An American Martyr

Saturday, September 23rd, a U.S. priest-martyr will be beatified in Oklahoma City, OK, the first so honored by the Church in our country. Fr. Stanley Rother was born in 1935 and grew up on an Oklahoma farm. He served in several Oklahoma parishes after his 1963 priestly ordination before volunteering for mission service in Guatemala in June of 1968. While there he helped build a small hospital, a school, and a Catholic radio station. He also translated the New Testament into Tz’utujil, a local language of that region.

Political turmoil and violence escalated Guatemala during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The government aimed to suppress Marxist revolution by targeting rebels and hundreds of their alleged sympathizers for death. In early 1981, Fr. Rother learned that his name was on a death list. It was determined that he should leave Guatemala and he reluctantly returned to Oklahoma in January 1981. However, he soon asked his archbishop for permission to go back: “My people need me. I can’t stay away from them any longer.” Fr. Rother’s brother Tom questioned him, “Why do you want to go back? They’re waiting on you and they’re gonna kill you.” He replied: “Well, a shepherd cannot run from his flock.” The pastor returned to his people that April.

On July 28, 1981, just after midnight, Fr. Rother was shot and killed in his rectory. His remains were flown back to Oklahoma and buried in his hometown. At the request of his Guatemalan parishioners, his heart was removed and buried under the altar of the church where he had served. He was one of ten Catholic priests murdered in Guatemala that year.

Last December, Pope Francis issued a decree affirming that Fr. Stanley Rother was indeed martyred in odium fidei (“in hatred of the faith,”) permitting him to be beatified without the usual confirming miracle. As St. Augustine once preached, “At the Lord’s table we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do others who rest in peace so as to pray for them, but rather that they may pray for us that we may follow in their footsteps.” Let us ask the prayers of this new American blessed that we may be courageously faithful and loving like himself in Christ.

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