The following reflection is submitted by Paul Leingang, who serves as a part time communications consultant for the AUSCP.
It’s a small room where just a few items mark the life and death of Father Stanley Rother, the first native-born Catholic priest from the United States to be declared a martyr. It is an appropriately simple shrine in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.
Rother’s body is buried back home in Oklahoma where he was ordained as a diocesan priest in 1935. But his heart – physically, literally – remains in Guatemala, buried under the altar of his parish church. In February 2016, my wife and I visited the church and the shrine. We prayed there in the room where Father Stan was murdered by a death squad in 1981. We won’t forget seeing the blood-stained floor, the pock mark of a bullet, and a brief account of what happened.
Rother left the farming community of Okarche, Oklahoma to become a seminarian. As a student, and then as a priest, he was described as simple, even naïve, a man who preferred construction over intellectual pursuits, and hard work over philosophy and theology. During his 13 years in Guatemala, however, he became uniquely fluent in the language of the indigenous Tz’utujil Mayans. He built a farmers' co-op, a school, a hospital, and a radio station used for catechesis in remote villages. He celebrated the sacraments and lived the works of mercy. He stayed with his flock, and he loved them.
In a book written by María Ruiz Scaperlanda, published in 2015, Rother is described by the title, “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run.” During Guatemala’s civil war, Rother refused to leave his people. When men from his village and elsewhere were murdered or “disappeared,” Rother assisted their widows and children – and that is presumed to be one of the “crimes” for which he was targeted by right-wing extremists and elements of the Guatemalan army.
Stan Rother was an Oklahoma farm boy, a struggling student, a hard worker, a simple diocesan priest who responded to the call to mission work from Pope John XXIII, a man who identified with the simple values of indigenous families – and as of December 2016, he is a priest recognized by Pope Francis as a martyr.
Rother didn’t go to Guatemala to die for his faith. He went there to live it, as did many others from the United States serving in remote missions: the Jesuit priests and the church women in El Salvador; Dorothy Stang, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur from Cincinnati who was murdered in the Amazon Basin of Brazil; and the five Adorers of the Blood of Jesus Christ (including two of my cousins from southern Illinois), who were murdered in Liberia.
Rother didn’t go to Guatemala for the honor, but I hope the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests will acknowledge him and all men and women of such faith and works.
Could the AUSCP acknowledge Stan Rother as “one of us”?