The Oklahoma Farm Boy Who Grew Up to Be a Martyr for Christ

(photo: Register Files)

Maria Scaperlanda has written a wonderful book that is destined to be a sourcebook for one of the 20th Century’s most profound Christian martyrs.

 The Shepherd Who Did Not Run tells the story of Father Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma farm boy who grew up to be a martyr for Christ in the on-going economic wars that are raging around the globe to this day. He died on July 28, 1981, at the hands of what were probably right-wing government assassins in an isolated mission village in Atitlan, Guatemala.

Before his martyrdom, Fr Rother wrote a letter to his bishop explaining why he wanted to stay with his flock in Guatemala, despite the risks. In that letter, he made the famous remark, “A shepherd cannot run away.”

He knew the danger he was facing. In the same year he was murdered, the radio station he had founded was smashed and its director was tortured and killed. His catechists and parishioners would disappear and later be found, murdered. He knew that he, along with other Catholic priests, nuns and missionaries, was on a government death list.

Mrs. Scaperlanda’s biography was authorized by Archbishop Paul Coakley, the Archbishop of Oklahoma City. Fr. Rother’s family and friends shared their memories and experiences with her, allowing her to draw out the simplicity and the power of this man in the telling of his story.

The Shepherd Who Did Not Run is written in the clean prose of a writer who backs off and lets the story tell itself. Father Rother’s life unfolds in its pages in a way that inspires and uplifts the reader. It’s easy to see God working in the life of this man.

For instance, Father Rother flunked out of his first seminary because of problems learning Latin. Then, this same man mastered the obscure language of the Indians he ministered to in Guatemala. He translated the Gospels into that language and encouraged the local people to learn to read and write.

He was never a political pastor. He was, rather, a Sermon on the Mount pastor—one who built a radio station to transmit daily lessons in language and mathematics, who founded a small hospital and who lived with and among the people he pastored.

Whenever Christians actually practice what Christ taught, the leavening effect of the Gospels begins lifting people up. The Gospels empower the weak and trouble the powerful. I think that is exactly what happened in Guatemala.

I think Father Rother, along with the other priests, nuns and missionaries who were murdered there, died for the “crime” of using the Gospels of Christ to empower people who had long been exploited. And the exploiters—as exploiters often do—turned to murder to protect their power.

It has always been that way. It will always be that way. The message of the Gospels was revolutionary when Jesus first told us that every human being matters to God, that He even numbers the hairs on our heads.

It was revolutionary when Fr. Stanley Rother laid down his life to teach it and live it. It is just as revolutionary today when Pope Francis speaks in the name of Christ on the behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

Mrs. Scaperlanda skillfully shows the reader that Fr. Stanley Rother did much more than preach the Beatitudes. He lived them.

The Shepherd Who Did Not Run is destined to be an important source book on the life of Father Stanley Rother, Martyr. It is already an important testimony of faith and quiet courage, one that we need desperately for these times.

Our Western world is committing suicide by nihilism. The centers of power are barnacled inside shells of self-reference and nasty group think.

Our job as followers of Christ is to live the Gospels and defend Gospel values in whatever vocation God has given us. Stanley Rother is an example of how one man, one priest, lived his vocation that right down to his personal face-off with the devil’s gun-wielding disciples.

Fr. Rother’s assassins gave him heaven that day in 1981. They also set themselves up for an eternity in hell. I don’t know how the murderer of a saint faces what they have done. But I do know that there is no easy way out of it.

Forgiveness of sins this grave is not a matter of blithe “I’m sorries.” Facing and knowing what you have done when your sins are this black requires a complete turnaround, a reversal of self. It means falling to your knees, broken and humbled, at the foot of the cross.

The Shepherd Who Did Not Run is a book to read when you need a reminder that God is present, even in the pit, that any evil the devil inspires people to do can be turned to good when we entrust ourselves into His hands. Stanley Rother was a simple Oklahoma farm boy who flunked out of his first seminary because he wasn’t all that scholarly.

God used that humble beginning to build Himself a saint.