OKLAHOMA CITY – Father Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma priest martyred in Guatemala, was beatified Saturday during a Mass in Oklahoma City attended by more than 20,000 people.
Pope Francis named him blessed in a letter that cited his “deeply rooted faith,” his “profound union with God,” and his “arduous duty to spread the word of God in missionary lands, faithfully living his priestly and missionary service until his martyrdom.”
His feast day is set for the anniversary of his death, July 28, 1981, which the papal letter described as “the day of his heavenly birth.”
Blessed Stanley Rother served the indigenous people of his Guatemala parish at a time of civil war. He returned to his home state of Oklahoma after a death threat, then returned knowing the dangers.
Seattle Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg traces his vocation to a brief encounter with Father Rother at a Mass in Oklahoma shortly before his death. “I was very captivated by why this person had such an intense presence that I had not sensed before,” he said.
Before his last Christmas, the priest wrote to a parish in Oklahoma about the dangers in Guatemala: “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” he said.
Armed men broke into his rectory, intending to abduct him. He resisted and struggled, but did not call for help, so others at the mission would not be endangered.
He was shot twice and killed.
At a time of great social and political turbulence, the priest lived as a disciple of Christ, “doing good and spreading peace and reconciliation among the people,” Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect for the Congregation of Saints, said in his homily.
“Unfortunately, this immediate recompense on this earth was persecution and a bloody death, in accord with the words of Jesus: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit,” said the cardinal.
Celebrating the Mass with Cardinal Amato were Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley, dozens of bishops, scores of priests and thousands of laity, including some from Guatemala. The Mass took place at Oklahoma City’s Cox Convention Center.
Family members of Father Rother were also in attendance. Sister Marita Rother read the first reading, from the Book of Sirach.
Though Blessed Stanley faced difficulties in his seminary studies, he showed great dedication to the manual labor he was familiar with from his youth on his family farm near Okarche, Oklahoma.
After volunteering for the Guatemala mission at Santiago Atitlan, the priest learned Spanish. He also learned the local language of the Tz’utujil Mayan Indians so well that he could use it in his preaching.
He would spend 13 years of his life there, diligent in visiting newlyweds and baptizing and catechizing their children. He was vigorous in both religious and social formation, drawing on his experience to work the fields and repair broken trucks while also building a farmers’ co-op, a school, a hospital and the area’s first Catholic radio station.
After a major earthquake in 1976, Father Rother took heroic action.
“With courage he climbed the ravines in order to help the very poor, pulling the wounded out of the ruins and carrying them to safety on his shoulders,” Cardinal Amato said.
Cardinal Amato recounted the civil conflict in Guatemala. From 1971 to 1981, there were numerous killings of journalists, farmers, catechists and priests, all accused falsely of communism.
“This was a real and true time of bloody persecution of the church,” the cardinal said. “Father Rother, aware of the imminent danger to his life, prepared himself for martyrdom, asking the Lord for the strength to face it without fear.”
“He continued, however, to preach the gospel of love and nonviolence.”
Both the priest’s mission and the aid he gave to the victims of violence were seen as subversive, explained the cardinal, who added: “A good shepherd cannot abandon his flock.”
“In the face of kidnappings and violence Father Rother felt helpless because he did not succeed in changing the situation of reconciliation and forgiveness,” Cardinal Amato continued. “He often cried in silence to a Carmelite nun who asked what to do if he were killed.”
“Father Rother responded: ‘Raise the standard of Christ Risen.’”
Others spoke about Blessed Stanley. Oklahoma City Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius Beltran voiced gratitude to God for the beatification of the first native-born priest and martyr of the United States.
“His death was a tragedy for Oklahoma and for Guatemala. However, through his death, his saintly life has become known well beyond the boundaries of Guatemala and Oklahoma and the faith of all those who are now familiar with his life is greatly strengthened, and the church continues to flourish,” Archbishop Beltran said.
Archbishop Coakley said that the priest “chose to remain with his people” and “gave his life in solidarity.”
“Pray that the church will experience a new Pentecost and abundant vocations, aided by the intercession of Blessed Stanley Rother,” he said.
The Mass was multilingual, incorporating Spanish, Comanche and the Mayan language of the indigenous people Father Rother served.
The offertory was dedicated to the Guatemalan parishes where Blessed Stanley Rother served. The Catholic Foundation of Oklahoma is managing donations through the webpage stanleyrother.org/mass.