Blessed Stanley Rother Gave His Heart to God, Even Unto Death

In 2016, Pope Francis named Father Rother a martyr of the faith, the first martyr from the United States, and in 2017 he became the first beatified U.S.-born priest.

Blessed Stanley Rother attends a carnival.
Blessed Stanley Rother attends a carnival. (photo: Courtesy of Archdiocese of Oklahoma City Archives | via CNA)

“God does not call the equipped. He equips the called.”

This simple truism sprang to mind as I recently studied the life of Blessed Stanley Rother.

I had never heard of Father Stanley Rother until a few years ago when our parish priest noted that my husband’s and my wedding anniversary fell on his feast day, July 28. Unfamiliar with the beatified priest’s story, but always eager to make more friends in heaven, I looked him up.

Father Rother was born in Oklahoma in the 1930s and grew up on his family’s farm. Yet despite his inauspicious childhood, his legacy is anything but ordinary.

Father Rother’s Catholic upbringing would lead to a vocation in the priesthood and ultimately to his years serving in his diocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. After over a decade ministering to the indigenous Tz’utujil community, Father Rother fell victim to the growing anti-Catholic fervor and increased violence ravaging the country, beset by civil war. His name began to appear on hit lists and in 1981 three men broke into his rectory and killed him in cold blood.

In 2016, Pope Francis named Father Rother a martyr of the faith, the first martyr from the United States, and in 2017 he became the first beatified U.S.-born priest.

Father Rother displayed awe-inspiring faith and heroism during his 13 years among the Tz’utujil people, especially in his final months. But few who knew him when he first began his journey to ordination and ultimately to martyrdom would have predicted the role he would play in the highlands of Guatemala.

When Father Rother originally discerned his vocation to be a priest and joined a seminary, his superiors delicately asked him to withdraw several years later after watching him struggle with the academics, specifically Latin. On his second attempt, at a different seminary, Father Rother managed to complete his studies and he was ordained in 1963. A mere five years later, he would be on his way to Guatemala where he not only taught himself Spanish, but he also learned the Tz’utujil language.

Father Rother was hardly equipped for such tasks as fell at his feet, though by all accounts his agrarian background was of tremendous use to his congregation. The young seminarian who had struggled so mightily in the classroom now found himself a priest celebrating Mass in multiple languages. Driven by love of Christ, and the desire to share that love, Father Rother eventually translated the New Testament into the Tz’utujil language as well. For his last six years in Guatemala he was the only priest in his community, celebrating up to five Masses in multiple locations every Sunday and performing hundreds of baptisms a year. He was priest, teacher, farmer and doctor to his beloved flock.

God equipped this humble Midwest farm boy to follow Pope John XXIII’s call to evangelize to the nations. At his parish in Guatemala, the school now bears his name. His witness continues to bear fruit around the world. Today the largest Catholic church in Oklahoma is the Blessed Stanley Rother Shrine. God did not need Father Rother’s academic excellence or linguistic prowess. He needed his heart, and the holy priest gave it unreservedly, even unto death.

St. Paul wrote to the Hebrews: “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, furnish you with all that is good, that you may do his will” (Hebrews 13:20-21).

None of us are equipped for what God has asked of us, be it as missionaries in distant lands, or simply loving the people placed before us in our own ordinary days. We are weak and prideful, broken by sin. But we have a Creator who knows this and who lavishes grace upon us to help us carry out his will. Like Father Rother, we have only to give him our hearts, and ask for his help.

Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us!