WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT OUR NEW AMERICAN BLESSED?
Father Stanley Francis Rother, first American martyr
In the first biography of the late Oklahoma priest whose cause for beatification has been approved by the Vatican, award-winning journalist and expert on the life of Fr. Stanley Rother, María Ruiz Scaperlanda tells of the modern-day priest who didn’t run from danger of death.
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Rother’s Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, stated “We’re just thrilled, and grateful to God and to all those who have worked to promote the cause of Father Rother. The Church needs heroic witnesses to advance the mission of Christ, and Father Rother was truly a heroic witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He gave his life in pastoral service to his people. I am looking forward to the celebration of his beatification.”
“The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” Fr. Stanley Rother said in his last Christmas letter in 1980 to Catholics in his native Oklahoma. This might be seen today as a strong metaphor for the real meaning of the priesthood: a true shepherd of God serves and leads his flock, and doesn’t ‘run away’ by refusing to take a truthful though unpopular stand, comforting himself in luxury, or ignoring the plight or confusion of his people.
In The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma (Our Sunday Visitor, 2015), María Ruiz Scaperlanda details Fr. Stanley’s fascinating and inspiring story. The humble parish priest was true to his word and example to the end – he did not shrink from threat of death – and was martyred for the faith at 46.
[an excerpt from The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma (OSV 2015), with minor edits]
In 1959, five days into his second semester of Theology I at the seminary, 23-year-old Stanley F. Rother was told he had failed the previous semester and was sent home. That same year, Pope John XXIII published an encyclical titled, “Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, From the Beginning of Our Priesthood,” describing the life of St. John Vianney as a model for priests and seminarians.
Several of Stanley’s friends and teachers immediately saw a spiritual connection between Saint John Vianney, the “Curé d’Ars,” and Stanley Rother, a connection they likely first noted because of the French saint’s own struggles with academics. Yet the parallels between the two priests run much deeper.
Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, T.O.S.F., (8 May 1786 – 4 August 1859), commonly known in English as Saint John Vianney, was born into a farm family of devoted Catholics, much like Stanley Rother’s German Catholic Okarche roots. Like Stanley, his deepest desire as a teenager was to be a priest—yet he struggled with advanced studies, especially Latin. And so, like Stanley, he was sent home from the major seminary (at Lyons). Yet despite being considered “too slow,” Saint John Vianney had a mentor who defended his vocation to the priesthood. Abbé Bailey believed in John Vianney and encouraged him to persevere. There’s even a story of Abbé Bailey persuading the diocese’s Vicars General that John Vianney’s piety and devotion was great enough to compensate for his academic ignorance—a story that echoes Stanley’s meeting with his Okarche pastor and Oklahoma’s Bishop Reed after failing Theology at the San Antonio seminary.
Pope John XXIII wrote in his Encyclical about St. John Vianney,
“Men in Sacred Orders should gain an adequate knowledge of human affairs and a thorough knowledge of sacred doctrine that is in keeping with their abilities. Would that all pastors of souls exert as much effort as the Cure of Ars did to overcome difficulties and obstacles in learning, to strengthen memory through practice, and especially to draw knowledge from the Cross of Our Lord, which is the greatest of all books. This is why his Bishop made this reply to some of his critics: ‘I do not know whether he is learned; but a heavenly light shines in him’.”
So, too, for Stanley Francis Rother.
Saint John Vianney was 29 years old when he was ordained a priest; Stanley Rother was 28. For both men, their life vocation was living and working in a small village where they became champions for the poor, especially children. And the ministry of both men included opening a school in their villages to educate the children.
Father John Vianney struggled to be a pastor to his people in the midst of religious ignorance and indifference after the French Revolution. Father Stanley Rother was the shepherd to a people socially forgotten in their Guatemalan culture—and who had lived without a resident Catholic priest for almost a century.
Like John Vianney, Stanley Rother’s generous service routinely included maneuvering budgets and even selling things, like his own clothes, to donate to charity for the people they served. John Vianney fed the orphans of his village. Stanley Rother fed the widows and fatherless children of his own.
In this context of service and mission, it is impossible to not think of Stanley Rother alongside John Vianney, who was described the “meekest and humblest of souls” when he was named patron of “all pastors, to promote their spiritual welfare throughout the world,” and who “lived in the Church in such a way that he worked for it alone, and burned himself up like a piece of straw being consumed on fiery coals.”
John XXIII could have been describing Father Stanley Rother’s devotion to the Mass when he wrote,
“what is the main point of his apostolate if not seeing to it that wherever the Church lives, a people who are joined by the bonds of faith, regenerated by holy Baptism and cleansed of their faults will be gathered together around the sacred altar? It is then that the priest, using the sacred power he has received, offers the divine Sacrifice in which Jesus Christ renews the unique immolation which He completed on Calvary for the redemption of mankind and for the glory of His heavenly Father … There it is that the people of God are taught the doctrines and precepts of faith and are nourished with the Body of Christ.”
And instead of Saint John Vianney, Pope John could have been describing Stanley Rother and his faithful ministry to the people of Santiago Atitlán as he emphasized,
“He proved to be a tireless worker for God, one who was wise and devoted in winning over young people and bringing families back to the standards of Christian morality, a worker who was never too tired to show an interest in the human needs of his flock, one whose own way of life was very close to theirs… and all of these things show that Saint John M. Vianney reproduced the true image of the good shepherd in himself as he dealt with the flock entrusted to his care, for he knew his sheep, protected them from dangers, and gently but firmly looked after them.”
In a coincidence that seems both humorous and Providential, Pope John XXIII concludes his 1959 encyclical with a prayer, that throughout the world, the French Curé d’Ars “will stir up the pious zeal of priests and of those whom God is calling to take up the priesthood,” a prayer that undoubtedly graced dismissed seminarian Stanley Rother that year.
By any account, Stanley Francis Rother was a faith-filled, dedicated, purposeful, compassionate, strong-minded man who knew from a young age that he was called to be an ordained minister and follower of Jesus. “Stan had the kind of sanctity that I think should be and could be a model to us, in day to day living,” Father Gregory Schaffer emphasized. “The Curé d’Ars is one of the images I always had of Stan, that kind of spirituality, that kind of prayerfulness in his life… nothing showy.”
In the words of Pope John XXIII, “How could anyone help being moved deeply with a life so completely dedicated to Christ shining so clearly there before him?”
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Copyright 2017 María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda. This excerpt from The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run is used with the kind permission of Our Sunday Visitor.