Blessed Stanley Rother—the Shepherd Who Would Not Run

Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for our conversion that we also may not run away.

Blessed Stanley Rother
Blessed Stanley Rother (photo: Archdiocese of Oklahoma City)

I wonder what Father Stanley Rother thinks of all this.

He’s now a blessed, beatified martyr of the Church. People say things like “Father Stanley, pray for us,” and they don’t mean it in the casual “please send up a prayer” way that we ask others for prayer. They mean it in the way we might ask a highly-placed person in a corporation to say a good word for our job request.

Humble Stanley Rother, farm boy from Okarche, Oklahoma, is now an all-star in heaven. As so often happens with future saints, he had to struggle to realize his vocation.

The same Stanley Rother who later became so fluent in an obscure Indian dialect that he helped translate the New Testament into that dialect, could not master Latin. He flunked out of one seminary and was accepted at a second only on a conditional basis.

This refusal to quit became the hallmark of his martyrdom. It reminds us that one of the special qualifications for being a saint is a willingness to say “yes” to God, even when that “yes” seems ill-advised and stupid to the outside world.

Father Rother could have left his mission when things got too dangerous. The smart move would have been to come home to Oklahoma, live a fruitful life as a parish priest and die, decades later, in his bed. No one would have thought the less of him. He could have hidden behind the “orders are orders” world of the priesthood and simply taken an assignment in Weatherford or some such place.

But he asked to stay, with full knowledge that his life might be forfeit. He was aware, right up to the moment it happened, that he had a target painted on him and was likely to face being “disappeared” as so many others had been.

But “the shepherd cannot run” he said when explaining why he would not leave. And they did come for him, and he fought them, and they shot and killed him.

As his father said when he heard that his son had been murdered, “They finally got him.”

And, for a time, it seemed as if that is exactly what had happened. “They,” meaning government terrorists who used the excuse of “communism” to employ murder, torture and terror to try to stop any efforts to bring education, hope and upward mobility to the indigenous people, seemed to have indeed “gotten” him.

But there were resounding notes of failure in their getting of him, right from the start. When news spread of Father Rother’s murder, people came from the hills and stood in front of the church he had pastored for hours of silent tribute. Thousands of the poor, disenfranchised, terrorized, ruthlessly exploited people defied the fears that being seen there might mean that they too would be marked for death to stand in silent tribute to their shepherd who had not run away from them when trouble came.

The shepherd did not run, and neither did his flock. His death gave them dignity and courage. His martyrdom was a seed planted in their hearts.

If he had left, no one would have blamed him. But what would have become of these people without the clear example of Christ’s love for them that they saw in his decision to stay and die with them?

It was, as all times are in part, an evil time. And it was also, as all times are in other parts, a time when the message of Christ that every single human being matters and is worth dying for was made explicit and concrete by the actions of his saints.

Blessed Stanley Rother did not die alone. Other nuns, priests and even one bishop, gave their lives to stand in solidarity with God’s littlest ones in the face of a virulent corporatism that used fear of communist incursions to justify government-sponsored terrorism against innocent people.

The government attacked the Church for one reason: The Church gave hope to the hopeless. The Church built schools, hospitals and carried the message of the Gospel that every person who lives is beloved of God.

The Church brought hope and a purpose. More important than the schools or the hospitals was the message, direct from the lips of Jesus Christ the Lord of all Life, that every single person is created in the image and likeness of God.

That is dignity and worth, writ eternal. It is the core message of the Law and the Prophets, and it is the message of the Gospels. God Himself came to live among us. He died for us, to give us that message, and then make it a concrete reality at Calvary.

“Who should I fear if the Lord is with me?” the Psalmist asks.

The message that Father Stanley Rother—and every other priest who actually preaches Christ—brings is that God is indeed with you because you are His beloved, and you need fear no one.

From the thief on the cross to the beleaguered ones of this very day, that message is the leaven that lifts up the whole world. Without Jesus, we are lost forever in the mire of our own worst impulses. With Him, we become builders of a world worth having.

It is a sad fact that there are many failed Christian religious leaders who eschew this Gospel for a political gospel. Rather than leading people to the Cross, they act as political operatives and lead their flocks away from Christ.

I see today’s evil, and I wonder what Blessed Stanley Rother thinks about it. My feeling is that he probably understands it far more deeply than those who give lip service to Jesus but follow other, political, gods can comprehend.

Someone murdered Father Stanley Rother. Someone gave the order to have him murdered. It is a simple fact that some member of a Catholic parish here in Oklahoma wrote a letter to that evil government, accusing Father Rother of being a communist.

Martyrs don’t just trip and fall into their martyrdom. Martyrs are deliberately and viciously made by murderers acting on behalf of Satan.

The murderers are empowered by other people who are also acting on behalf of Satan. What, in the economy of time, becomes of these martyr-making murderers?

Do they repent? Do they face what they have done and grieve through the grief that realization forces on them, or do they harden their hearts and go down to the grave unrepentant and condemned to hell by their own actions?

I think Father Stanley Rother understood this to his core when he said, “the shepherd cannot run.” Stanley Rother died for love of a people that others hated. He died for love of Christ that many Christians and a good number of his fellow religious leaders eschew, the Christ of the cross.

I believe Stanley Rother understood his times through a Gospel prism, and I believe that he looks down on us and our times through that same prism.

He was as Oklahoma as the red dust on his boots when he was growing up. He was as American as the prairie in which he is buried.

If anyone understands these tumultuous times and can point our attention past the whatnots of happenstance to the cross of Christ, it is Stanley Rother, Oklahoma farm boy, the shepherd who did not run.

Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us that we may see who and what we are, that we may know what we do. Pray for our conversion that we also may not run away.