In martyr’s ministry, the Gospel of Jesus ‘trumped evil,’ says priest

| Kate Blain | September 25, 2017 | 0 Comments

A reliquary holding a relic of Blessed Stanley Rother is seen during his beatification Mass Sept. 23 at Oklahoma City’s Cox Convention Center. Blessed Rother, a priest of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese, was murdered in 1981 in the Guatemalan village where he ministered. CNS photo/Steve Sisney, Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

To Father Thomas Connery, his old seminary classmate was “a big guy from a farming family” who loved music and worked hard.

To Father Alan Jupin, who was a year ahead of now-Blessed Stanley Rother at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the Oklahoma priest was “a nice guy, quiet” and struggled to learn the Latin, Greek and Hebrew required in studying for the priesthood.

To Father James Donlon of the Albany, New York, diocesan tribunal, who visited the site of Father Rother’s 1981 torture and martyrdom in Guatemala, the future saint was “one of us! A mere diocesan priest, who was called to ministry and mission, and responded.”

On Sept. 23, the man they knew took a step toward sainthood when he was beatified in a ceremony in Oklahoma City, the archdiocese where he was raised and was ordained a priest. Pope Francis recognized his martyrdom last December, making him the first martyr born in the United States.

In 1968, five years after his ordination, Blessed Rother went to the archdiocesan mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. He was gunned down in his rectory by three masked men in 1981.

Catholics in the Albany Diocese are among hundreds of thousands in several countries rejoicing that the beloved priest has been raised up in the eyes of the church.

Father Rother was only 46 when he was assassinated July 28, 1981, for preaching the faith and defending the people he served. During his beatification ceremony in Oklahoma City, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes and main celebrant, declared July 28 will be his feast day.

“How come you came to Maryland to study?” Father Connery recalled asking the seminarian in the mid-1950s, when the two met at Mount St. Mary’s.

Father Connery, now a retired priest of the Albany Diocese, thought it made no sense for the native of Okarche, Oklahoma, to travel halfway across the country for seminary formation in the Baltimore Archdiocese.

The future Father Rother just laughed. “I wasn’t good with languages, and (archdiocesan officials) thought I could do OK here,” he confessed.

That must have been true: Father Rother and Father Connery worked together with other seminarians on building up a grotto at the seminary — now called the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Both men completed their studies and were ordained in 1963.

Father Connery and Father Jupin came home to the Albany Diocese to serve in various parishes. Father Rother went to the highlands of Guatemala, where St. James the Apostle, a massive parish in Santiago Atitlan, became his home and its 20,000 Catholics his parishioners.

His catechesis and support of the locals put the priest in the middle of a civil war between Guatemala’s militarist government forces and guerrillas.

All Catholics were on the firing line. An estimated 250,000 people were killed between 1960 and 1996 in Guatemala’s civil war. Father Rother was accused of advocating to overthrow the government because he preached in support of the local people. His name appeared on a “death list” and sometime afterward he was murdered.

Father Connery celebrated Mass three years ago at Father Rother’s parish in Guatemala; 5,000 people attended the Mass.

“It was incredible,” Father Connery recalled. “This place is in the middle of nowhere,” but three decades after his classmate’s martyrdom, the people’s love for Blessed Rother has only continued to grow.

Father Rother’s bedroom was turned into a chapel. Father Connery told The Evangelist that he’d never been able to get over the fact that men had tortured and shot his former classmate. So, at 1 a.m., the time Father Rother was killed, Father Connery went to the chapel and spent hours in prayer for the three assassins.

“It did help,” he said.

During a 2010 pilgrimage to martyrdom sites in Guatemala and El Salvador, Father Donlon also celebrated a Mass at Father Rother’s church, St. James the Apostle.

“It was overwhelming,” he said. “The church was packed with native people. It was clear, the unbelievable devotion to this man.”

The reason, he wrote in The Evangelist after that trip, was that in Father Rother’s ministry, “faith trumped fear. The Gospel of Jesus trumped evil.”

Blain is editor of The Evangelist, newspaper of the Diocese of Albany.



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