Awhile back, on assignment for a different publisher, I got in trouble with an editor for my writing about the saints.
This editor objected to what might be called my “colorful” depictions of martyrdoms. I gave too many details, he said. There was too much gore.
Of course, I dutifully toned down my descriptions—but the conversation got me thinking. Why do I have such a fascination with scenes of martyrdom? Why do I feel drawn to this violence?
I had to admit that the reason I was fascinated by the death scenes of the saints was not just the gore, but how it appeared alongside unimaginable peace, hope, and joy. Who sings when they are about to be crucified at a stake as the Nagasaki Martyrs did? Who guides the unsteady hand of their executioner in a flurry of ecstasy, as Saint Perpetua did? Where else but in the saints can I see such signs of Christ’s triumph over death and therefore begin to have hope for his triumph in me?
The unquenchable positivity in the face of death is everywhere in evidence in the lives of the saints—sometimes long before they actually die. The saintly bishop John Fisher, a martyr under Henry VIII, kept a skull on his table so that he could dine every night meditating on his end (a bloody but glorious martyrdom).
And two years before her own painful death, Elizabeth Ann Seton, wrote to her spiritual director, “We talk now all day long of my death and how it will be just like the rest of the housework. What is it else? What came in the world for? Why in it so long?”
Elizabeth was thinking on her death, planning for it, and frankly longing for it. Death for her was a part of life—just like the rest of housework. I cannot read these lines without wanting such peace and certainty for myself.
So, today I am going to do it again. I am going to tell the story of the life and violent death of Blessed Stanley Rother, the first martyr born in the United States. And I do it so that you and I might have hope today in our own lives—for hope is the meaning and message of Stanley’s life and death.
Stanley was born in 1935 on a farm in Okarche, Oklahoma, in the “buckle” of the Bible belt, where Catholics are a tiny minority, but a devout one. He went to the local Catholic school and served at the altar. Every night after dinner his parents led the family in the Rosary.
Stanley answered a call to the priesthood in his youth. But it turned out that he was farm-smart, not seminary-smart. Like Saint John Vianney before him, he failed out of his required Latin course. But also like the saintly Curé, his call ran deep—and others could see it. His bishop sent him to Latin summer school, and then to a different seminary, Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland. There, Stanley passed. In 1963 he was ordained for the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa (today two separate dioceses).
Stanley’s struggles made him seem a little slow and some thought he was a bit too pious. It no doubt surprised many when, only five years after ordination, he was chosen to serve in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, on a mission team which had been formed from the diocese a few years earlier in response to a call from Pope John XXIII.
It was a demanding assignment. The Catholic Church had been suppressed for several decades in Guatemala, and the people had suffered the absence of priests. For certain, the missionaries needed to prioritize catechesis and the sacraments. But the people—the indigenous Tzutujil who made up the parish—were suffering from malnutrition, health problems, and lack of education. Subsistence farming was the norm.
And so from the first, the Oklahoma mission focused on helping people get medical care and food–and then helping them grow their own. In this context, Stanley’s gifts were a boon. He constructed the rectory and a hospital and built a parish farm from the ground up. Clearing, digging, framing, wiring: he could do it all.
Yet Stanley was also constantly called upon to minister. In 1969, he began serving a satellite mission of Santiago Atitlán as well as at the main parish. He performed 500 to 1000 baptisms a year and hundreds of weddings. From 1975 on, he was the sole pastor for the entire parish—22,000 parishioners. Amazingly, in this time, the “slow” priest who could not master Latin became so fluent in the Tz’utujil language spoken by the natives that he began to translate the Bible for them. It was no small feat to craft an alphabet for a language that had no written form.
Stanley had a simple way with his people, as was clear in his ministry to newly-married couples. He took a picture of them at their wedding and afterwards brought it to their new home and blessed it. On these visits, he always ate whatever they served—even if it were grass, he joked! Not infrequently, he suffered bouts of stomach trouble from the local parasites he ingested, but he never stopped his visits.
All the while Stanley was working to build up the lives of his people, political alliances were shifting in Guatemala. The open attitude toward the Church began to change as priests and missionaries made gains in raising the situations of the poorest of their flock, the indigenous people. This did not sit well with the wealthy landowners who held almost all the power, including the control of the military.
When an earthquake in 1976 reduced the poorest Guatemalans to even greater destitution, foreign aid poured in, but it was siphoned off by those in power, never reaching those for whom it was intended. The poor began to form resistance movements to demand justice, and the military responded. Open warfare began. Catholic priests and catechists who sought to help the poor—most of whom, like Stanley, avoided political stances—were threatened.
In May 1979, Stanley’s name showed up on a deathlist. And the next year, the army moved into the parish farm he had help establish and made it a center of their operations. Priests from nearby areas began disappearing. Not long after that, a Tz’utujil native who had been the first native transitional deacon disappeared right from the steps of the parish church. Stanley witnessed the abduction but could do nothing.
Then Stanley’s name appeared on a second deathlist. At the urging of those around him, in the first weeks of 1981, he went back home. He was in the States for only 2 ½ months before the longing to return to his people overtook him. “A shepherd does not abandon his sheep,” he told his brother. He went back during Holy Week.
When he arrived in the parish there had been a lull in the killings of priests, but soon they resumed. This time, Stanley stayed put. He went about his priestly activities cautiously, but in peace.
On July 24 his name appeared on a death list for a third time. Four days later, in the early hours of July 28, three masked men entered his rectory and shot him dead. They fled. When those who were nearby reached his room, they discovered Stanley’s body in a pool of blood. They sopped up the blood with gauze and put it in jars, convinced that it was the blood of a martyr.
It is worthwhile to consider what went into this scene.
In the last months of his life, Stanley had made what we might call a “death plan.” He did not court death, mind you, but he knew that martyrdom was a real possibility. He decided that he would plan his out a bit—at least the part that was in his power.
Stanley had seen how priests and catechists had been abducted without a trace, leaving their parishioners and family members wondering what happened. Their bodies were never found—and the waiting and wondering sapped the life and energy of the survivors.
Stanley decided that if they came for him, he would put up a fight. If they had the intent to kill him, he wanted them to do it on the spot. This would prevent his parishioners that agony.
But he knew that putting up a fight would run a risk. If he cried out, if he screamed in pain, then the nuns who lived next to the rectory would come running and would almost certainly be killed by his attackers. And so he would fight in silence. He wouldn’t cry out.
It seems that it all played out exactly as he planned. The blood on the wall and the cuts on his body showed how he fought his attackers before they shot him dead. And no one heard a thing until the men were already fleeing.
Stanley Rother loved his people and wanted them to have hope. He loved the nuns and wanted them to continue to serve. He loved his flock and willingly offered his life to remain with them. And this was certainly what they experienced.
He had made one other specification. The nuns had asked him what they should do if he were killed. “Raise the Easter banner,” he said. That day, they raised the banner in the church. The jars of blood were on the altar, the blood shed for them.
Today, the parish where Stanley died is a well-spring of vocations—they are sending priests to other places. His shrine in Oklahoma City is a center of prayer in the heartland of our country. Stanley’s body is buried there. But with the people of Santiago Atitlán remain the jars of blood, and his heart.
In such death, there is nothing but Christ. “Raise the Easter banner!” From such a bloody death, hope comes. Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us!
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
Main source: Most Reverend Anthony B. Taylor, Blessed Stanley Francis Rother: The First American Martyr (Diocese of Little Rock, 2017). Image: Creative Commons.
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