Sooner Catholic by Most Reverend Paul S. Coakley:
I first became acquainted with the life of Father Stanley Rother when I was a seminarian at Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. Shortly after our return to the seminary in the fall of 1981, we gathered at St. John’s Well to place a bronze plaque in a garden that seminarian Stan Rother used to tend while he was a student at the Mount in the early 1960s. His parents, Franz and Gertrude, and his blood sister, Sister Marita, honored us by their presence that autumn afternoon.
That visit took place only a few months after Father Rother had been brutally slain in the rectory at his parish of Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala on July 28, 1981. It was one of the first of many public testimonials that would follow through the years bearing witness to the faith and heroic pastoral charity of this dedicated priest, missionary and martyr of Oklahoma.
Since that day I have always experienced the attraction of Father Stanley Rother. When I first learned that I had been appointed Archbishop of Oklahoma City, even before it had been made public, I made a personal pilgrimage to Father Rother’s home parish in Okarche to pray at a shrine in his memory on the beautiful grounds of Holy Trinity Parish. I asked his intercession to help me be a good shepherd, as he had been a good shepherd. When Father Rother had learned that his life was in danger from the civil war raging around him, a brutal war that had already claimed the lives of many of his poor parishioners, he chose not to abandon his flock. “A shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” he had said.
For the last several months I have been writing on various aspects of the call to holiness. As baptized members of the Church, we are all called to be holy. We are called to become saints. Our generous response to this call is fanned into flame when we experience holiness in others. We need guides to give us hope and encouragement. The saints provide us with real flesh and blood evidence that holiness is possible in every walk of life. They show us what a human life fully transformed by the power of grace and conformed to Christ looks like. Father Stanley Rother has been such a guide for me. The life of Servant of God Father Stanley Rother is currently under investigation by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. After further exhaustive study, this congregation will recommend to the Holy Father whether or not Father Rother is worthy to be declared a martyr and saint of the Church.
Last month I had the privilege of traveling as a pilgrim to Santiago Atitlan with 38 others from Oklahoma and Arkansas to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Father Stanley, or Padre A’Plas, as the native Tzutuhil called him. Like everyone in our group, I was struck by the stunning beauty of the cloud-shrouded volcanic mountains of those Guatemalan highlands, by the crystal waters of Lake Atitlan, and especially by the beautiful smiles of the children. But what was most clear and striking to me was the fervent faith of the parishioners, and the beautiful evidence of their devotion to their beloved pastor, Padre A’Plas, who laid down his life for his flock.
Tertullian, an early Christian writer, wrote, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” It will be up to the Holy Father to determine whether one day we can officially honor Father Stanley Rother with the title of saint and martyr, but there is no doubt in my mind that the blood he shed in laying down his life for his flock, continues to bring forth good fruit and an abundant harvest of faith.
* The Most Reverend Paul S. Coakley is the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.