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Father Stanley Rother: ‘The Shepherd Cannot Run at the First Sign of Danger’
Archbishop Paul Coakley Discusses Oklahoma’s Saintly Missionary Priest
By Matthew Bunson
On Sept. 23, Father Stanley Rother will become the first U.S.-born martyr to be beatified. A native of Oklahoma, Father Rother was murdered in Guatemala in 1981 as he served among the local Tz’utujil people. He was declared officially a martyr by Pope Francis in December 2016.
Archbishop Paul Coakley, shepherd of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, spoke with Register Senior Editor Matthew Bunson about the life of Father Rother and the upcoming beatification.
Thank you, your Excellency, for your gift of time. I know that preparations are well underway in Oklahoma for the beatification.
They are. They have been underway for years, actually — our hope for the past 10 years, since Archbishop [Eusebius] Beltran introduced the cause in 2007. We have anticipated this day. It’s wonderful to have it approaching, when we can celebrate his beatification on Sept. 23.
Specifically, what’s going to be taking place on that day?
We will have more than 50 bishops from the United States, from Guatemala, from Rome and elsewhere, coming to Oklahoma City to celebrate — with thousands of the faithful from around the country and even from Guatemala, clergy, religious women and men — the Mass and Rite of Beatification for Servant of God Father Stanley Rother. The event will be taking place in a large convention center, which seats well over 10,000 people. We anticipate a very large crowd. The Rite of Beatification itself takes place within the context of the Mass. So that will be the highlight and the reason for the gathering that day.
And, significantly, Cardinal Angelo Amato will be also attending, correct?
Cardinal Amato is the prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. And he will be officiating, the principal celebrant for the Mass, the homilist and, most importantly, he will be Pope Francis’ representative who will read on behalf of the Holy Father the apostolic letter declaring Stanley Rother to be among the “Blessed.”
It’s interesting that beatifications are celebrated or conducted in the diocese in which the new “Blessed” lived and there is that direct connection. So on the one hand, we have the local connection, but on the other, with the presence of the Holy Father, we have that Vatican-Roman connection. Can you talk about that?
I believe it was Pope Benedict XVI who really shifted the location for beatification from Rome to the local Church.
But, nevertheless, that’s the way it has been in recent years, and it really does highlight the local nature of holiness — God calls people to holiness from where they are, from their homes and families, from their local parishes and churches. But holiness, sanctity, the declaration of “blessedness,” the declaration that names somebody as “Blessed” or “Saint,” is not nearly for the local Church. It has universal implications, so I think it is very appropriate that we focus both on the local connection and the universal communion of all the faithful with the Holy Father and our call to holiness.
Obviously, Father Stanley was from Oklahoma. Are Oklahomans excited about this?
Oklahomans are very excited. But certainly it is a story that is of interest well beyond the Catholic Church here in Oklahoma.
Our Catholic people are very excited, but many other people are interested, as well. We have had wonderful coverage in the local press, radio and newspapers, and local television. Oklahoma is only about 5% or 6% Catholic. So it’s remarkable that a Catholic priest who died 36 years ago is receiving this kind of attention in our community.
But the local faithful are thrilled. Father Rother still has family members who are alive: a brother and sister; many nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.
So there is that local connection, that family connection, that parish connection here also.
And for those people who may not be familiar with Father Rother, what is his story?
Father Rother was a young man raised in Okarche, Oklahoma, who discerned a call to the priesthood after high school. He was raised on a farm and really didn’t anticipate going to seminary during his high-school years. The decision came rather late, and, consequently, he hadn’t really taken the ordinary course of Latin and such that would have prepared him for seminary.
When he arrived at seminary, he struggled with Latin; and after noble attempts, he was asked to leave the seminary because he simply couldn’t pass the Latin requirement.
Bishop Reed of Oklahoma, who had sponsored him as a seminarian, didn’t give up on him because Stanley had not given up on his hope to become a priest someday; he found him a place at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was tutored and was able to pass the Latin and succeed very well in his seminary curriculum.
He was ordained a priest in 1963 and five years later volunteered for the Oklahoma mission in Guatemala, which is where he spent the rest of his life. One of the interesting facts about his life and ministry there was: This young man who couldn’t pass Latin enough to get through seminary on his first attempt ended up ministering and serving in a foreign country, where he had to learn Spanish, but more than Spanish — most of his parishioners spoke a very obscure Mayan dialect called Tz’utujil — and he applied himself and became very proficient, and even more than proficient, in both of those languages and was very, very effective as a pastor.
He employed his know-how to the life of the mission, helping farmers develop more effective farming techniques in a very rural and agrarian society. He helped set up a radio station to use for catechesis; opened a health clinic; helped open a school.
So he did many, many things. He, of course, celebrated the sacraments and cared for his people. But he really won the hearts of his people. Because he spent his life with them: acquired their language, worked alongside them in the fields, taught them, visited their homes and ate their food. He was beloved.
And, ultimately, he died with them.
