The beatification of Father Stanley Rother on September 23 in Oklahoma City, which I was privileged to attend, was unforgettably moving. I feel a little like Saints Peter and John in the Acts of the Apostles when they said, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard!” (Acts 4:20). So I would like to share with you some impressions.
It was a celebration of the Church at its best, with the Church on earth joining the Church triumphant. The Cox Convention Center was bursting at the seams: 14,000 fit within it, 2,300 jammed into an overflow room, several thousand filled an overflow area around the upper deck, and another 5,000 were not able to be accommodated at all, heading to local hotel lobbies, outdoor video screens on nearby television station headquarters and other places. The liturgical music, with various choirs, was extraordinary both in terms of its beauty as well as in its participation; The Church’s One Foundation, Holy God We Praise Thy Name, Pescador de Hombres, Chepponis’ Alleluia and O God Beyond All Praising must have set records both in liturgical decibels and in chills down faithfuls’ spines. Catholics from various backgrounds and ethic groups — including Guatemalan indigenous, Latinos, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean — all blended into one body, joining 52 bishops, 288 priests, 137 deacons, 199 religious and Fr. Rother’s younger brother and sister to praise God. The joy of Pentecost was redolent.
Prior to Mass there was a 20-minute video shown on the life of Father Rother (ROW-ther) that with camera artistry and commentary brought everyone to Okarche, where he was born, baptized, grew up and farmed; to Santiago Atitlàn, Guatemala, nestled on a lake between volcanoes, where he ministered for 13 years; and into the room where in 1981 he was martyred, where his blood continues to stain the wall and a bullet hole still pierces the floor, but where now a tabernacle has been placed with Blessed Sacrament helping everyone to learn Whose love Blessed Stanley imitated there to the full.
At one point in the video, a parishioner from Santiago Atitlàn was describing Fr. Rother’s assassination in the Tz’utujil dialect and — 36 years later — began to weep with uncontrollable filial love for his slain spiritual father, and the editors just let him sob for about ten seconds, as everyone in the Cox Convention Center not only learned the inextinguishable devotion his spiritual sons and daughters have for him but wept together with him before our tears would soon be turned into joy.
When Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter of beatification was read in Latin by Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation of Saints, I couldn’t help be filled with the wonder of divine irony: that a man who was dismissed from seminary because his Latin was so poor was now being proclaimed a Blessed in the language he couldn’t master! Adding to the joy-filled irony of the priests around me — including one of his fellow seminarians from Immaculate Conception Seminary in San Antonio from which he was let go — was the fact that the Latin decree was so poorly translated. Pope Francis’ words in Latin calling Blessed Stanley “diocesan priest and martyr, missionary according to the heart of Christ, heroic witness of the Gospel and defender of the poor,” were somehow rendered, “driven by a deeply-rooted faith and a profound union with God, and by the arduous duty to spread the Word of God in missionary lands, faithfully living his priestly and missionary service until martyrdom,” a paraphrase that, although beautiful, took such liberty that it would likely have gotten us kicked out of seminary, too. All of us noted that Pope Francis’ words “missionarius secundum cor Christi,” a “missionary according to Christ’s heart,” were particularly apposite of the new Blessed, whose heart was removed and remains in the place of his Missionary work in Santiago Atitlàn.
Cardinal Amato mentioned in his homily that the day of his martyrdom, Fr. Stanley was scheduled to go to the hospital to give blood for a parishioner who needed an operation. Little did he expect how he would become a blood donor that day! Similarly Bishop Gonzalo de Villa of the Diocese of Solola, where Fr. Stanley served, told those present in Oklahoma that when the metal reliquary containing the Fr. Rother’s heart was recently disinterred in Santiago Atitlàn to be moved to an altar, people were shocked to find that his blood was mysteriously still “fresh” after 36 years.
The chalice used for the beatification was the one given by Fr. Rother’s parents and family, containing the diamond from his mother’s wedding ring, and used throughout his priesthood. I thought of all those parents — including my own — who have sacrificed to give their sons chalices for the ordination in order to contain Christ’s precious blood at the altar. Little would any anticipate that such an offering might be used to embrace Christ’s blood when their son would be raised to the altars!
The tapestry of the new Blessed revealed as soon as the formula of beatification was read beautifully wove together various elements of his life. He was dressed in a cassock and surplice with a multicolor stole, a sartorial synthesis showing — he was a priest during a time of great transition in the Church — that he was both traditional and modern. In his right hand he held a copy of the New Testament in Tz’utujil that he had helped translate and by which in some way he continues to preach the word of God. The tapestry featured plants and flowers native to Oklahoma and to Guatemala, a sign that his life flourished in both places. And in the four corners were different places in which the seed of the Word of God had grown in him: Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Okarche where he was baptized; Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md, where he was formed; Our Lady’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City where he was ordained; and St. James the Apostle Church in Santiago Atitlàn, where he passed on to others the fruit of the seeds God had planted.
I was surprised that there was a collection taken up during the beatification Mass, but the collection — introduced by Fr. Rother’s cousin Fr. Don Wolf, a priest of Oklahoma City — was for the two parishes served by Blessed Stanley in Guatemala, as a means to continue the new beatus’ work. The ushers made sure to pass the basket among the concelebrating priests and the generosity of the priests around me was edifying!
In the video before the Mass, it was mentioned that in the 400 years prior to Fr. Rother’s arrival, the parish of Santiago Atitlàn had not produced a single priestly vocation. In the 36 years since, there have been 15 priests ordained from the parish and presently seven seminarians. This is an extraordinary commentary on the Gospel for the beatification — that if the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will bear great fruit (Jn 12:24) — and doubtless a witness to the compelling example of the priesthood given by Blessed Stanley.
There was a concerted focus throughout on the fact that Fr. Rother was an “ordinary man” and an “ordinary martyr,” something that was meant to prompt all the faithful, as Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City wrote in introduction to the Beatification booklet, “to realize that holiness is nothing more and nothing less than the full flowering of our baptismal grace” and that “we are all called to be saints.” Saints aren’t superheroes, but ordinary men and women, who respond completely to God’s saving work.
There was also an emphasis on Fr. Rother as a shepherd according to the heart of Christ. His most famous words, repeated to those who tried to talk him out of returning to Guatemala after his name appeared on the death list, were, “The shepherd cannot run; my people need me.” Mercenaries flee the wolves; shepherds, rather, are willing to give their lives to protect their sheep (Jn 10:11-15). That’s why the Collect for his beatification Mass, which will be used on his feast day July 28, is so appropriate, linking him to the One who had entrusted him with his Guatemalan flock: “O God who gave your priest Blessed Stanley the heart of a pastor and the fidelity of a martyr, grant, through his intercession, that the humble flock may reach where the brave Shepherd has gone before.”
At the end of the Mass, Archbishop Coakley told those present that there’s “more work to do,” a recognition that the goal was not a beatification in Oklahoma City but a canonization in Rome, for which there’s a need for a fresh miracle. The Archbishop likes to say, as a holy salesman for devotion to Fr. Rother, “If you need a miracle, he needs a miracle!” I’d encourage everyone to join in that work, by turning to God through the intercession of our new American beatus, not just for miracles needed for ourselves or loved ones, but so that we might follow him to where he rejoices with the brave Shepherd in the eternal fold.
This article originally appeared in The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass, on October 3, 2017 and appears here with permission of the author.