American Martyr Fr. Stanley Rother: “A Shepherd Cannot Leave His Flock”
“The reality is that we are in danger.
This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm.
The shepherd cannot run away at the first sign of danger. Pray for us...”
—Father Stanley Rother, 18 months before his martyrdom
In Okarche Oklahoma, the sky goes on forever and the wind never stops blowing.
Father Stanley Rother lies in an unpretentious grave in a tiny church cemetery on a road that you’ll miss if you aren’t looking carefully. His grave, which is one of many with the name “Rother” on it, is marked by a simple black headstone. The only thing that sets it apart is the necklace of stones ringing its edges.
Father Rother began his life here, on this prairie, in this town. He was confirmed and baptized in Holy Trinity Catholic Church, which is the only Catholic Church in Okarche. He offered his first Mass as a priest here.
His life ended in an isolated village in Guatemala when he fell in a hail of bullets. Last week, the Congregation of the Causes of Saints recognized Father Rother as a martyr, which puts him on the long road to official recognition as a saint of the Church.
Stanley Rother was as Oklahoman as the red dirt he tilled on his family’s farm outside of town, as American as his hard-work ethic and kind heart. Theresa Liebl, who is Fr Rother’s family member once removed and by marriage in one of those complex relationship histories that are common to small communities, remembers him as “a good country boy.”
The symmetry in this is there for all of us to see, now that we’re looking back. This “good country boy,” who almost didn’t become a priest because he failed his theology class in seminary, is the one God chose to be a priest for our times.
Today’s Catholics are trying to pick their way through the minefields of gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, cohabitation, and a dramatic turn of the zeitgeist that allows and applauds Christian bashing from every venue. Meanwhile, many of their priests seem either unaware of the verbal hazing and attacks their flocks endure, or, sadly, sometimes appear to agree with the attackers.
Not all priests certainly, but many of them give the appearance of supporting the destruction of marriage and the attacks on the Church. Their silence on these matters leaves the people in the pews confused and lost. Those of us who sit in the pews need leadership from behind the altar.
We need shepherds who will not run away when their flocks are under attack. We need priests like Father Stanley Rother who died because, as he said, “a shepherd cannot run away.”
Father Rother wasn’t an intellectual giant. His struggles with Latin got him kicked out of one seminary. His bishop, Bishop Victor Reed, intervened by reassigning the young man to a different seminary.
After he was ordained, he served at four Oklahoma parishes before being called to Guatemala in 1968. Despite his earlier struggles with Latin, he learned Spanish and the local Tzutuhil dialect.
In the early 1970s, political unrest and violence began tearing at the country. Father Rother described the situation in a letter to Archbishop Salatka, of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, in December 1980.
The country here is in rebellion and the government is taking it out on the Church. The low wages that are paid, the very few who are excessively rich, the bad distribution of land -- these are some of the reasons for the widespread discontent. The Church seems the only force that is trying to do something (about) the situation, and therefore the govt is after us. There are some that say that the Diocese of Solola, where the mission is, is the next on the list for persecution. … The reality is that we are danger. This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us …
Father Rother may not have been a scholar, but he had manly courage and deep faith in Christ that led him to embrace his responsibility to the people God had entrusted to him. On July 28, 1981, three men wearing masks shot and killed Father Stanley Rother, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep.
Raymond Bailey, of the United States Embassy of Guatemala arrived at the mission later the same day. He found “at least a thousand” Tzutuhil Indians standing silently in the plaza, looking toward the church. “It was a sight I’ll remember the rest of my life.”
Mrs Liebl says that Stanley Rother’s story begins with a strong family of devoted Catholics. In this time when family is under attack from almost every direction except the Church, when Christians face personal insult and social isolation for standing for Christ, Stanley Rother’s life and death are a message and teaching for what we must do.
We are tasked, each of us individually and all of us collectively, with staying the course in our fealty to the Truth. At the same time, we are called to build our families strong and raise our children well.
The job before us is nothing less than the re-conversion of this post Christian culture. We need leadership from our Shepherds. We need priests who will not kiss Caesar’s ring, who are willing themselves to face the shunning and attacks that will come to those who follow Christ, and who will lead us in the same paths.
Father Rother’s martyrdom is a metaphor for the deepest and most profound meaning of the Catholic priesthood, that of a shepherd who serves, protects, defends and leads the people of God. A priest can run away from his flock by refusing to take a stand, living the good life and ignoring what’s going on with the people in the pews just as surely as a priest can run away by getting on an airliner and flying to safety.
This is our time. We have been given the magnificent opportunity to serve Him when it’s not easy, to stand for Christ the Lord at personal cost to ourselves.
Father Stanley Rother, martyr, pray for us — and pray for our priests — that we do not let this opportunity pass us by.