An invitation: Lessons in love from our American martyr
By María Ruiz Scaperlanda
Have you heard the good news? The first American martyr –– and the first American man to be beatified –– is an ordinary farmer from Oklahoma!
This past December, Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of Father Stanley Rother, a diocesan priest from Okarche, Oklahoma, making him the first American martyr.
On Sept. 23, Father Rother will be beatified in Oklahoma City by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Angelo Amato, SDB, on behalf of Pope Francis — making him the first man born in the U.S. to be beatified, the final step before sainthood!
Born in 1935 in the midst of an Oklahoma dust storm, Stanley Francis Rother was the oldest in a family of five children. After becoming a priest for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and serving in various parishes for five years, he volunteered for the Oklahoma-sponsored Catholic mission in Guatemala.
When he arrived at Santiago Atitlán in 1968, Father Stanley instantly fell in love with the volatile and stunning land of volcanoes and earthquakes — but above all, with its people. He served the parish of St. James the Apostle (Santiago Apóstol) in Santiago Atitlán for the rest of his life. His Tz’utujil Mayan parishioners called him “Padre Apla’s,” which translates as “Francis” or “Francisco,” his middle name in Tz’utujil.
Over his 13 years of priestly service in Guatemala, Father Stanley helped develop a farmers’ co-op, a nutrition center, a school, a hospital clinic, and the first Catholic radio station in the area, which was used for catechesis. And although he did not institute the project, he was a critical driving force in developing Tz’utujil as a written language, which led to his parishioners hearing the Word of God in their own language –– with translations of the liturgy of the Mass and the Lectionary, and the New Testament in Tz’utujil published after his death.
It is no coincidence that the same values Stanley learned growing up in an Oklahoma farming community — family-first, hard work, kindness, generosity, perseverance — are precisely the values that enabled him to become a missionary shepherd. His knowledge of farming and love for the land connected him in a special way to his impoverished and close-knit Mayan parishioners. It is little wonder, then, that his Santiago Atitlán community claimed him as “our priest.”
In 1981, Guatemala’s bloody civil war reached the remote mission on the shores of Lake Atitlán. As a pastor serving the poorest of the poor, Father Rother endured threats, was told to leave the country, and had his name on a hit list. Yet he chose to remain among his beloved parishioners.
“The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” Father Rother wrote in a letter to Oklahoma Catholics. “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.”
On July 28, 1981, three unknown assailants broke into the rectory at Santiago Atitlán and murdered 46-year-old Stanley Rother.
In his first Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis described what he calls “evangelizing gestures.” Often little and always powerful, these are the acts and attitudes that mark a Christian as a missionary.
Father Rother “preached” fully this incarnational spirituality in his every-day life, understanding the importance of these “evangelizing gestures.” He understood the importance of “presence.”
By constantly striving to serve the people in front of him, the needs in front of him, he proclaimed a God who lives and suffers with his people. For Father Rother, the choice to die for his Tz’utujil was a natural extension of the daily choice he made to live for them, and in communion with them. His death was nothing less than a proclamation of God’s love for the poor of Santiago Atitlán.
Saints are local. They come from ordinary places like Okarche, Austin, and Santiago Atitlán, yet their holy witness strengthens the church universal.
Saints also are ordinary people, like Stanley Rother, who are called to holiness — like you and me. We need their faith witness. We draw strength from those who live faithfully and whole-heartedly their very ordinary life. Stanley was faithful in the big moments, including his final gift of self in martyrdom, because he strove to be faithful in all the ordinary moments in his daily life.
I invite you to join me Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at Cedarbrake Catholic Retreat Center in Belton for a weekend encounter with Blessed Stanley Rother, our American Martyr. I know you will be touched by the farmer from Okarche –– whose life and presence continues to provoke me!
María Ruiz Scaperlanda is an award-winning author and blogger, and a graduate of the University of Texas, where she met her husband of 35 years, Michael, at the Catholic Student Center. “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma” is her sixth book.