Ultimately, he died with them. Around 1980, civil unrest in Guatemala found its way to his little village, and because of his efforts on behalf of catechizing the poor local people, the military government felt threatened. And those who felt sympathetic to the plight of the poor were labeled subversives and painted with the tarred brush of communist sympathizer, leftists.
Father Rother was not a political animal — he was a pastor, a shepherd. But as he faced the threats that his people were facing, he would not back down.
When he learned that his name was on a death list, he had to wrestle with the internal conflict of whether to stay in a place of danger or return to the security of ordinary, conventional, priestly parish ministry in Oklahoma. He came back for a time to Oklahoma, at the beginning of 1981; but after a few months, he returned in time for Holy Week in 1981.
He famously had written in a letter: “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”
He realized that his place was with his people, so he returned for Holy Week and Easter 1981 and was killed by assailants who broke into his rectory July 28, 1981. Those killers were never identified; nobody was ever charged with a murder.
And that’s significant because here we have not just a beatification, but a beatification for a martyr, which brings its own unique category, doesn’t it?
It does. Father Rother was the first American from the United States — American-born, U.S.-born — to be declared a martyr.
He was declared a martyr in December by Pope Francis. He was declared a martyr on the classical definition of martyrdom, as somebody who died in hatred of the faith — odium fidei — so that was what had to be demonstrated in the process: that this was not just a botched robbery, a political assassination, some sort of a senseless murder.
But this was, in fact, an act committed in hatred of the Catholic faith and what Father Rother stood for as a priest and as a herald of the Gospel. So that’s why he was declared a martyr, and that’s why we can celebrate his beatification at this time.
Do you find it striking that the first officially beatified martyr from the U.S. is someone who died evangelizing, bringing people Christ, in a very far-flung part of the world?
It is. You know, of course, the Catholic faith took root in Latin America long before it took root here in the United States. The parish where Father Rother served was an ancient parish. The church where he was pastor was built in 1847, but for 100 years had never produced a vocation. It had been without clergy for much of that time. But when the Oklahoma mission was established, heeding the call of Pope John XXIII — now St. John XXIII — to the Church in the north, which had greater resources than the Church in central and South America to share those resources, the mission from Oklahoma was entrusted with the parish of Santiago Atitlan and a few other communities associated with that parish. That’s where Father Rother and others served. And after Father Rother’s death, his parish — that had not produced a single vocation in 100 years — since then has produced nine priests from that parish and has seven more in seminary formation right now. So it is remarkable verification of Tertullian’s statement, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” Because the Church there has flourished in the last 50 years.
I was just about to quote Tertullian myself. That is a remarkable testament, isn’t it?
It is. It is. In 2001, the local bishop, Bishop of Sololá in Guatemala, thanked the Church in Oklahoma for its many years of service providing clergy, providing funding, providing a lot of material resources that helped sustain and support the mission for all those years, but indicated that they were now able to staff the parish using native clergy; which was wonderful. It means the mission was successful, not creating a dependency, but really helping establish the Church on its own footing in Guatemala.
So a cause for canonization especially today has to have that local call. How did this particular cause get started?
You know, at the time of Father Rother’s death, hundreds, if not thousands, of people spontaneously turned out in the plaza when they heard he had been killed during the night. He was esteemed and cherished and loved as a pastor and as a martyr from the very beginning. There was that sense of recognition in the local Church there, which was very evident by the outpouring of love when the officials from the American consulate went to claim the body of this American who had been murdered.
The people would not let them approach and take his body. He was their pastor. He was their shepherd. So as a result, an agreement was worked out between Father Rother’s family and the local people and the government officials from the U.S. who were wanting to bring his body home, that his heart would stay in Guatemala, which has a certain beautiful truth to it: that he left his heart there, because he had given his heart to his people. So he was esteemed as a great witness from the very beginning in Guatemala and certainly regarded as a great champion here in Oklahoma among those who knew him. But he was not nearly as well-known in Oklahoma, as he was locally, in those early years. He was an obscure missionary priest who had gone to Guatemala and spent the rest of his life there.
Archbishop Beltran, who was my predecessor here, says that, from the beginning — he was the bishop of Tulsa at the time of Father Rother’s death and eventually came to Oklahoma City — there was a strong sense here locally that he had died as a martyr. So, finally, Archbishop Beltran, around 2007, requested and received permission for the transfer of jurisdiction over this cause to be shifted from the Diocese of Sololá, where Father Rother served and where he was martyred, to the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. The process of promoting a cause is an involved process and an expensive process. And for various reasons, not the least of which was economic reasons, the Church in Oklahoma was better equipped to advance that cause; so jurisdiction over the cause was shifted to the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Archbishop Beltran initiated the cause in 2007 and concluded the diocesan phase of the cause in 2010. Then I came in 2011 to continue overseeing the cause in the next phases of it, when it arrived at the Holy See.
Yes, the positio itself, the document for the determination of heroic virtue and his life. How many pages of documentation were sent to Rome?
