Bishop’s November Reflection: “The Shepherd Cannot Run”

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by Bishop Michael G. Duca

On September 23, I attended the Beatification of Father Stanley Rother. I was deeply moved by Fr. Rother and how this Oklahoma farm boy became the first U.S. born martyr to be proclaimed Blessed.

Stanley Francis Rother was born March 27, 1935, in Okarche, OK. He was the oldest of four children and attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church and School in Okarche. Being a normal farm boy, he did his chores, attended school, played sports, was an altar server and lived the small town life. While in high school, he began to discern the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood. He first entered Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, TX, but his journey to ordination was halted when Stanley’s struggles with Latin led to inadequate grades and he was asked to leave the seminary.

But Stanley was allowed a second chance, and enrolled at Mount Saint Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD. He was ordained a priest on May 25, 1963. Following his ordination, Fr. Rother served as an associate pastor for five years in Oklahoma. Heeding the call of Pope John XXIII, he sought and received permission to join the staff at the diocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.

Fr. Rother’s connection with the people of Santiago Atitlan was immediate. He served the native tribe of the Tz’utujil, who are decedents of the Mayans. In order to serve his people, Fr. Rother had to speak Spanish and the Tz’utujil language. He not only learned both languages, but his working knowledge of Tz’utujil enabled him to celebrate Mass and assist in translating the New Testament into their language. Tz’utujil was not a written language until the Oklahoma mission team arrived. What he accomplished was remarkable.

As the years passed, Fr. Rother tried to live a simpler life to be in communion with his people, who were extremely poor. He ministered to his parishioners in their one-room homes, eating with them, visiting the sick and aiding them with medical problems. He even put his farming skills to use by helping them in the fields, bringing in different crops, and building an irrigation system.

While he served in Guatemala, a civil war raged between the militarist government forces and the guerrillas. The Catholic Church was caught in the middle due to its insistence on catechizing and educating the people.  Catechists began to disappear. People slept in the church for protection and death lists began to circulate in the towns. During this conflict, thousands of Catholics were killed.

Fr. Rother’s name eventually appeared on the death list after a parishioner made the false accusation that he was advocating for the overthrow of the government by preaching the gospel. For his safety and that of his associate, Fr. Rother returned home to Oklahoma, but he didn’t stay long. He was determined to give his life completely to his people, stating that “the shepherd cannot run.” He returned to Santiago Atitlan out of love for his parishioners.

Within a few months of his return, three men entered the rectory around 1 a.m. on July 28, 1981, fought with Fr. Rother and then executed him. His death shocked the Catholic world. No one was ever held responsible.

The people of Santiago Atitlan mourned the loss of their leader and friend.  Because of the affection and veneration the people of Santiago Atitlan displayed for the priest, they requested that Fr. Rother’s heart be kept in Guatemala where it remains enshrined today.

Father Stanley Rother is now Blessed Stanley Rother.  When someone is declared “Blessed,” public veneration in the Church is permitted by the pope, but only in the diocese or country, or religious community to which the Blessed belonged. A person who is named Blessed becomes a saint for the whole Church with one verified miracle attributed to his intercession.

Blessed Rother is the first official martyr of the Church from the United States, and he reminds us we are all called to be saints!  Not by doing the same things Blessed Stanley Rother did, but by living our lives with the same dedication to loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. Fr. Rother revealed his love for his people when he proclaimed “the shepherd cannot run,” knowing he might be killed when he returned to Guatemala.

It was this act of love that makes Fr. Rother blessed in our eyes.  You may think your life is not as dramatic or holy as his, but it depends on how you consider the acts of love in your life. Fr. Rother’s act of love is really not any different than that of the father or mother who faithfully gets up early for work every day to provide for their family when they would rather be doing a thousand other things, or the adult child choosing to give more of their free time to care for their aging parents, or the pastor who gets up at night for a call to the hospital, or a student who gives service hours to those in need.  As we choose to love as Christ has loved us, let us call on the intercession of Blessed Stanley Rother to make us strong, faithful and loving, and to give witness to Christ in the world by our saintly lives.

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