Local priest celebrates Mass at site of martyrdom
Story by Reagan Scott
(SNR) – An estimated 20,000 people gathered at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City Sept. 23 to celebrate the beatification of Father Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma native, the first U.S. martyr and the first U.S.-born priest to be beatified.
Father Rother served in Santiago Atitlán at the Guatemala mission for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City for 12 years before he was attacked and killed in the parish rectory by three masked men. Father Rother was a seemingly ordinary man who served the people of his parish with great love, even unto the point of death.
Inspired by his example, a group of 10 people from the UNL Newman Center made a pilgrimage to Oklahoma City for the beatification. The group included Dr. John Freeh, director of the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, Msgr. Daniel Seiker, pro-director, and individuals who had either taken courses through the Institute or had attended the program’s speaker series.
Dr. Freeh, who attended the canonization of Saints John Paul II and John XXIII in Rome in 2012, saw the trip as an opportunity to share a momentous occasion with the pilgrims.
“A beatification is always a great moment in the life of the Church, and I thought, how often do Americans get a chance to attend such a ceremony? All saints are obviously inspiring by their lives and testimony, but we are inspired in a special way when saints are closer in time and place,” he said.
The event began at 10 a.m. on Saturday with the world premiere of a documentary commissioned by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. The piece outlined Father Rother’s humble beginnings as a farm boy from Oklahoma, along with his great love and service for the people of Guatemala.
“What was striking to us was that here was an ordinary man raised on a farm, with difficulties in school, but he was inspired by grace to be a faithful pastor to his people even at the cost of his life,” Dr. Freeh said. “The way that he has been described as the ‘shepherd who did not run’ serves to inspire each one of us to remain faithful to the Gospel and our callings.”
Marie Wathen, program coordinator for the Newman Institute, was able to attend the beatification with the Newman group and was also moved by the example that Father Rother set.
“Father Rother was an ordinary man who loved the Lord in faithfulness to the point of death,” she said. “He is a striking example of how the Lord can do extraordinary things with ordinary people in our time.”
The celebrant for the Mass was Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Bishop James Conley was also in attendance, concelebrating the Mass with his fellow bishops.
After the Kyrie, the Rite of Beatification was held.
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City addressed Cardinal Amato with the request for beatification. Cardinal Amato read the Apostolic Letter from Pope Francis, and the banner with the image of Blessed Stanley Rother was revealed.
Relics of Father Rother were then carried to the side of the altar where they were incensed.
The Mass included readings in Spanish, as well as speakers who read the petitions for the Mass in languages such as Korean, Cherokee, and Tz’utujil, the language of the indigenous people whom Father Rother served.
Dr. Freeh commented that some in the group had not seen a liturgy of that magnitude and that many were very moved by it.
Wathen said, “The liturgy was beautiful, and it was amazing that there was such a wide variety of people, bishops, priests, members of the laity and the presence of his own family.”
Indeed, Father Rother’s brother Tom and his sister, Sister Marita Rother, A.S.C., were able to be in attendance along with people from dioceses both across the country and around the world.
In fact, Father Christopher Stoley of St. James Parish in Crete was able to extend an invitation to a woman he met while studying Spanish in Guatemala last summer, Susana Juarez. Juarez helps take care of the houses that missionaries stay in while working in Guatemala.
While Juarez hadn’t heard Father Rother’s story until two years ago, she quickly became inspired by his example, especially after getting the chance to go to the mission in Santiago Atitlán with Father Stoley and Father Christopher Eckrich where the two were able to celebrate Mass.
Father Stoley said it was incredibly moving to offer Mass in the rectory where Father Rother was martyred. One of the bullets from the attack is still lodged in the floor, serving as a constant reminder.
Juarez said, “I was really impacted by him, not only as their pastor but by the fact that he did what he had to do for his parishioners. It was wonderful to be there in the chapel where he served.”
While he had previously joked with Juarez about having her come to Nebraska, when Father Stoley heard about Father Rother’s beatification, he extended an invitation to have her come to the United States for the Mass, followed by a trip to Nebraska. She accepted.
Both were grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the occasion.
“There was a mixture of emotions,” Father Stoley said. “It was an incredible Mass celebrating this great man and the work he did. If I could be an eighth of the priest he was, I would be in really good shape.”
Jaurez is looking forward to having the chance to share Father Rother’s story when she returns to Guatemala.
“I really look at him as a role model,” Juarez said. “This experience is something that will stay with me forever.”
It seems clear that after such a historic moment in the American Church, those who have heard Father Rother’s story will be long impacted by his example.
“You really got a sense of who Father Rother was as a person and his willingness to work hard in the small things,” Wathen said. “He was a beautiful model for how a pastor and all of us are called to love.”