There were cases — literally cases — of documentation, thousands and thousands of pages. I am looking at the positio sitting on my desk; the positio is the distillation of all that documentation, and I can tell you how long it is. The positio itself is 1,126 pages, and then there was at least one supplement that was more than 100 pages that was submitted subsequently. So it is a massive amount of documentation that goes into the determination of martyrdom. Now, Father Rother’s cause was submitted as that of a martyr, and so, consequently, we were dispensed, once he was declared a martyr, with the requirement of a preliminary first miracle that cleared the way for his beatification. If somebody is being proposed for beatification on the basis of heroic virtue, but was not a martyr, then a miracle must be verified that has come through the intercession of that “Servant of God.”
And Pope Francis gave the designation of martyrdom in 2016, right?
Correct. I believe the official document declaring him a martyr was signed in Rome Dec. 1, 2016. We learned of it Dec. 2, 2016.
A beautiful Christmas present for the archdiocese.
It was. Absolutely.
What are the lessons for Catholics today from the life of Father Rother?
I think one of the things that strikes me about his life is that he was a very ordinary man.
He had ordinary struggles as a young seminarian; for example, he really struggled with his Latin lessons. But he came from a very ordinary Catholic family — German-Catholic family. They were a close family. Their Catholic faith was very much the heart of their family life: involved in their parish, hardworking. So he was an ordinary man who was a good steward of the gifts God gave him.
He cultivated those gifts, those natural talents. They were not necessarily the kinds of talents one would have identified as those of a future saint, but he used those gifts that God gave him faithfully and generously and allowed the Lord to lead him.
He said, “Yes” to the promptings of grace in his life and was very generous in his response. So God calls all of us to be holy. All of us are called to sanctity. But the path that each of us walks is uniquely ours.
And he is not the first saint or blessed to have struggled with Latin in the seminary.
Exactly; that point is not lost on priests, at least, who know the story of St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, who struggled mightily with his lessons and Latin.
And I’m thinking also of St. Damien of Molokai.
Yes, St. Damien, as well. So many current saints once struggled with these ordinary challenges of seminary life.
The beatification is open seating. Are you sending a message, sort of exemplifying the spirit of Father Rother, with that?
Yes, I hope so. We want everyone to feel welcome to come and to participate in this event. Of course, there will be some reserved seating for his family members. But for the most part, we want everybody to come. I believe the Cox Convention Center can hold approximately 14,000 people. Some of those seats will be behind the stage; there will be monitors back there. But we don’t want people to stay because they don’t have a ticket, and then we didn’t want to distribute tickets to people and then they don’t use them. We want to fill the convention center and have as many people experience and share in the joy of this day as possible. So, in that sense, it’s for everybody, and we are encouraging everyone to participate.
And you mentioned, too, that the Catholic population is a relatively small one in Oklahoma. But does an event like this, does the life of a martyr and a “Blessed,” really demonstrate to everyone in the culture the relevance of holiness for today?
It does. That’s why I think that the story of Father Rother, as told, has a universal appeal. A few weeks ago I had a luncheon with some ecumenical interfaith leaders at our Catholic Charities center here in Oklahoma City. They had come in order to learn about Father Rother. And there was an extraordinary interest and desire to learn more about him, and even to come and participate in the beatification. So that’s true: There is a universal appeal here. The story of a man of integrity, of great generosity, heroic witness to Christ and to the Gospel cuts across sectarian lines, for sure.
And finally, Your Excellency, what spiritual impact has your role in this beatification had on you, not only as a shepherd, but also as a priest?
You know, I felt a very strong and vivid connection with Father Rother since I was in seminary. I went to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary for my theology. When I returned for my second year of theology, Father Rother had just been killed a few weeks before. And that was his alma mater, so the seminary was abuzz with talk about this heroic alumnus of the Mount. I learned about him at that time, the summer and fall of 1981. Later that year, the seminary wanted to honor his memory, so they invited his parents and his sister — who is a religious, Sister Marita — to come to the Mount to allow the seminary to place a plaque in his memory at a spring in a garden he used to tend when he was a seminarian. I met his parents and I met his sister at that time. And I’ve always been fascinated by his life, intrigued by his life — read every article, everything I could ever find over the many, many years, subsequent 30 years. … So when I received a phone call in the fall of 2010 telling me I was to be appointed archbishop of Oklahoma City, I knew Archbishop Beltran had just concluded the diocesan phase of Father Rother’s cause. I really saw it as kind of a providential gift that I would have the opportunity to continue to oversee the promotion of that cause. The first thing I did, even before the announcement had been made public, is I got in the car incognito and made a stealthy trip to Okarche to pray at the grave of Father Rother, to visit his home parish and to ask for his intercession to assist me in this ministry I was about to undertake in Oklahoma. So I’ve felt that very strong connection with him from the start. I suppose it was just his example as a generous faithful shepherd, a good priest, which is what he was — a good priest who gave the supreme witness of his life for his people.
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