Have you have ever heard of Father Stan Rother?
His is not exactly a household name, and until I’d read a compelling new book about him, I didn’t know that this farmer from Okarche, Oklahoma, just might become the first U.S.-born male saint.
Often, heroes are born from hard times, and a real testing ground for heroes in the 20th century came amid the violent struggles in Central America. This is where Father Stanley Rother, a priest who served in an Oklahoma-sponsored mission in Guatemala, found sanctity among a poor, remote Mayan congregation.
He was brutally murdered by a death squad allied to the government there in 1981. Before his body was returned to Oklahoma, his flock loved him so deeply they kept his heart to venerate.
In Central America, oppressive regimes controlled by the wealthy controlled all the land and resources. They met resistance from insurgents determined to make life more equitable for the poor who lived in abject poverty. There was violence on both sides.
Many right-wing Americans suspected the insurgents might be communists. Even the church was divided, as is evidenced by the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who began his career a defender of the wealthy Catholics in El Salvador and ended his life murdered by government forces for his defense of the poor.
Father Rother was apolitical. His commitment was to the Gospel, and because of that, his life, devoted to the poor, was a red flag to the oppressors.
We’re still feeling the repercussions of those violent years. Today, thousands of Central Americans flee the gang violence and anarchy left behind in the wake of wars. Desperate pleas for sanctuary in the U.S. often fall on deaf ears.
Father Stan Rother was the lanky son of a loving family in the German-American enclave of Okarche.
In John’s Gospel, Nathaniel asks derisively about Jesus, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Maybe some might ask the same thing about Okarche. If Father Rother isn’t a household name, Okarche certainly isn’t.
And yet, Okarche was a seedbed of vocations to religious life and the priesthood, and as solid a place to grow up as any Norman Rockwell setting.
Even in grade school, Father Rother struggled with academia. He was asked to leave his first seminary after failing to learn the Latin he needed to study philosophy.
But a prescient bishop sent him to another seminary, and eventually this modest farm boy who grappled with Latin mastered the Tz’utujil language of his indigenous Guatemalan flock.
In Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda’s book, “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma,” Father Rother emerges as a man immersed in his people, traveling hard miles to pay visits, offering Masses at remote sites, regularly welcoming a beggar to his dining table.
As the political climate deteriorated, violence closed in ominously.
Father Rother’s life prompts the inevitable question, Why didn’t he leave? Understandably, many priests and religious did, knowing their lives were in imminent danger. Father Rother did return to Oklahoma briefly.
But like another martyred hero, Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who remained in Homs, Syria, long after the Jesuits urged him to flee, Father Rother stayed.
Not everyone is called to remain as he did. But he had a clear vocational sense of what God asked. Like Jesus, who set his face to Jerusalem knowing death awaited him, Father Rother was a man who knew what he had to do.
His case for canonization is now in Rome, and it will be up to Pope Francis to decide whether to proclaim him a martyr for the faith, which leads to beatification.