A Shepherd Cannot Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, martyr, holy helper of the poor
If I have to die, I will die there. I want to be there with my people. -----Father Stanley Rother
Father Stanley Rother was a priest in Oklahoma. He'd barely made it through seminary, academics wasn't his strong point, but he was a wise, loving, and very competent pastor. When his diocese in Oklahoma began a mission in Guatemala, he volunteered to go there. So in 1968 he arrived in the parish of Santiago Atitlan. His new parishioners didn't recognise "Stanley" as a proper name, so his Spanish-speaking parishioners called him Francisco, and his Mayan parishioners Apla's.
He was doing the ordinary work of a missionary priest. He was not at all politically active, in either United States or Guatemalan politics, and the other priests of that district considered him the most conservative of them all. He just did what a priest does.
He offered Mass and preached the Gospel. He set out to master T'zutuhil, the native language of his Mayan parishioners, and at the time of his death was translating the New Testament into T'zutuhil. He taught his people to study the Scriptures. He expelled "Maximon," the local trickster spirit, from the parish church......
He built a health clinic in the town and recruited a community of dedicated volunteers to run it, helping to reduce the child mortality rate from over 50 percent to 20 percent, and he worked with the community on public health awareness, like boiling drinking water and wearing shoes to avoid parasites. He was a skilled handyman and practical carpenter, and he tended his own garden plot, growing his own corn and vegetables. This last especially impressed the men of the Mayan community, for, among the Maya, growing corn is a sacred task.
He loved his people, and his people came to love him.
And then, in 1980, the army came to Santiago Atitlan.
The Catholic Church had become a target of the Guatemalan military. Because the Church upheld the dignity and human rights of all people, including laborers, the poor, and Mayans, the government accused her of supporting communism. The Bible was considered a subversive work, and villagers hid their Bibles out in the fields or buried under their houses, to keep the soldiers from finding them.
The death lists began, and the "disappearances." One of the first to be killed was the head of the local radio station, which broadcast Fr. Rother's Sunday Mass, and health and hygiene programs, and news. One evening on the news commentary show, the subject was US president Jimmy Carter and the human rights policies of the United States. The radio station was ransacked, and its head kidnapped, tortured, and killed.
The terror, kidnappings, and murders continued. Dozens were killed. Diego Quic' Apuchan, Fr. Rother's lead catechist, appeared on a death list in late 1980, apparently because he had publicly called upon the police to protect people from the kidnappers. For a little protection, he moved into Fr. Rother's rectory. On the evening of January 5, 1981, as Diego approached the rectory door, he was accosted by 4 soldiers; he clung to the bannister and yelled for help. Fr. Rother and the other rectory staff arrived only in time to witness Diego's abduction.
It was only days after that Fr. Rother's own name appeared on the death lists. At the urging of his parish staff, he fled the country and returned to Oklahoma, but he was troubled in spirit. He felt like he had deserted his people under fire. For three months he struggled. He missed his parish dreadfully, and was pulled to return, to be with his people. With his bishop's blessing, he returned to Santiago Atitlan in April, in time for Holy Week.
On the night of July 28, three masked soldiers broke into the rectory and forced the doorkeeper to take them to Fr. Rother's room. Defying orders to keep quiet, the doorkeeper shouted, "Father, they are here for you!" The soldiers burst into Fr. Rother's room. The doorkeeper heard Father cry out, "No, I will not go with you. You will have to kill me here." He was badly beaten, but continued to resist being taken away, and they finally did kill him right there, with two gunshots and a stab wound in the back.
Fr. Rother's family wanted the body returned to Oklahoma for burial. However, understanding that his people in Santiago Atitlan also wanted their martyred pastor to rest among them, the family allowed his heart and a vial of his blood to be removed from the body to remain in his parish; to the Mayans, the spirit of a person resides in the blood. So the heart of this courageous priest of God is enshrined in his parish church, forever with the people he served.