosity, kindness, family-first, hard work, perseverance — and the importance of living out one’s faith. These are also the values that he lived out as the missionary pastor of the Tz’utujil Mayan of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. In truth, it was Father Rother’s natural disposition to work the fields alongside them, to break bread and celebrate life with them, which caused this close-knit community to claim Father Stanley Rother as “our priest.”
Our world is in desperate need of faith heroes. We need their witness. We draw strength from knowing about and being with people who are living faithfully their very ordinary life.
Father Rother was like you and like me. That is what makes his life such a unique and powerful witness, especially for our Church today. In the big and small decisions in his life, he continually and deliberately discerned how to best serve God with his life.
When you read Father Rother’s life story alongside the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, it is unmistakable how passionately he chose to live mercy in his life. During his final years as a pastor in Guatemala, especially as the country’s civil war escalated into violence, he lived out daily the corporal works of mercy. During this tragic time, this martyr of mercy regularly fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, visited the sick, comforted the afflicted, bore wrongs patiently and buried the dead.
But he also practiced mercy at other periods in his life — whether in his years in Oklahoma, in the seminary or working the family farm. Father Rother was faithful in the big moments because he strove to be faithful in all the little moments of his life. This is the example that God wants us to follow.
During this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Father Rother’s life reminds me that living mercy is what God calls each of us to do — right where I am today, regardless of the details of my life. When I help my sleep-deprived daughter by caring for her newborn child, when I forgive someone who will never ask me for forgiveness, when I spend time playing on the floor with my twin grandchildren, when I take my mother to visit my father’s grave (especially when I don’t feel like it) or when I pray for those who don’t have anyone to pray for them, I, too, choose to live in and live out mercy.
In his Rule of 1221, St. Francis of Assisi commended the members of his community: “Let all the brothers preach by their deeds.” In his words as well as with his life, Father Rother lived compassion or co-passion. With humility and love, he became one of them in order to show them — not just tell them — how much God loved them. He was, as this Year of Mercy challenges us to be, “merciful like the Father.”
In one of his final letters to the Church of Oklahoma, Father Rother wrote, “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.”
Father Rother’s concern for his suffering parishioners went far beyond shallow sympathy. His deep compassion for them was rooted in empathy and a desire to “preach by his deeds” the depth and vastness of God’s love.
So the Okarche farmer became the pastor who invited his parishioners to the Eucharistic table — while driving the tractor and plowing the Guatemala fields side-by-side with his Tz’utujil parishioners.
When Rother the 23-year-old seminarian failed his first year of theology, he was sent home and advised to pursue a different vocation. Instead, he went to his parish priest at Holy Trinity Church in Okarche and together they visited the bishop. Once the bishop asked him what he would like to do, without hesitation, Rother affirmed his commitment to follow his call to the priesthood. It was this perseverance that led Bishop Victor Reed to agree to find him a new seminary.
Stanley Rother’s struggle with learning a subject (in his case, Latin) is something many of us can relate to. Undoubtedly, he must have wondered how he’d ever complete his seminary studies, yet he never gave up. Years later, this young man who flunked out of his first seminary because he could not learn Latin became the same man who agreed to go to a foreign mission that required him to learn not only Spanish but also the rare and extremely challenging Tz’utujil Mayan dialect of his parishioners.
5. Confidence in God
While optimism is a mental attitude that may or may not be based on reality, holy confidence looks at real life with the certainty of God’s presence, regardless of the circumstances. Confidence affirms that all is grace because God transfigures all, and “accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will” (Eph 1:11).
It is undoubtedly providential that in the midst of a dangerous situation and very difficult circumstances, Father Stanley Rother not only remained certain about his vocation, but he also cemented his conviction as a missionary. He knew with complete confidence that in his missionary ministry to the Tz’utujil, he had found the place and the people where God’s providence willed him to be. Likewise, the missionary from Okarche dared to love Jesus with everything he had — and that changed everything.
In a letter dated September 1980 to the bishops of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, less than a year before his murder, Father Rother described the political and anti-Church climate in Guatemala:
“The reality is that we are in danger. But we don’t know when or what form the government will use to further repress the Church. ... Given the situation, I am not ready to leave here just yet. There is a chance that the government will back off. If I get a direct threat or am told to leave, then I will go. But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it. ... I don’t want to desert these people …. There is still a lot of good that can be done under the circumstances.”
Stanley Rother’s confidence in God and in God’s plan for his life — and for his people — was deeply rooted in the knowledge that God is love, and that each of us are called to live fully that love in everything we do and with everyone we encounter. As Pope Francis emphasized in 2013 at the beatification of 522 Spanish martyrs who were killed during the anti-Christian persecutions of the 1930s, “There is no such thing as love in installments, no such thing as portions of love. Total love: and when we love, we love till the end.”
In his final Christmas letter to Oklahoma Catholics in 1980, Father Rother concluded: “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”
Stanley Rother, the shepherd who chose to face death rather than abandon his flock — the shepherd who didn’t run — loved to the extreme limit. He loved till the end. And in so doing, he made God’s presence real and tangible to the people in his life.
Father Stanley Rother, Servant of God, pray for us!
María Ruiz Scaperlanda is the author of “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma” (OSV, $19.95).