Sunday, July 28, 2013

July 28 - Stanley Rother, Martyr, Priest, Shepherd of Guatemala

Stanley Rother experienced a life quite like that of many Midwestern Roman Catholic priests. He was born in 1935, attended seminary, and was ordained in 1968 (though he struggled with Latin enough to make this a challenge at times). He served as an associate minister at a few churches before being commissioned and called to the congregation of Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala. Stanley Rother, with his heart full of love and anxiety, left the United States of America and became shepherd of a people miles away in geography and culture.

After some time, he had mastered the language of his flock: a Mayan dialect of the Tzutuhil. He was the first to translate the scripture into Tzutuhil. More than that, he offered services in the language of his flock and became greatly endeared to them. Soon, more than 3,300 people were attending the Sunday masses. Stanley did not accomplish this with flash and programs aimed at reaching the unreached but, rather, by slowly pouring his life our for those whom he comforted, baptized, buried, married, counseled, trained, taught, and assisted. When he wasn't busy about his priestly duties, he lent a hand in a field and offered love wherever he might be. Stanley did not see his life as something that was his own to hoard but, rather, a gift that he could gleefully spend on others to ease their pain and buoy them up in their distress. In short, Stanley Rother was much loved by the Guatemalan people because he loved them much. Because of this great love, he was honored with a Tzutuhil name: Padre A'plas.

Guatemala's history is rife with violence and kidnappings. Santiago Atitlán had, for many years, been a haven from this violence and the country's political distress had not stepped across the threshold of parish for some time. However, this peace would not hold once some politically minded people had determined to escalate the violence to accomplish their destructive goals. After all, the way of violence leads only to more violence and not into the way of life and peace. Stanley diagnosed the problem as such: "The country here is in rebellion and the government is taking it out on the church...The Church seems to be the only force that is trying to do something about the situation, and therefore the government is after us."

Stanley was urged to flee and return to the United States but Stanley refused saying, "At the first signs of danger, the shepherd can't run and leave the sheep to fend for themselves." He stayed and, eventually, one of the lay leaders from the congregation was kidnapped during the day by armed men. One day, as he walked through the streets, he was accosted and informed that his name was on a list of those condemned to death by the powers.He resisted leaving but, upon the advice of his friends and parishioners, returned to Oklahoma so that his flock might not be harmed because of him.

Yet, being the shepherd that he was, he was unable to stay away from the place where he belonged and where he was, truly, home. He left the chalice his parents had gifted to him with his parents and said good-byes to his family and friends. Stanley knew well that he was likely walking back into his death. Yet, As Archbishop Salatka said, "Father Stanley Rother did not go back to Guatemala to die. He went back to help his people." He left Oklahoma near Holy Week and returned to Santiago Atitlán to celebrate the Gospel story: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. In the early morning hours of July 28th, 1981, armed men broke into rectory and seized Stanley. Apparently, they were intending to kidnap him and torture him. Stanley did not beg for his life or cry out in fear or pain but, rather, told his would-be-abductors: "Kill me here." Stanley Rother died when one of the armed men shot him in the head twice. He died where he requested and where he had returned: among the people of Guatemala.

For Stanley Rother, there was no other place he'd rather be than in Guatemala among his flock whom he cared for. The powers could not stand that this one person would dare oppose them and help the people they couldn't help. With closed fists they had tried to aid the people not knowing that it was only with a peaceful and loving open hand that aid can be given to the broken. His body was returned to Oklahoma for burial but his heart was buried where it truly belonged: Santiago Atitlán.

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