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THE ROAD TO SAINTHOOD: Okarche's Father Stanley Rother to be beatified Sept. 23

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Father Stanley Rother, a priest with the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, knew his name was on a kill list.

In 1981, Fr. Rother had spent 13 years of his life serving at a mission in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala, a poor rural community of mostly indigenous people, amid violence and a growing threat from the Guatemalan civil war, which haunted and crept closer to the once-peaceful village.

Threatened by disappearances, killings and danger, Fr. Stanley remained in Santiago Atitlan to support the poor Tz’utujil Mayan Indians of his mission. He pushed back against the Ladinos, the non-indigenous soldiers who were fighting the native people of Guatemala. He had enemies calling for his head.

Although Fr. Stanley, who was born and raised in Okarche, Okla., could have stayed in Oklahoma City when he returned that year for a visit, he chose not to abandon his mission. He returned to Guatemala, knowing a price was on his head.

On the morning of July 28, 1981, three Ladinos broke into Fr. Rother's rectory, and 15 minutes later, two gunshots rang out.

Fr. Stanley was dead, killed for protecting the people of his parish.

Now, Fr. Stanley Rother will be beatified at 10 a.m., Sept. 23, 2017, at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City and will be recognized as the first-recognized U.S.-born martyr by the Catholic Church.

The beatification announcement was made by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City on March 15 after Pope Francis officially acknowledged Fr. Rother’s martyrdom in December 2016, making him the first recognized martyr to have been born in the United States.

Beatification, which will confer the honor title of “Blessed” upon Fr. Rother, is the last step to canonization in the Catholic Church, the step leading to official sainthood, said Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.

“When he came under the scrutiny of a hostile government, Fr. Rother chose to stay,” said Coakley. “He looked after the spiritual needs, but also the health and community needs of his congregation and his life and his death came to fruition there.”

Considered by many to be a once-in-a-lifetime event for Oklahoma, the beatification mass is expected to draw thousands of Catholics and members of Rother’s Guatemala parish as well.

A HUMBLE BEGINNING

Fr. Rother was born and raised on a small farm in Okarche, Okla., where he attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church and School, worked on the farm and played sports until he left for seminary.

Although fervent in his faith, Rother was a poor student. He struggled with Latin and was eventually asked to leave the Assumption Seminary in San Antonio due to his dire grades. Rother was given a second chance by Bishop Victor Reed, and he enrolled in Mount Saint Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD, graduating on May 25, 1963.

After being ordained, Rother served as an associate pastor for five years in Oklahoma but sought and received permission to join the staff at the diocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.

“Rother’s life was a very ordinary life,” said Coakley. “He was from an ordinary place and was not a man of remarkable talents. He struggled, but he was kind, generous and trusted that the Lord would give him the grace to fulfill his mission. He was kicked out of seminary.”

Father Rother’s impact on the people of Santiago Atitlan was immediate. Serving the native tribe of the Tz’utujil, who are decedents of the Mayans, Rother had to speak Spanish and the Tz’utujil language.

“This was a man who couldn’t master enough Latin to finish seminary, but volunteered to go to a place where he had to learn to not only speak Spanish but the local Mayan dialect,” Coakley said. “He also used the talents and skill sets that he had from growing up on a farm to help his people improve farming methods and techniques.”

Rother not only ministered to his parishioners but also ate with them and lived as simply as they did in one-room huts. Child mortality was at a crisis in the region and Rother established a health clinic, a radio station and a small school to benefit the residents.

But the peaceful, simple life was short-lived. The civil war between the militarist government forces and the guerrillas raged, and the Catholic Church was targeted for catechizing and educating people. Thousands of Catholics were killed, and people slept in Rother’s church for protection as death lists grew.

Rother’s name appeared on the death list after a parishioner from an Oklahoma parish sent a complaint about Father Rother to the Guatemalan embassy, saying he was advocating for the overthrow of the government in his preaching by supporting his local residents, according to the Archdiocese website.

For his safety and that of his associate, Father Rother returned home to Oklahoma, but he didn’t stay long. In a letter to the Oklahoma Catholics, Rother ended the letter with a signature quote:

 “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”

As Easter approached in 1981, Rother wanted to spend Holy Week with his people in Guatemala. He returned to Santiago Atitlan.

Around 1 a.m. on July 28, 1981, three men entered the rectory, fought with Father Rother and then executed him. The three men fled and no one was ever held responsible.

“Fr. Rother spent 13 years as a parish priest and a missionary, and he ultimately sacrificed his life for his faith,” said Coakley. “He knew his name was on a death list, but his heart was in Guatemala, where he was needed.”

A CAUSE FOR CANONIZATION

From the moment of his death, the Archdioceses of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, along with the people of Santiago Atitlan, knew that Father Rother died for the faith. In 2007, his Cause for Canonization was opened by the Catholic Church.

The primary purpose of canonization is to officially authorize veneration and intercession of a particular saint after an investigation proves the person lived an extraordinary life through the ordinary events of life, that the person is in heaven and that God is working through him/her intercession bringing favors and granting petitions to the people of God.

According to the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, in June 2015, the Theological Commission at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome voted to formally recognize Oklahoma’s Servant of God Father Stanley Rother as a martyr. The determination of martyrdom is a critical step in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s Cause to have Father Rother beatified, the final stage before canonization as a saint.

“Beatification is the final step before canonization,” said Coakley. “He will be referred to as ‘Blessed,’ which publically and officially lifts him up as a model of Christian faith. We can bring to him our needs. Once a person is beatified, he can be declared a saint once a miracle in his name has been verified.”

Cardinal Angelo Amato will celebrate the Rite of Beatification on Sept. 23, 2017, at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City. The event is free and open to the public.

THE ROAD TO SAINTHOOD

As the Blessed Fr. Rother, the Oklahoma-born martyr may intercede on behalf of Catholics to God, but the steps to become a saint continue.

According to “The Process of Canonization of Saints Mrs. Susan Northway Diocesan Director of Religious Education & Reverend Langes J. Silva, JCD, STL Judicial Vicar & Vice-Chancellor,” to be canonized a saint, “at least two miracles must have been performed after death. Canonization is a statement by the church that the person certainly enjoys the Beatific Vision.

“The saint is assigned a feast day which may be celebrated anywhere within the Catholic Church, although it may or may not appear on the general calendar or local calendars as an obligatory feast, parish churches may be built in his or her honor, and the faithful may freely and without restriction celebrate and honor the saint.”

Coakley said the investigation into Rother’s miracles is an ongoing process.

“We have several instances of people who received favors through his intercession,” Coakley said. “We will encourage people to turn to him in prayer to intercede to the Lord, and if they receive favors or miracles, to report that. In order to be declared a saint, a miracle must be verified.”

Most miracles are medical in nature, healings that cannot be explained away by medical science, Coakley said.

“These miracles are tested by medical science and tribunal of medical doctors who study the case,” Coakley said. “If the tribunal cannot find a medical reason for a healing, then it could be a miracle.”

However, September’s ceremony will honor the memory of a man who gave his life for his faith and for his parishioners.

“His parish is flourishing today,” said Coakley, who added that many members of the Santiago Atitlan church will be present at the beatification. “The Archdiocese was there until 1999 when the local church grew to a point that they were not reliant on us to provide a missionary priest anymore. They continue to flourish, and they are very, very proud. They honor his memory as a saint who laid down his life for them.” 

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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