Missionary priest beatified in Oklahoma City

Father Stanley Rother

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — His life was short, just 46 years. But to the people of Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, whom he taught, befriended, and ministered to for 13 years, Father Stanley Rother still lives in their hearts. He was murdered in 1981, one of several priests killed during the civil war in Guatemala.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City opened his cause for sainthood at the request of Fr. Rother’s parishioners in 2007. In the last days of 2016, Pope Francis formally recognized him as a martyr, which cleared the way for his beatification. On Sept. 23, 2017, Father Stanley Rother was beatified in Oklahoma City by Cardinal Angelo Amato on behalf of the pope.

Father Rother touched countless lives during his ministry, and after his death through those who knew him. And many of those made the pilgrimage to Oklahoma City for the beatification ceremony, including several from the Kansas City area.

Who was Stanley Rother? He was born March 27, 1935, in the German community of Okarche, Okla., the oldest of four children of Franz and Gertrude Rother. He graduated from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. in 1963 and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City on May 25, 1963. Five years later, answering the call of Pope John XXIII for missionary priests, he was assigned to the Santiago Atitlan mission in Guatemala.

He was an Oklahoma farm boy, who struggled with Latin in the seminary. At the mission, he served the natives of the Tz’utujil, Mayan descendants. Father Rother learned Spanish and the language of the Tz’utujil. He opened a small hospital and radio station and started a co-op. He worked with the farmers, teaching them farming techniques he had learned on the home farm in Okarche. He also helped translate the New Testament into Tz’utujil.

The civil war between the Guatemalan government forces and guerrillas caught the Church in the middle. As the conflict raged, thousands of Catholics died. People disappeared, others began sleeping in the church for safety, and death lists circulated.

When Father Rother’s name appeared on a death list in early 1981, he went home to Okarche, but only for a few months. Saying, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” he returned to Santiago Atitlan to celebrate Holy Week with his flock.

July 28, 1981. Very early in the morning three men entered the rectory and executed the priest, shocking Catholics across the Americas. No one has ever been held responsible.

Father Rother is buried in Oklahoma City, but his heart remains in Guatemala, enshrined by his parishioners. He is the first U.S. born martyr to be beatified.

The Oklahoma farm boy and priest touched many at home and abroad. In Kansas City, several priests who had known him or known of him began speaking of him to parishioners to interest them in helping the poor and indigent peoples of Central America. Fathers Norman Rotert and William Bauman and Tom Turner began taking parish groups from St. Charles Borromeo, St. Thomas More and others to visit and build personal connections. St. Charles parishioners John and Mary Ann Glenski, Beverly Gicinto, and former parishioner Letty Baker first visited Santiago Atitlan in 1989 and along with Father Bob Kerr have returned every other year on average. Visiting the people and places known to Father Rother has been both moving and compelling. Mary Ann Glenski is working on a book about their experiences in Guatemala.

Kansas City Catholics are familiar with Unbound (formerly Christian Foundation for Children and Aging), the sponsorship organization that helps indigent peoples in Central and South America, Africa and India climb out of poverty. Founded by local Catholics more than 30 years ago, its message is disseminated throughout the U.S. and in Canada, and sponsors range from high school students to grandparents.

One of Unbound’s founders, Bob Hentzen, was a Midwestern boy who also went to Guatemala and was forever changed. Last weekend, a group of staffers from Unbound traveled to Oklahoma City for Father Rother’s beatification, there joining pilgrims from Santiago Atitlan who wanted to witness the ceremony honoring a priest they loved. Andrew Kling of Unbound shared his reflections on the day. “…An astonishing day. A profound honor to witness the beatification … an even deeper honor … to see this moment through the eyes of Unbound team members from Guatemala, who made a pilgrimage from Santiago Atitlan to celebrate with us.

“It is thrilling to know that even in death, in grief, despite the terrible violations of human rights and dignity, there can be triumph … joy, and hope lives on in the people of Guatemala and in all who draw inspiration from his example. The love he shared continues … today, more powerfully than ever.

“… we can draw strength from the example of Father Rother and Bob Hentzen, see what they saw and change our world. The love they knew is available for us – all it takes is the choice to listen.”

The declaration of martyrdom cleared the way for Father Rother’s beatification, as a Vatican-certified miracle is not required for a martyr. A miracle attributed to his intercession, however, will be necessary for sainthood.

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Monday
November 20, 2017
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph