Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Being Ever Present: The Shepherd Who Didn't Run



by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda

Father Stanley Rother was a priest of Oklahoma. Murdered while serving as a missionary in Guatemala, he is a martyr of the Church (and here) who will be beatified in a ceremony in Oklahoma City on September 23, 2017. This news is tremendously exciting for those of us in close proximity to Oklahoma and should be for all the American faithful as he will be the first American diocesan priest to be beatified.

After a little consideration, I decided I should see if there was an adequate book for First Son to read in Level 4 for the Catholic saints and martyrs, as suggested by Mater Amabilis™.

I think it would have been helpful to have a list of pronunciations in the front of the book. Many of the Guatemalan names, places, and words are Spanish, so they are probably familiar enough to Americans. The Mayan words are much more difficult, though they are usually defined in the book and easily "hummed" over.

Rother - row-ther
Okarche - oh-car-che (Father Stanley's hometown in Oklahoma)
Tz’utujil - dz- oot oo hēēl - I found a document that showed this pronunciation; this seems to match what I remember Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley saying when I heard him speak on Father Rother.

The first chapter is really more of an introduction (even though there's a separate introduction), with the narrator appearing not just as a voice, but as an integral character. The story switches focus to Father Rother in the second chapter, one that develops his character by describing how his great-grandparents migrated to Oklahoma and what life was like for them. The author does an excellent job showing how they survived in a difficult land through a difficult time.
This text is not meant to be a comprehensive collection or a definitive presentation on his life, or his death, or his cause for canonization. This book is meant to honor the faith and faithfulness of Stanley Francis Rother -- Padre Apla's -- as brilliant ray of light in the midst of a very dark period in the history of Guatemala and the Americas.
Apla's means Francis, the name Fr. Rother used because it was easier than Stanley in both Spanish and the Mayan dialect. Despite struggling with both Latin and Spanish, Fr. Rother devoted himself to successfully learning Tz-utujil. It doesn't take much of an internet search to discover for yourself how complicated the language is.

Fr. Rother's life as a missionary in Santiago Atitlan began with a group, and their discussions about how to live within the community introduce complications missionaries still face in walking the line between cultures, how much to become like those we evangelize and how to avoid imposing our culture while still teaching what may be new and yet necessary for health and safety as well as the faith.

The book quotes extensively from letters from Fr. Rother to his family and friends in the United States or in other missionary posts. He wrote one year after Easter about the Holy week liturgy at Cerro de Oro, one of the missionary parishes he served. 
The people elected to go back to the top of the Cerro again this year as last and it took 45 minutes to climb. It is the "hill of gold" and has special significance for them and their Mayan background. There are even timeworn stone carvings up there. We vested and just then the sun came up. All turned to the sun and adored it a few moments... (As Father Jude Pansini later explained, the "adoring" of the sun was adoration of the risen Jesus Christ, symbolized by the sun.) We then renewed our baptismal vows by having water poured on the heads of all... Before this, the lake was blessed from our lofty position about 1,000 feet above it.
The surge of support from Oklahoma dwindled over time. After beginning his mission as one of a team of twelve, Fr. Rother eventually found himself alone at Santiago Atitlan. He was undeterred and content.
"This kind of work, I hope, will be given special consideration for length of tenure. Maybe they'll let me retire here," he concluded. "I would stay if all support from Oklahoma were stopped."
Father Boyer was one of many visitors that trickled in and out of the mission over the years. He visited with Archbishop John Quinn in 1975. 
"He didn't go there to do anything. He went there to be there, with the people," Father Boyer emphasized. "And because he was there, other things happened ... like the school, and the clinic, and farming the fields."
The author recounts events leading up to his martyrdom, including some horrible attacks on members of the church as persecution by the government and guerrilla fighters intensified. These are disturbing, of course, but their descriptions are appropriate to the events and not exaggerated or glorified. Writing to his bishop in September 1980, Fr. Stanley showed he understood the dangers he faced.
Given the situation, I am not ready to leave here just yet. There is a chance the Government will back off. If I get a direct threat or am told to leave, then I will go. But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it. Like the priest in the neighboring parish said to me, "I like martyrs, but just to read about them." 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.
He did travel to Oklahoma when he learned his name was on a list of targeted men, but he couldn't stay long. His heart was with his people at Santiago Atitlan.
The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. 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. 
It is almost described as a time during which he said goodbye to those he loved in the States. His sister, who belongs to a convent in Kansas, remembers talking with him during this last visit home. She said, "So, don't go."
Remembering his simple reply, "But I have to," Sister Marita says now, "And that was it. I knew enough about God's working to know that when it's there, you've got to do it."
The scene of Fr. Stanley's martyrdom is described starkly and is a gruesome one. If you are concerned for a gentle or young reader, you can find it on pp. 217-218.

There are quite a few little typographical errors that should have been caught by a copyeditor. To be honest, I worried a book from Our Sunday Visitor would be inadequate as a school book as I feel like their offerings are often inconsistent. This book, however, is excellent.

The author allows Father Stanley to speak for himself often through his letters. She shows restraint in describing the process for his canonization. (At the time it was published, he had not yet been declared a martyr.) Father Stanley's struggle to become a priest, his love for the people of his parish in Guatemala, his determination to learn their language and truly live with them, and his willingness to experience their fear even until death...all these aspects of his life speak to our modern lives. He is truly a Catholic hero.
By constantly striving to deliberately be present to the people in front of him, to the needs in front of him, Father Stanley proclaimed a God who lives and suffers with his people. For Father Stanley, the choice to die for his Tz'utujil was a natural extension of the daily choice he made to live for them, and in communion with them. His death was nothing less than a proclamation of God's love for the poor of Santiago Atitlan.

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