By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
In 2003 I was privileged to travel to El Salvador and Guatemala to the shrines of the martyrs with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers who had served in Central America in the preceding decades. The home base for our two-week pilgrimage was the Maryknoll Retreat Center in Guatemala City from where we traveled to the mountainous regions of that nation, as well as across the border to El Salvador.
This weekend I am attending the beatification of Father Stanley Rother, one of those martyrs, a priest from Oklahoma City who laid down his life for his friends, the Tz’utujil, the indigenous people of the Lake Atitlan region in the mountains of Guatemala. Following the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul VI called for greater solidarity in the Catholic Church of the Western Hemisphere, and encouraged the Church in North America to journey in faith with their brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ in Central and South America. Soon after, as we know so well, the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson began its mission in Saltillo, Mexico, while the Diocese of Oklahoma City was adopting the region of Lake Atitlan in the Diocese of Solola, Guatemala.
Father Stanley Rother became part of the mission of his diocese in 1968, and immersed himself in the lives of the Tz’utujil people until his martyrdom in 1981. Like the Curé of Ars, Father Rother had struggled mightily with his academic studies in seminary formation, and was dismissed after First Theology. But he did not waver in his desire to the serve the Lord as a priest, and with the support of his bishop, he was given a second chance at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmetsburg, Md. With the successful completion of his studies he was ordained a priest in 1963. While serving in rural Oklahoma in his fifth year of priesthood, he accepted the invitation to go to the margins as a missionary disciple to the diocesan mission in Guatemala. It was not an easy transition because he did not speak Spanish, let alone the dialect of the indigenous Tz’utujil. However, one dimension of life that he did know intimately was hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Grinding away, one day to the next, in a few years he learned Spanish, and even more incredibly, mastered the Tz’utujil dialect, proceeding to translate the liturgical texts for the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage, along with the New Testament into the language of his beloved people. The love of Jesus Christ burning in his heart moved mountains. But even before learning how to communicate with words, Father Rother’s actions spoke volumes. He worked the land with his people as only an experienced farmer from Oklahoma could, teaching them, when appropriate, more effective farming techniques that yielded a richer harvest.
Father Rother’s people loved him. Their language had no equivalent for the name Stanley, so they called him by his middle name of Francis, which in Tz’utujil became Padre A’Plas. They certainly did not think of God as a mystery that they themselves could master on their own terms. They looked at this man and others like him as visible channels of God’s presence, God’s compassion, God’s mercy. The indigenous people of that region had not known a priest for over a century, but with this good shepherd and others, they found a home in the Catholic Church.
The mission team of 12 who was serving when Father Rother arrived in 1968 gradually departed, not to be replaced. And in the years leading up to his martyrdom, he was one among his people, the last man standing, so to speak. Paralleling the mission in Saltillo, many people from Oklahoma went to Santiago Atitlan over the years. But unlike our mission which remained active until nearly a decade ago before being shut down by drug cartel brutality, the violence in Guatemala and El Salvador began decades earlier.
Civil wars erupted across Central America in the 1970s and raged throughout most of the 1980s. It was a bloody struggle between government forces and rebel groups with the former perpetrating more than 90 percent of the atrocities against their own people. Tragically, countless indigenous poor were murdered in Guatemala, along with an estimated 70,000 victims in El Salvador. Indigenous Church workers as well as missionaries from North America were caught up in the crossfire. Among the well known martyrs, whose shrines I had visited while on pilgrimage, was Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador who was gunned down at the altar by an assassin during the consecration of the Mass.
In 1980 three Religious Sisters, Ita Ford, M.M., Maura Clarke, M.M., Dorothy Kozel, O.S.U. and a Lay Missioner, Jean Donovan were raped and murdered by members of the Salvadoran National Guard. In 1989 El Salvadoran soldiers broke into the living quarters of the Jesuit priests at Central American University in San Salvador and executed six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her daughter. They were Fathers Ignacio Martin-Baro, S.J., Segundo Montes, S.J., Juan Ramon Moreno, S.J., Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, S.J., Amando Lopez, S.J., Juan Ramon Moreno, S.J., Elba Ramos, their housekeeper, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina Ramos.
The dark clouds of reckless hate had reached the mountainous region of Lake Atitlan in the mid to late 1970s and the steady stream of abductions, murders and tortured remains went unabated in the ensuing years. In 1980 Father Rother was warned that his name was at the top of the death squads’ list and for a time he returned to the safety of his native Oklahoma. But he was tormented by the number of his beloved Tz’utujil people who were being mowed down by ruthless forces while he was far from harm’s way. With his bishop’s permission and the pained blessing of his family and friends, Father Rother returned for Holy Week, 1981.
His people rejoiced to embrace their shepherd once again. He gave them heart and hope. But the threats against his life only intensified. At night on July 28, 1981, three armed assassins broke into his rectory intending to abduct and torture him, before killing him and disposing of his body. Dying for his people was a sacrifice he was willing to make, but he had promised that he would not allow them to take him alive to torture and to throw away. For 15 minutes he fought them off with his bare fists, and realizing that they were not going to take this farm boy by force, they shot him in the head at point blank range. He was one of ten priests who was murdered in Guatemala in 1981.
There was an outpouring of grief in the immediate aftermath, but there was not an eruption of violence. During the funeral preparations Father Rother’s parents and family stated their intentions to bury his remains in the family plot in Oklahoma. His Tz’utujil family respectfully asked if they might keep his heart in Santiago Atitlan in their parish Church. They interceded that he had given them his heart in life; and with his heart they would cherish him in death. To this day it is encased at the back of Santiago Atitlan, the Church where his people faithfully ask his intercession when entering and leaving the house of the Lord that he had restored lovingly and ably during his years of service.
The following is a refection by Henri Nouwan who visited Atitlan two years after his martyrdom. “Stan was killed because he was faithful to his people in their long and painful struggle for human dignity, dying for them in whom he recognized the face of the suffering Lord. Stan stood with them as they learned how to read and write, sought proper nutrition and health care for their children, struggled to acquire small pieces of land to cultivate, and gradually free themselves from the chains of poverty and oppression. Martyrs are blood witnesses of God’s inexhaustible love for his people. We honor martyrs because they are the signs of hope for the living Church, they are reminders of God’s loving presence.”
Let us not forget the victims of such unspeakable violence, and grinding poverty, many who are forced to flee their homeland, then and now.
(Editor’s note: Bishop Joseph Kopacz is scheduled to attend Father Stanley Rother’s beatification ceremony in Oklahoma City Saturday, Sept. 23. Those who wish to know more about Father Rother can check out his biography, “The shepherd who didn’t run, Stanley Rother, martyr from Oklahoma,” by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda.)