This coming Saturday, September 23, Father Stanley Rother, a native of Okarche, Oklahoma, is being beatified in Oklahoma City. He will become the first US born priest to be beatified and the first US born martyr to be beatified.
In the seminary, Stanley Rother had difficulty with Latin and was asked not to return after his first year of theology. Fortunately, our bishop found another seminary that would take him, Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, MD. With extra coaching, he completed his training and was ordained a priest in 1963. Five years later, he received the call to serve in the Oklahoma mission in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.
Through the years, Father Rother learned Spanish and the local Tzutuhil dialect, served the people with devotion, and was deeply loved by the parishioners. As a priest who had difficulty with Latin, he was able to translate the New Testament into Tzutuhil so that his people could have access to the scriptures. Political unrest swept the country in the 1970’s and in 1980 four priests were killed in Guatemala. Rother watched as catechists and other parishioners disappeared, were tortured, and found dead.
In his Christmas letter of 1980, Father Rother wrote: “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.” Nevertheless, as conditions worsened, he came back to Oklahoma. After a short time, despite the danger, he returned to the mission because of his love for the people.
On the night of July 28, 1981, three men entered the rectory and shot Father Rother. Father Rother’s heart is buried in the church in Guatemala and his body is buried in Oklahoma. The official cause for beatification was begun in October 2007.
At the time of his death, I was in Minnesota with classmates from St. John’s Seminary, celebrating our fifth anniversary of priestly ordination. Upon my return to Oklahoma City, I assisted Archbishop Charles Salatka in planning the funeral. As we looked at the choices of texts in the Sacramentary, we first looked at the Prefaces of Christian Death usually used at funerals. I then turned to the Preface for Martyrs and showed it to the archbishop. He immediately said that it was the one to use:
“Father Stanley Rother followed the example of Christ,
and gave his life for the glory of your name.
His death reveals your power shining through our human weakness.
You choose the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Last summer in 2016, I was in Santiago Atitlán on the 35th anniversary of Fr. Rother’s death. I had made similar visits on other anniversaries, starting with the 10th anniversary. The huge number of people gathered for the outdoor Mass in 2016 was remarkable, much bigger than any other anniversary. Many of these people at Mass were not even alive when Fr. Rother was killed. The love of Father Rother and devotion among the local people has continued to grow in the new generations that have come after Rother’s death.
For the last several months, I have been working with many others to prepare for the Beatification Mass which will be held at the Cox Convention Center Arena, a venue holding about 14,000. The Beatification Choir will be made up of 178 musicians from 27 parishes. There will several other choirs. A Hispanic choir, Vietnamese choir, and a Gospel choir will sing before the Mass, along with the Mount St. Mary Seminary Schola. As a way to unify the assembly, we have invited parishes to prepare for the Mass by learning a bilingual English/Spanish setting of the “Holy, Holy,” the “Memorial Acclamation,” and the “Amen,” all taken from Peter Kolar’s Misa Luna. Even in my parish which does not offer a Spanish Mass, the acclamations were learned quickly by our congregation and choirs. We hope to continue to use the acclamations with some regularity.
We are very excited as we prepare for the Beatification. Please keep all involved in your prayers. May the life and death of Blessed Stanley Rother draw many others to a deeper love for Christ and for their neighbor.
Rev. Stephen Bird is director of the Office of Worship and Spiritual Life of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and is pastor of the Church of the Epiphany of the Lord in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of St. John’s University / School of Theology and Seminary.