Persecuted Christians // Reverend Stanley Rother

For all the saints who from their labors rest, who Thee by faith before the world confessed; Thy name, Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, Alleluia!

For in secret the holy children of good people offered sacrifices, and with one accord agreed to the divine law, so that the saints would share alike the same things, both blessings and dangers; and already they were singing the praises of the ancestors.Wisdom 18:9

In September 2015 I was privileged to attend the World Congress of Families in Philadelphia which was also Pope Francis first visit to the United States. It was a time of great excitement as I walked among the thousands of Catholics filling the streets and conferences going on in downtown Philly.

During an intermission between talks, moving from one conference area to another I was stopped by a religious sister. She was minding the booth for what seemed to be for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma. The good sister handed me a card and said’ please would you pray through the intercession of this priest whose picture was featured on the prayer card. “We sense he will be recognized as a saint.”

Now I have to admit my focus had been on getting to my next talk among the crowds of people. But when I began to focus on what she was saying I also began to focus on the small booth and its pictures that were telling a story. And so this would become my first introduction to Father Stanley Francis Rothner, priest and martyr.

Fast forward to December 2016 when Pope Francis officially acknowledged Father Stanley Francis Rothner’s martyrdom, making him the first recognized martyr to have been born in the United States. A martyr in its original meaning means “witness.” One who suffers for the sake of a principle, who sacrifices his life, his station or what is of great value to him. 

An Oklahoma farm boy, Father Stanley Francis was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Oklahoma and Tulsa in May of 1963.

Surrounded by good priests and a vibrant parish life, Stanley felt God call him at a young age. He was the oldest of four children growing up on a farm in a small rural town in Oklahoma. It is said there was nothing in his childhood that would indicate he would someday be on the road to canonization.

Despite a strong calling, the path to his priesthood was not easy. He would struggle while in the seminary, failing several classes and was sent out of the seminary due to those struggles in learning. Upon hearing of his struggles Father Rothner’s fifth grade teacher, Sister Clarissa Tenbrick, wrote to him encouraging him not to give up.

She reminded him of the patron saint of priests St. John Vianney, who also had struggled in the seminary. This empowered him and he sought counsel of Bishop Victor Reed. It was decided he would be allowed a second chance. He was enrolled at Mount Saint Mary seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland and through trials and struggles he was ordained a priest.

During the time he was in the seminary St. Pope John the 23rd asked the churches of North America to send assistance and establish missions in Central America. The diocese of Oklahoma and Tulsa answered the call and established a mission in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala.

As an associated pastor Fr. Stanley served five years in Oklahoma than heeding the call of Pope John sought and received permission to join the staff at the Diocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, he would spend the next 13 years of his life.

When he arrived at the mission the Tz’utujil Mayan Indians in the village took to calling him “Padre Francisco” after his baptismal name of Francis. Fr. Stanley was beloved among the people. He was known for his kindness, selflessness, joy and attentive presence among his parishners. He would use his knowledge of farming to help the people of Santiago Atitlan learn to cultivate their land, providing them with a means of survival.

Over the years, civil war broke out in Guatemala but the people of Santiago along with Fr. Stanley never dreamed it would come to their village. Disappearances, killings and danger soon became a part of everyday life, but Padre Francisco remained steadfast and supportive of his people.

In 1980-81 the violence escalated to an almost unbearable point. In a letter to Oklahoma Catholics during what would be his last Christmas, Fr. Rothner relayed to people back home the danger his mission faced. These are his words;

“the reality is that we are in danger. But we don’t know when or what form the government will use to further repress the church….given the situation, I am not ready to leave here just yet. But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here then so be it…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 ended his letter with what would be his signature quote; “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 to the coming of the Kingdom.”

In January 1981 Fr. Rothner’s name appeared on a death list. He was returned to Oklahoma for a few months, but as Easter approached, he wanted to spend Holy Week with his people in Guatamala.  It was a short stay when he returned. On July 28, 1981 he was killed in his rectory, he was 46 years old.

Fr. Stanley lived the light of his baptism, the light of compassion. The light that illuminates from the gospel that fueled his faith, his perseverance in his priesthood with simplicity in joy and love.

 Pope Francis used a phrase when speaking about Fr. Stanley, “He loved to the extreme limit”, the love lived out by martyrs. Fr. Stanley’s love made God presence real, tangible, to the people in his life, by living loving and giving himself completely.

On September of this year he was elavated to "Blessed during a special ceremony held in Oklahoma city, Oklahoma.. I recently was fortunate to visit Holy Trinity Church in Okarche, Oklahoma not only where Fr. Stanley had been baptized, gone to school, served and been a priest but also where presently some of his relics are encased. Also on display are his vestments, chalice, and other personal items.  On his death the people of Santiago Atitlan, in Guatamala requested Fr. Stanley’s heart be removed from his body and encased in the parish where he served as priest missionary. The people could not bear his leaving them. And so the request was granted. The biographical information I shared with you and more can be found if you go to the website:Rothnerguild.org

“Blessed Stanley Francis Rothner, Pray for Us”

To Jesus through Mary-Susan Sabahi

 Father Stanley

Father Stanley

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