A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
News of the Catholic Church is so appalling these days that it is fair to ask, of any Catholic, why are you still a member of The Church? So this Catholic will tell you a story, two stories really, of why some of us are still Catholic.
Let’s start with a question. Who killed Stanley Rother? Stanley Rother is the first U. S. martyr. He was beatified on 23 September 2017.
There are two stories of Stanley Rother, one that the U. S. prefers we hear, and the other that most Latin Americans tell.
In the U. S. version, Stanley Rother was a simple Oklahoma farm boy born in 1935. He was pious. He felt called to the priesthood. He did poorly in seminary, and almost flunked out. He was ordained in 1963. He first served in Oklahoma. Then he went to Guatemala. His parish was caught in a civil war between the rebels and the army. He died.
This version is often heard on TV, radio, in the Catholic press. It is correct as far as it goes. This story is long on his early life, his piety, and short on his missionary work. As for his murder, it’s as if no one was responsible.
Then there is this version. In 1968, Stanley Rother arrives at a 500 year old parish in Guatemala, one that has not had a priest in 100 years. He gives the village, Santiago Atitlán, a central organizing principal, The Church. He gives them “faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.”
He becomes an accidental social worker. He is a farmer, so he helps the campesinos increase their crop production. He sets-up a program that allows the peasants to buy the land they till. He begins a literacy campaign. He starts a radio station that gives lessons in reading, writing, human rights. His clinic, with its nutrition center, lowers child mortality by half.
He translates the New Testament into Tz’utujil, a Mayan dialect. He celebrates the Mass in Tz’utujil, and he incorporates local customs into the ritual. He encourages catechiststo meet in the homes of parishioners.
He shows little interest in liberation theology. Circumstances simply compel him toward the liberation of the politically oppressed, the economically enslaved.
The rebels do, in fact, come to the village once. They lecture the people. Once.
Then the Guatemalan army came to town. They stayed for ten years. They formed masked death squads. The army loots. They rape women. Catechists are murdered. Father Rother publicly denounced the army’s death squads. He protected those targeted. He set-up funds for their widows, widowers, orphans. He buried the murdered, despite the army’s command to let the corpses rot where they lay. In a letter he wrote, “Shaking hands with an Indian has become a political act.” In January of 1981, when his name appeared on a hit list, he at first returned to the United States. He prayed. One thinks of The Agony In The Garden. He returned to Guatemala. He stood with the campesinos. Just after midnight on the 28thof July, with two bullets to the head, Stanley Francis Rother, Padre Francisco was martyred.
That is the version of this history told in the village of Santiago Atitlán.
Why is this a difficult history for the United States?
The U. S. government knew of the repression of these indigenous peasants. It did nothing to stop it, and much to facilitate it. State terrorism eventually destroyed at least 440 Mayan villages. In total, about 200,000 people died, and at least 100,000 women were raped during the repression. 166,000 of the dead were indigenous. 34,000 were of mixed race.
Folks throughout Latin America know of this repression full well. As should the people of the United States. In any case, Pope Francis, an Argentine lest we forget, on 1 December 2016, confirmed that Rother had been martyred “in odium fidei“, in hatred of the faith. This assured that Father Rother would become Blessed Stanley.
Beatification is the honor just before canonization. It is easy to think of this person as a kind of celestial second stringer. However, beatification is a profound honor unto itself. Parishes and schools will be named after him. His feast day will be celebrated on July the 28th. His relics are venerated. He is assigned iconography.
Most importantly, it means that The Church declares, simply, this is the way a Christian should act. To borrow from the Good Book, he fought the good fight, and he earned a crown of righteousness. It means, simply, that The Church stands in awe that this man ever existed.
How do we tell his story? Many were furious then, and are still, that the United States backed a government that systematically slaughtered folks for the crime of being indigenous. But in the U. S., when the story of Rother is told on TV, radio, in most Catholic newspapers, you could listen and read all day and never know of this repression.
How will the story will be told? The story of the nice missionary, who just had bad luck? Or this – the first martyr born in the United States, a holy man who was murdered for the crime of siding with persecuted peasants.
How do we tell the story? We tell it with love. Because the love is what endures. Every year, on July the 28th, the name Stanley Francis Rother will be said aloud. He will be called Blessed. His love of an indigenous people will be celebrated. His life will be used to illustrate the text, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And this, this love, his love, his love will not fall out of history.
John Samuel Tieman is a poet and historian who lives in St. Louis, Missouri.
Copyright 2018 John Samuel Tieman