Mount St. Mary’s has long been known as “the cradle of bishops.” Quite a few bishops were once students there, including four who were students during my time, either ahead of me or behind me. That list includes a former Pittsburgh priest, Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas. But now we are hoping that Mount St. Mary’s will also become “the cradle of saints.” This September, Pope Francis is going to beatify Father Stanley Rother. Father Rother was ordained in 1963 as a priest of Oklahoma City. As of this September 23, he will be known as “Blessed Stanley Rother,” one step short of being a saint.
Father Rother was born on March 27, 1935 into a farming family, but he came to understand early on that God wanted him to be a priest. He struggled to learn Latin, but his bishop sent him to Mount St. Mary’s. After his ordination, he served in his home diocese until he sought permission to become a missionary. He received permission and in 1968 went to Santiago Atitlan in Guadalupe. Although he had trouble learning Latin in the seminary, he quickly picked up Spanish as well as the more difficult dialect of Tz’utujil. That was the language spoken by the native tribe that was descended from the Mayans. Father Rother translated the New Testament into their language, even though Tz’utujil was not a written language until the missionaries arrived.
Trouble arose when civil war broke out in Guatemala, and when fighting began to reach the poor people of his region, he learned that his name was on the death list. He went home to Oklahoma City but soon returned to his people, saying, “The shepherd cannot run.” Early in the morning of July 28, 1981, three men entered his rectory to kill him. He resisted just long enough to let others get to safety before he died. His body was returned to Oklahoma City, but as he had wished, his heart was enshrined in Guatemala. On December 2 of last year, Pope Francis officially recognized him as a martyr, clearing the way for his beatification (and, we pray, eventual canonization) more easily.
Father Rother’s story reminds us that sanctity can be found in our own day and age and in our own land. Moreover, it reminds us that persecution and martyrdom are still part of our modern world. As Blessed Pope Paul VI said at the canonization of the Ugandan martyrs, “This is a page worthy in every way to be added to the annals… of earlier times which we, living in this era and being men of little faith, never expected to be repeated.” We grew up hearing it said, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” As an alumnus of the seminary that produced the first martyr of the United States, I pray that our faith may grow through his intercession. And I look forward to being able to pray, “Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us.”