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First American-born martyr to be beatified

OKLAHOMA CITY (SE): “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” the first United States of America (US)-born person to be beatified, Father Stanley Rother, wrote from his mission in Guatemala to his diocese in Oklahoma just weeks before his death.

“Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the kingdom,” he wrote in what is believed to be his last correspondence with his homeland.

Oklahoma-born Father Rother is set to be beatified in Oklahoma City on September 23. He was a priest of the diocese and is the first recognised martyr to have been born in the US.

His simple upbringing in a rural background did not equip him well for seminary studies, but did put him in good stead when he responded to a call for American priests to go to Central America in the 1960s.

“What I think is tremendous is how God doesn’t waste any details,” Maria Scaperlanda, author of his biography, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run, told the Catholic News Agency.

“That same love for the land and the small town where everybody helps each other, all those things that he learned in Okarche were exactly what he needed when he arrived in Santiago,” she explained.

Farm life taught him how to fix a broken down truck and labour in the fields. He opened a farmers’ cooperative, started a school, a hospital and founded the first Catholic radio station in the area, which kept contact with the more remote villages.

“It was Father Stanley’s natural disposition to share the labour with them, to break bread with them, and celebrate life with them, that made the community in Guatemala say of Father Stanley, ‘He was our priest’,” Scaperlanda said.

Locally he was known by the Tz’utujil Mayan Indians as Padre Francisco, as they had no equivalent for Stanley, so they dubbed earth-loving farmer Francis, after the saint of the environment, St. Francis of Assisi.

But the 1970s and 1980s were turbulent times in Central and South America, as well as across Asia, with national security states headed by military dictatorships enforcing their will on the people through violence, suppression and ultimately the gun.

Danger became part of everyone’s life and for Father Stanley the tipping point came in 1980, as he constantly watched friends and parishioners being abducted or killed.

“The reality is that we are in danger. But we don’t know when or what form the government will use to further repress the Church…. Given the situation, I am not ready to leave here just yet… But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it…. I don’t want to desert these people, and that is what will be said, even after all these years. There is still a lot of good that can be done under the circumstances,” Padre Francisco wrote to the Oklahoma diocese in 1980.

In January 1981, Father Stanley did seek refuge in the US, but was back with his people for Easter.

“Father Stanley could not abandon his people,” his biographer said. “He made a point of returning to his Guatemala parish in time to celebrate Holy Week with his parishioners that year—and ultimately was killed for living out his Catholic faith.”

The morning of 28 July 1981, three non-indigenous men who had been fighting the indigenous people and rural poor of Guatemala since the 1960s, broke into Father Rother’s home. They wanted him to disappear, but he refused, but not to endanger others he did not call for help.

Fifteen minutes and two gunshots later, Father Stanley was dead with his blood soaking the earth that he had trod for the past 13 years.

It is a time to remember Archbishop Oscar Romero, who died in a hail of government bullets in San Salvador while celebrating Mass on 24 March 1980, and people like Father Tulio Favali, from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), who was gunned down by the notorious vigilante group, Ilaga, in Kidapawan, The Philippines, on 11 April 1985.

His compatriot, Father Salvatore Carzedda, who was involved in dialogue with Muslim people, was assassinated in Zamboanga in 1992. Another PIME, Father Fausto Tentorio, also became a victim in Kidapawan on 17 October 2011.

Former PIME priest, Rolando Torcio, was kidnapped on 10 October 2015 and not released for around eight months. He has remained a tireless supporter of the poor in their struggle for their right to land.

Columban Father Rufus Halley was shot while riding his motorcycle in Mindanao on 28 August 2001. Archbishop Fernando Capalla described him as a tireless and compassionate peace-maker.

These men were acclaimed internationally, but the beatification of Father Rother also honours the bravery and sanctity of all priests who have suffered or died, whose names are not in the international archives.

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