Bishop's Column

The shepherd who didn’t run

By Bishop James Conley

In July of 1981, two armed men entered a church in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, a small town on a lakefront, in a valley between two volcanoes. It was around midnight when they entered. A teenager named Francisco was alone in the Church. It was dark, and he was at prayer.

The men pointed guns at Francisco, and asked where they could find the “red-bearded priest.” He led them to the rectory door and knocked. Father Stanley Rother answered. He was the “red-bearded priest.” He was a missionary from Okarche, Oklahoma, who had lived in Guatemala for more than 10 years.

At the time, Guatemala was in the midst of a violent civil war. There was a price on Father Rother’s head. The men pointed guns at him, and he told them “kill me here.” They shot him twice in the head. He was martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ.

Father Rother didn’t have to be in Santiago Atitlan that night. When violence broke out in Guatemala, his bishop had called him home to Oklahoma. He stayed in Oklahoma for a while, but pleaded with the bishop to be allowed to return, until the bishop finally acquiesced to his request. He told his bishop, and his family, that “the shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.” He went back to his people, knowing that he might be killed. Just a few months after he returned, he was martyred.

On September 23, Father Stanley Rother will be beatified at a Mass in Oklahoma City. I will be there, along with Bishop Bruskewitz and dozens of my brother bishops, priests and pilgrims from the Diocese of Lincoln, and thousands of Catholics from across the country. We will remember the holiness of Father Rother, and thank the Lord for the gift of his selflessness. We will pray that we might have the same courage that he did, and the same love for our mission, and for the Lord.

I have long felt a special kinship with Father Rother. He was from Oklahoma, which is a farming culture much like Nebraska, and Kansas, where I grew up. And two decades before me, Father Rother attended Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the same place where I studied to be a priest, along with many other Lincoln priests. Neither Father Rother nor I were known for getting great grades at the Mount! Priests of our diocese have prayed and offered Mass at the church where he was martyred, and seminarians from our diocese will sing at his beatification.

I feel a certain closeness to Father Rother, and I am delighted that he will be beatified by the Church. And yet, his life gives me pause to reflect on my own courage, or lack thereof, in following the Lord. We have similar backgrounds, and share a common culture and geography, and yet only one of us was called to be martyred on a hot Guatemalan summer night. Father Rother was so confident in what the Lord wanted of him. He was unwavering in courage. He walked into danger, even when others warned him against it. At the heart of his courage and confidence was his intimacy with the Lord in prayer.

How many of us would choose to follow the Lord to a near certain martyrdom? Or, if we heard that a friend believed God was calling him to serve in a dangerous mission in a violent country, how many of us might try to stop him? It would be natural to do so, and reasonable. And yet Father Rother knew what the Lord called him to do, and he proceeded faithfully and fearlessly. His bishop, and his family, and his friends, had courage, too: the courage to trust that the Holy Spirit was leading him, even when following the Lord into the violence of Guatemala was dangerous.

None of us should relish danger for its own sake. None of us should be reckless without purpose. But the Christian life is about following the will of the Lord, without counting the cost. And to do that, we need to know and hear the Lord’s voice, and we need to understand the movements of the Holy Spirit. My vocation as a bishop is to help men and women hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and to know his call, and to trust with them in the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

To trust God can be risky and even dangerous at times. It requires courage. To be courageous requires that we know the Lord. To know him requires that we pray. Not all of us are called to martyrdom, as Father Stanley Rother was. But each one of us is called to trust the Lord, and to know him, love him, and serve him bravely. May Father Rother pray for us, as we turn to the Lord, seeking the courage to do his will.

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