The heroic witness of Blessed Stanley Rother

Photo: Courtesy stanleyrother.org Photo: Courtesy stanleyrother.org

OKLAHOMA CITY – On Sept. 14, 2017, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Pope Francis officially advanced Venerable Stanley Rother with the title “Blessed.” The public celebration of this advancement occurred on Sept. 23 at the beatification Mass in Oklahoma City.

This was a very significant moment for the entire church in the United States and especially for priests. As Cardinal Angelo Amato pointed out in his comments at the beatification Mass, Stanley Rother is the first U.S.-born priest to be beatified. He is also the first U.S.-born person to be recognized as a martyr, thus gaining for him the title “Proto-Martyr of the United States.”

Those who are not familiar with the story of Father Rother’s martyrdom and his heroic virtue will want to consult stanleyrother.org for more information as well as some excellently prepared documentary videos. In summary, Father Rother was killed by a Guatemalan government-backed death squad in the early morning hours of July 28, 1981, in the mission rectory at Santiago Atitlán.

The event in Oklahoma City drew an estimated 20,000 people — an overwhelming crowd that exceeded the capacity of both the civic center arena in which the Mass was celebrated as well as the additional overflow ballroom set aside for additional guests. Thousands of people stood outside the center while the Mass took place; others watched from hotel lobbies around the city once word got out that the event was closed for further admission.

In addition to Cardinal Amato (prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints), the Mass was also attended by members of the diplomatic corps as well as approximately 50 bishops from the United States and Guatemala. Special participants included Father Rother’s brother and sister, Tom and Marita, as well as subsequent and current pastors of the mission in Santiago Atitlán.

For me, it was a particular joy to attend this beatification Mass. Father Rother and I come from the same small town of Okarche in western Oklahoma, and he was an instrumental part of my discernment for the priesthood. I prayed for his intercession both as a seminarian and as a priest. When I received the call from the apostolic nuncio informing me that I was appointed as an auxiliary bishop in Seattle, I visited Father Rother’s grave to seek his intercession on this new ministry.

As I sat in the sanctuary at the beatification Mass, Father Rother’s personal chalice sat prominently on the altar and was used for the consecration of the Precious Blood. It is a chalice he himself designed and one that he used frequently. It is a chalice I remember well since it is the very one I used to celebrate my first Mass as a newly ordained priest on July 16, 1989.

Christianity introduces us to the mystery of God’s life, a mystery founded on the death and resurrection of Jesus. The readings at the beatification Mass spoke of this mystery, especially the Gospel, when Jesus spoke to us from Chapter 12 of John’s Gospel reminding us that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The early church theologian Tertullian said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. The seed of Father Rother’s blood is bringing forth a rich harvest in the mission of Santiago Atitlán. From the parish’s founding in 1547 to the time of Father Rother’s martyrdom, there had been zero vocations to the priesthood from that community. That’s 434 years without a single person being ordained. In the 36 years since Father Rother’s martyrdom in 1981, nine parishioners have been ordained priests and seven more are currently in the seminary preparing for priesthood.

The Gospel reading continued to challenge us by reminding us that where Jesus is, there will his servant be. Our Lord was present in the poor and marginalized of Santiago Atitlán — and there, too, was his servant Father Stanly Rother. Out of love for our Lord, Father Rother chose to return to Santiago even in the midst of danger to bring the love of Christ, the presence of Jesus, to the body of Christ in distress.

It should be remembered that the church does not recognize people as martyrs just because of how they died. Rather, they are recognized as martyrs because of how they lived. Martyrs are people who are so deeply committed to Jesus that their death is a consequence of their life. As you learn about the ministry and death of Father Rother, I think you will agree that he witnessed in a heroic way his love for God and neighbor.

Jesus taught us that those who lose their lives for his sake and the sake of the Gospel will find it, but those who keep their life in this world will lose it. As the banner was unfurled with Father Rother’s image on it, everyone at the beatification Mass was keenly aware that this martyr had found his life in Christ and would never lose it. Even the decree from Pope Francis, read by Cardinal Amato, reminded us of this truth when it established July 28 as the annual day when the Catholic Church throughout the world may commemorate Father Rother’s martyrdom — the day of his birth into heaven.

I do not know how the story of Father Rother’s life and martyrdom will impact you. For me, it is a story of trust — trust in God’s providence and care more than anything. He was a man who could not master Latin yet learned the native Mayan dialect of Tzuti’hil. He was expelled from a seminary yet now serves as a model priest for seminarians. He was a man who loved life and experienced it deeply yet freely embraced his death when the decisive moment came. He was a man who saw so much suffering yet preached the Resurrection and life in the midst of it — so much so that he instructed those around him that should he be killed, they were to gather the people into the church, light the Easter candle, and sing Easter hymns so that they too would interpret his death through the experience of Christ’s own paschal mystery.

May Stanley Rother pray for us so that, like him, we too may have the heart of the Good Shepherd and the fidelity of a martyr.

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.