Blessed Stanley Francisco ‘Aplas’ Rother

This September 23, in Oklahoma City, something historic and holy will be happening. Father Stanley Rother, the first native-born American priest martyr, will be beatified. 

In recent years, devil worshippers have held black masses as public relations stunts in Oklahoma City in order to offend Catholic believers and the God we adore. 

Now Catholics will be convening in far greater numbers to celebrate the triumph over evil shown in Father Stan’s participation in Jesus’ laying down His life for His friends, something that meant to strengthen us as believers and help us give God, like Father Rother (ROW-ther), the most pleasing worship of all. 

I am very happy that I will be able to be present, to share the joy of the Church of Oklahoma, the Church of Guatemala, and the Church triumphant as the one known as Padre A’Plas in the Tz’utujil language of Santiago Atitlán — “Father Francisco,” after his middle name, because they couldn’t pronounce “Stanley” — officially becomes “blessed.” 

This is the second beatification to be held on U.S. soil. The first was three years ago when Blessed Teresa Demjanovich was raised to the altars at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J. The third will take place in two months, when Father Solanus Casey is beatified in Detroit. Even as the Church in our country faces many challenges as we seek faithfully to live out our mission of evangelization, Sanctification and charity at a time of increasing secularization and social fragmentation, these beatifications — and the 99 causes of canonization in the pipeline for those holy men and women with U.S. ties — are a palpable reminder to us that God’s grace is never lacking, His gift of intercessors never exhausted, and His call for us to be holy as He is holy never expired.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City has secured the Cox Convention Center, which fits 14,000 people, so that basically everyone who wants to come can come to celebrate. It’s a beautiful gesture, one that will be rewarded by Catholics from across the state and beyond. EWTN will broadcast the Mass live at 11 a.m. Eastern time, so that faithful across the country can share in the graces. 

And there are many resources available by which people can get to know better the new Beatus. I would recommend that people visit the website www.stanleyrother.org, where one, in addition to reading a short biography and history of his cause, can order the official biography of his life, “No Greater,” a book of his letters back home to Oklahoma entitled, “Cannot Run,” and Father Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual commentary on his life and death, “Love in a Fearful Land.” Perhaps the simplest way to prepare for his beatification is to watch an excellent 28-minute PBS video on his life, “Oklahoma Martyr,” easily available on the Internet. In the last few days, I have been inspired by all of these sources.

What’s special about Father Rother? Why should all of us get to know him? I find several things about him particularly endearing. 

First, he’s anything but spectacular. Some saints have had extraordinary gifts inimitable by most, like prophecies, reading souls, lengthy fastings, levitations, stigmata, humanly unbearable sufferings, extraordinary feats and gifts. Father Rother, on the other hand, was a hard-working farmer, from a salt-of-the-earth family, who knew far more about carpentry, tractors, seeds and soil than he did about interior locutions or the history of theological disputes. He was a good steward of the gifts God gave him and like a farmer, cultivated those talents, putting them at the service of his people in Guatemala, repairing the plumbing, building and grounds of the church and rectory, erecting a school, a small hospital, and a radio station, training the locals in better farming techniques, through digging a well, installing its pump, and irrigating the fields, driving bulldozers, stopping only for Mass, prayer and teaching catechists. As Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley said about him, his “were not necessarily the kinds of talents one would have identified as those of a future saint, but he used those gifts that God gave him faithfully and generously and allowed the Lord to lead him.” In that, he’s a model for all. 

Second, he overcame setbacks in following the Lord. He could never quite learn Latin, which was essential for seminarians in the 1950s and early 60s. Much like St. John Vianney who was three times booted from the seminary because he couldn’t master the language, Rother was similarly dismissed from Assumption Seminary in San Antonio when it became clear that it wasn’t really going to improve. But a priest mentor and his bishop intervened, knowing his goodness, and arranged for him to finish at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., which now rejoices to have a beatus from the class of 1963. Little did his professors in San Antonio foresee that as a missionary Father Rother would not only, through hard work and grace, master Spanish but also translate the Bible into the Mayan dialect Tz’utujil, learn how to share the faith with them in those languages and become, when necessary, a language instructor! 

Third, he’s a model of humble manly courage and paternal priestly love for his people. Around 1980, extremist elements in the Guatemalan army during Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war started to use force and intimidation against some of the indigenous people and those who defended their rights. His catechists and parishioners began to disappear and were later found dead, their bodies tortured. They destroyed the radio station he founded to teach the locals math and languages and killed its director. In January 1981, once his name was put on a death list because of his opposition to the presence of the military in the region, he was pressured by friends, family and his bishop to leave for a time lest he become the next victim. 

He returned to Oklahoma, but his attention and heart were with the people whom he had served for 13 years who desperately needed a shepherd, surrounded by so many fierce wolves. As he repeated in various letters, a shepherd cannot run when his people need him. After three months, at the age of 46, he asked the permission of his bishop to return, and despite his family’s and others’ remonstrations, he did. Three months later, masked gunmen broke into his rectory at midnight, and, after he resisted their attempts to kidnap him, they shot him twice in the head. He was one of 10 priests murdered in Guatemala that year. 

If he had not returned to Santiago Atitlan, he could have been an 82 year-old priest celebrating Mass at one of the parishes in Oklahoma City this weekend. Instead, Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Archbishop of Oklahoma City, 50 bishops from around the world, hundreds of priests and about 13,000 others will come to downtown Oklahoma City to celebrate Mass in honor of him, thanking God for his life, work, faith and supreme witness. 

Tomorrow would be a good time for all of us to lift to God the official prayer for his canonization as we ask God to grant miracles through his intercession: “O God, Fount of all holiness, make us each walk worthily in our vocation, through the intercession of Your saints, on whom You bestowed a great variety of graces on earth. Having graced Your Church with the life and ministry of Your missionary priest Stanley Rother, by his intercession grant that this humble flock may reach where the brave Shepherd has gone. Grant that Your Church may proclaim him a saint serving in Your presence and interceding for us. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.


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