On Saturday, September 23, more than 15,000 people gathered at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City to participate in the Mass of Beatification for native son Father Stanley Rother. That day Father Rother became the first man born and raised in the United States to be beatified. He is also the first martyr from the United States as well as from Guatemala, where he served as a pastor for 13 years before being gunned down by a government that despised the Church’s service to the desperately poor indigenous population.
Among the throng gathered there that day was a small group of pilgrims from Decatur, Arkansas, about a three-hour drive away. They were clad in light blue shirts which on the front read “Iglesia Católica Decatur, AR” and on the back bore an image of Father Rother. They were members of the soon-to-be-dedicated Beato Padre Stanley Rother Mission, and were proud to be the first community in the world about to bear the name of the new Blessed.
When I visited the community the next day, Sunday the 24th, they were gathered in the local Decatur school for a Mass with Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock. They listened intently to the bishop’s 90-minute presentation on the life of Father Rother—an attention which was all the more impressive for the fact that there were many children in the audience. They understood that something historic and profound was unfolding there: establishing a living memorial of a man who had given his life for the people he served.
As the members of the new parish are Central American, the connection to his life is very real and, for some, a matter of living memory. José Zamora, who is in training for the diaconate, grew up in neighboring El Salvador, not far from the city of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, where Rother ministered. He told a news reporter that he remembers vividly when the government was “killing everybody.” He said, “When I was hearing about [Father Rother’s] story, in El Salvador we saw catechists disappear, our priests were crying. It was familiar. We know what he went through.” He described crying through the previous day’s beatification Mass, moved by the story of the pastor who, in Rother’s own words, could not abandon his flock at the first signs of trouble.
All of the priests and bishops present at the beatification vested in red, symbolic of the blood of the martyrs. Seldom do they have to contemplate the stark reality of martyrdom; most reflect the attitude of one of Father Rother’s fellow priests during the period of Guatemalan repression: “I like the martyrs. I just don’t want to be one of them.”
What is stunning about Rother’s story—a story aptly told by María Ruiz Scaperlanda in her book The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run—is that he fled Guatemala and returned to his home in Okarche, Oklahoma, for time to contemplate what lay ahead for him. He could either remain in his diocese of origin, ministering in a rural parish like the one he had grown up in, or he could return to the people who had come to depend on him and love him. Seldom has there ever been such a choice so much in the shape of the Paschal mystery: a man called to go to those whom he loved, very mindful of the possibility (and even likelihood) that he would be killed. Okarche was Rother’s Gethsemane; Santiago Atitlán was his Jerusalem. He returned to Guatemala and was killed only a few months later.
As Bishop Taylor told the details of Rother’s story, I looked around the room. The members of the community were riveted. Rother had died for people like them; in a sense he had died for them. This is a community unaccustomed to being told how valuable they are, how beloved by God. On the contrary, a glance at recent news might persuade them that many of their neighbors consider them a burden. But after the Mass, the mood was joyful, exuberant. Serving plates of rice, beans, and meats, they beamed at the photographers and reporters gathered to witness the founding of a new mission church.
Most of the men of this small mission work in local chicken-processing plants, many supporting large families. Some work multiple jobs. In very many cases, they were drawn to the United States to escape violence in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, or southern Mexico. The promise of work and a safe place to raise a family stands in stark difference to the reality from which many fled. For them, the fact that a man from the United States spend his priestly ministry in the kind of danger from which they themselves escaped is enough to persuade them of his heroic virtue.
In his funeral homily in 1981, then-Archbishop Charles Salatka of Oklahoma City said of Father Rother that, unlike the image of a self-centered “ugly” American, Stanley Rother was a “beautiful American”—a man willing to shape his life according to the pattern of Christ and love profoundly. The members of the new Blessed Father Stanley Rother community have a patron and friend in heaven, one whom they—and we—will do well to imitate in our pilgrimage toward God.
Dr. Tim Muldoon is Catholic Extension's Director of Mission Education.