Venerable Stanley Rother
"I still don't want to abandon my flock when wolves are making random attacks."
-Venerable Stanley Rother
After finishing high school, Stanley decided in his heart that he wished nothing more than to be a priest and so enrolled at Saint John Seminary, then Assumption Seminary in San Antonio. Though he served as a groundskeeper, gardener, plumber, sacristan and bookbinder with much joy and enthusiasm, he had a very difficult time with the educational studies and struggled keeping his grades high. The grades proved initially insurmountable and after six years Stanley was asked to withdraw from the seminary. Though he took it hard, Stanley knew it was not a judgement on his character, only on his grades. He returned home and told his mother that he was still certain of his calling to the priesthood.
The local Bishop, Victor Reed, believed Stanley and believed in his calling to the priesthood. He assisted Stanley in getting admittance to Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland and following his graduation in 1963, ordained him to the priesthood. That same year, the Oklahoma mission had just begun in Guatemala. For five years Stanley served as an associate pastor in several parishes before volunteering for and being assigned to the mission of the archdiocese to the Tz'utujil people in the rural highlands of Guatemala.
Father Rother immediately began learning Spanish and the Tz'utujil language.
"The people themselves are quite exceptional. There is great poverty, the normal income for most families is fifty dollars a year. Their main staple is corn, grown on a little plot as much as a three or four hour walk from their home. "
Father Rother found himself surrounded by people suffering from malnutrition, an extremely low life span for children and in a village almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. In short, he found himself precisely where he had hoped to be - a place where he could make an impact, a place where he could truly help people. Using his farming knowledge, he helped the local farmers organize co-ops to increase profitability and efficiency. He helped support a radio station on the mission property at Santiago Atitlan that transmitted lessons in language and mathematics. Because his name did not translate in Tz'utujil, the local began affectionally calling him Padre Aplas, translated to Father Francis (his full name being Stanley Francis Rother). It was with great pride in 1973 that he wrote in a letter home:
"I am now preaching in Tz'utuhil."
By learning the language, Father Rother was able to translate the New Testament into the local language and for the first time the locals were able to read and hear the Gospel in their own native tongue. He began celebrating Mass in the Tz'utuhil language and helped create a school for children and a hospital within the first few years. Soon though, as the country erupted in civil war the peace at the Mission was shattered.
The government of Guatemala blamed the Catholic church and it's missions in the country for the rebellion and began actively persecuting against it. The ruling class in government began accusing Clergy and religious members as communist sympathizers. In 1980, the army moved into the city under the guise of "protecting the people against terrorists". Soon catechists and parishioners were disappearing only to be found days later dead. Government and Army officials were kidnapping them in the middle of the night and killing them after inflicting terrible tortures on them in an effort to gain confessions of being communist agents. Father Rother wrote:
We had just witnessed the kidnapping of one of someone we had gotten to know and love and were unable to do anything about it. They had his mouth covered, but I could still hear his muffled screams for help.
In December of 1980, he wrote about the situation and violence in a letter to the faithful in Oklahoma, writing:
"This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger."
In January of 1981, Father Rother was alerted that his name (eight on the list) and his associate pastor's name was on a death list of the death squads that had been roving the countryside. Reluctantly, Father Rother left and returned to Oklahoma. His brother would later tell in the documentary "An Ordinary Martyr: the Life and Death of Blessed Stanley Rother" that:
"He would just stand at the west door, just gazing out that west door just staring. He wanted to go back so bad"
By returning to Oklahoma, Father Rother felt he had abandoned his people. He told Bishop Eusebius Beltran that he must go back, that a Shepard can not run from the danger. He told the Bishop that he had promised the parishioners he would return for Holy Week and Easter. The Bishop agreed to allow him to return to the country but had no idea he would be sending him to his death there. Father Rother returned to Santiago Atitlan in April of 1981 (specifically during Holy Week) and was watched from the minute he stepped foot back in the mission. The people though, the parishioners, were filled with joy and courage to see their priest return to them in the midst of so much danger.
Since May 1st of 1980, six priests in the country had been killed. Immediately the mission undertook several new security measures, including sleeping in different rooms and changing the locks to the Rectory often. On July 27, 1981, Father Rother celebrated Mass and ate dinner with live music alongside the parishioners. He went to bed after his prayers shortly before midnight. Shortly after midnight on July 28th, three gunmen stormed the Rectory and forced a local teenager (Francisco Bocel) to lead them to the room in which Father Rother was sleeping. Father Rother heard a struggle in the hallway and fought back against the three men as they burst into his room. Father Stanley Rother was shot twice in the head.
By the request of his parishioners, his heart was buried under the altar of the church when the rest of his remains were flown back to Oklahoma for burial. The three suspects were quickly arrested and all three confessed that the crime was initially a robbery and that they had killed Father Rother when he tried to prevent them from stealing. It was fairly well known at the time that the trial was a cover-up for a paramilitary operation. All three men later had their convictions overturned by a Guatemalan appellate court and no others were prosecuted for the murder.
Pope Benedict XVI titled Father Stanley a Servant of God on November 25th, 2009. On December 1, 2016, Pope Francis confirmed that Father Rother had been killed "in odium fidei" (hatred of the faith) and approved his beatification. At the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City on September 23, 2017, with over 20,000 attending the Mass, Cardinal Angelo Amato presided over his beatification.