24 September 2017

Homily - 24 September 2017 - On Blessed Stanley Francis Rother

The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
On Blessed Stanley Francis Rother

Dear brothers and sisters,

Yesterday in Oklahoma City, His Eminence Angelo Cardinal Amato, S.D.B., Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in the name of His Holiness Pope Francis, raised the Venerable Servant of God Stanley Francis Rother, priest and martyr, to the dignity of the altars and named him Blessed. The ceremony of beatification is important for us, not only because we have another intercessor among that great “cloud of witnesses” in heaven who show us how to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, but also because Blessed Stanley is the first martyr born in these United States of America and the first American priest to be beatified (Hebrews 12:1).

A “man of noble heart” who “did not spare himself,” Blessed Stanley was born in Okarche, Oklahoma on March 27, 1935 to Franz and Gertrude Rother.[1] He had what might be called a typical American childhood. Growing up on a farm, he did his chores, went to school, played sports, and served Mass at his home parish of Holy Trinity. While in high school, he discerned a call to the priesthood.

Because of difficulties with Latin, his first attempt in the seminary was unsuccessful, but he would not let this deter him. He turned “to the Lord for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving” (Isaiah 55:7). After a second go at the seminary, he was ordained a priest on May 25, 1963.

He ministered in Durant, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City for five years before he joined the missions in the remote village of Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala where he very quickly connected with the descendants of the Mayans. He had to master Spanish and the native tongue, which he did by God’s grace, and translated the New Testament into Tz’utujil, which at that time was not yet a written language.

Blessed Stanley Francis Rother, priest and martyr
He put the skills he learned growing up on the farm to work in Santiago Atitlan and won the affection of the people, but not of the government. Because of her insistence on catechizing and teaching the people, the Catholic Church was caught up in a civil war during which Catholics slept in churches for safety and catechists disappeared.

In the midst of this strife, he knew that “helping these people could very easily be considered as subversive by the local government.” His expectation proved true and, after thirteen years of minister in the poor village, a parishioner complained to the government about Father Stanley’s preaching, his name was placed on a death list. His Bishop soon ordered him to return to Oklahoma, but Father Stanley protested, saying, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” but his Bishop would not relent.

He obediently left Guatemala for Oklahoma in January of 1981. His heart, however, longed to be with his flock in Santiago Atitlan and he received permission to celebrate Easter with them. He returned in April of 1981 and during the early hours of July 28, 1981, three men entered his rectory and killed him. To this day, no one has been charged with his martyrdom. His body was returned to Oklahoma, but his heart was kept in Santiago Atitlan.

Pope Francis called Blessed Stanley a man “who was driven by a deeply-rooted faith and a profound union with God” and set his liturgical memorial on July 28, “the day of his heavenly birth.”[2]

In Blessed Stanley Rother we see a man who could say with Saint Paul, “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21). When he returned to Santiago Atitlan, he knew well the danger, yet he still returned. He lived a life of faith, of courage, and of love. His example shows us that a love for God and neighbor can be instilled first in the ordinary things of life; he shows us the importance of perseverance coupled with prayer; and, above all, he shows us the beauty and power of a generous and selfless love of others, no matter the cost. We are not all called to be martyrs, but that does not mean we cannot learn from the example of Blessed Stanley.

If a shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger, it means that holiness is found by doing our duty, by attending to the daily affairs of life, by being faithful in what is ours to do. If we do not run from our duties at the first sign of danger, or difficulty, or even boredom, we, too, will have noble hearts and will not spare ourselves in the service of others. May he intercede for us and teach us to fulfill the commands of the love of God and of neighbor. Amen.

[1] Angelo Cardinal Amato, Homily, 23 September 2017. In Bill Sherman, “Former Tulsa Priest Father Stanley Rother Advances toward Sainthood,” Tulsa World, 23 September 2017.
[2] Pope Francis, in Angelo Cardinal Amato, Homily, 23 September 2017. In Bill Sherman, “Former Tulsa Priest FatherStanley Rother Advances toward Sainthood,” Tulsa World, 23 September 2017.

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