Celebrating a martyr

Today, 23 September 2017, Father Stanley Rother was beatified  in Oklahoma City. That’s where he was from, but not where he endured a martyr’s death. His ministry and courageous demise are described in this homily I preached in February 2009, the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time. The previous month I had been part of a remarkable pilgrimage sponsored by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers to the shrines of the Central American martyrs, which included celebrating Sunday Mass with Fr. Rother’s community in Santiago Atitlan. I have had the privilege to visit the church and the site of his martyrdom two other times with college students. While Fr. Rother was officially declare a martyr today by the church, the Mayan people of his village and many others have regarded him as such for as long as we’ve known of his witness. TL
Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us.

Stan Rother was a priest from the Diocese of Oklahoma City but he spent nearly all of his life as a priest in the Guatemalan village of Santiago Atitlan. It’s a curious thing — he had been thrown out of the seminary once because he couldn’t get the hang of Latin, but once in Santiago Atitlan he thrived, not only becoming adept at Spanish, but also at speaking the local Indian dialect. He even oversaw translation of the New Testament into that language.

Upon arriving in 1968, he gave his all to his community of Mayan Indians. They built a hospital, renovated the church, established a parish farm, and celebrated Mass five times every Sunday at various locations, and celebrated as many as 1,000 baptisms a year.
At first the people didn’t know what to make of this tall American priest — towering several feet over his Mayan parishioners — especially one who’d help hoe the corn fields or sit down for dinner on the dirt floors of their crowded, shack-like homes. At first they were reluctant to even welcome him into their homes; they didn’t think themselves worthy of such a prominent visitor. But, he persisted, and now seated among them, at least attempting to speak their language, a bond was formed.

Things changed in 1980. Guatemala’s civil war reached even the remote village of Santiago Atitlan. In October of that year, army forces rumbled into town, troops set up camp in the parish farm and parish leaders began to disappear. One prominent leader, a deacon who ran the parish radio station, was kidnaped and killed.

In January the parish’s leading catechist was ambushed on the stone steps in front of the church. Stan was listening to the radio and heard the commotion. He raced to the plaza just as his friend was being forced into a waiting car as he shouted “Help me, help me!” The cathechist was never seen again. He had disappeared.

Four days later, the army gunned down 17 civilians working in a nearby coffee field. Stan directed that the bodies be taken to the Church for a funeral and burial. It was a seemingly obvious, maybe insignificant, instruction, but in the eyes of the government and the military even that simple pastoral response was viewed as public defiance.
Stan had done other defiant, troubling things too. He had, for example, tried to raise funds to support the eight widows and 32 fatherless children now in his parish as a result of the military’s reign of terror. He’d made no statements, his was not a political agenda, but people knew there was a death list and they knew that Stan’s name was on it.

In late January of 1980, Stan returned to Oklahoma to lie low, to wait for things to cool off in Guatemala. But all the while he shuddered at the thought of his people, of having left them behind. What must they think of their pastor who deserts them when they need him most?  He returned to Santiago Atitlan in April, just in time for Palm Sunday and Triduum. Life returned to what it had been, but life was still uncertain, tense and the dangers were all too real.

On the night of July 28, three tall men wearing ski masks forced their way into the parish house. Stan, anticipating such a situation, was sleeping in a different room of the house every night, so they did not find him in his room. But they did find the assistant pastor’s brother and at gunpoint ordered him to lead them to Stan. Padre, han venido por ti. “Padre, they’ve come for you,” the young man screamed as they approached the room where Stan was sleeping that night. Stan had told friends he would not allow himself to be kidnaped and tortured as so many others had been. In the end, Stan Rother was killed with one shot to his face.

Word of his death spread quickly. The people were enraged. Priests and sisters who assembled at the scene feared the mob’s anger might result in a massacre. A group of Carmelite sisters invited the throng of grieving villagers into the church where they sang and prayed.  The immediate instinct of seeking retribution would subside, but not the anger and the dread of loss. Fr. Stan Rother is still revered and remembered by those people.

I’ll share more about him and the parish in Santiago Atitlan another time, but I wanted to mention him today because his example is so true to what Paul speaks of in his letter to the Corinthians — of living the gospel because that is what we are meant to do, each in our own way — not necessarily as dramatically or tragically as Stan Rother — put to preach and live the gospel nonetheless.

And what did Stan Rother do that was so terrible. He did for those Mayan Indians in Santiago Atitlan what Jesus does for Peter’s mother-in-law in the gospel. Jesus grasped her hand and lifted her up. That’s what Stan Rother did for those people. In sitting down to eat dinner on their dirt floors, he raised them up, he enhanced their dignity, he became a threat to those who wanted to diminish and control them.

There’s something in that for us too. Sometimes we need to be lifted up and encouraged, but we also need to be ready to do that for people who are hurting, who have been shoved aside in some way, who have been led of think of themselves as being of less value than others. We won’t become martyrs in the attempt, but it’s living the gospel of life and hope, which is the gospel Fr. Stan Rother lived, and died living.  TL


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