By Bishop Greg Kelly
Special to The Texas Catholic
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Mass for the Beatification of Father Stanley Francis Rother took place at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City on Sept. 23. Over 15,000 attended. Father Rother was a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City who was martyred in Guatemala in July of 1981. He is the first martyr born in the United States to be beatified and the first priest.
A few blocks away from the convention center is the Oklahoma City Museum and the site of the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh. One hundred sixty-eight were killed in that blast, including three unborn children. They are represented by 168 chair-like structures on the grassy field where the building stood, each bearing the name of one of the victims. The eastern entrance to the site bears the notation of the time of the minute before the blast: 9:01; the western entrance, the minute after: 9:03. The museum portrays the dramatic story of the events of that day and of the days that followed. There is a smaller memorial with a large white statue of Jesus weeping located across the street on the site where the rectory of a Catholic church stood. It was also destroyed in the blast.
Father Rother worked in Santiago Atitlan in the mountains of Guatemala for 13 years, from 1968 until July 28, 1981 when he was killed by three unknown assailants in the early hours of that day. He had gone back to Oklahoma in the spring of 1981 when his name appeared on a death list. He returned shortly after saying that the shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. His flock was in danger and members were disappearing and being killed and he felt compelled to remain with them in their hour of suffering, offering the gift of his life. The crowd that gathered for his Mass of Beatification included his sister and brother and other members of his family.
Around both stories swirled accounts of great suffering and sorrow. Both remain stories of tragedy, senseless violence destroying human life. At the same time there is woven into both stories the mystery of the resurrection and the new life promised by Jesus to his disciples and meant to be good news for all. Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel speaks of the “infinite creativity” of the Holy Spirit who is capable of intervening and bringing good out of evil by his power (#278). The Holy Father writes of the way in which the resurrection is at the heart of human history. “The kingdom is here, it returns, it struggles to flourish anew. Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history, for Jesus did not rise in vain” (#279).
The actions of Timothy McVeigh, the actions of the three unknown assailants who killed Father Rother, caused great suffering and grief. They remain evil actions. Yet woven into the very fabric of these events is the infinite creativity and power of God’s Holy Spirit, the mystery of the resurrection, bringing good beyond measure out of these events “for Jesus did not rise in vain.”
These seeds are already seen in the wake of the bombing: the stories of the heroism of the first responders and others who risked their lives in rescue attempts; the creation of the beautiful, serene memorial to the victims; the renewal of faith and commitment among the people of the city; the struggle with forgiveness and reconciliation.
I remember years ago listening to Bud Welch speak about his sorrow at the loss of his 23-year-old daughter Julie, his anger and desire for revenge, how he worked through that and went to meet the father of Timothy McVeigh, to meet him as another suffering parent who had lost a child.
These seeds were also present in the beatification Mass, in the outpouring of joy and affection and pride in this priest, Father Stanley Francis Rother of Okarche, OK, a diocesan priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. The very existence of that celebration Saturday morning had its origins in the events of July 28, 1981.
In the years since his death, there have been nine men ordained from the parish of Santiago Atitlan where he served; in the previous 450 years, there were none.
Out of the infinite creativity of the Holy Spirit, out of the resurrection of Jesus woven into the history of this tragedy and every tragedy, new life has come and will continue to come to the family of Stanley Rother, to the church of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, to the Catholic Church in the United States and in Guatemala; to priests in particular.
All of us have now a new icon of the power and courage of Christ, the Good Shepherd who never ran from his sheep, who laid down his life for us, and who, in sending Father Stanley Francis Rother, sent a humble ordinary man, a priest, to “fill up what was lacking” in his own suffering (Cf. Colossians 1:24), sent a shepherd to live and die among the people of the village and parish of Santiago Atitlan, to incarnate for them, the love and the courage of the Good Shepherd himself.
Blessed Stanley Francis Rother, pray for us.
Bishop Greg Kelly is the auxiliary bishop and vicar general of the Diocese of Dallas. Bishop Kelly and Bishop Edward J. Burns attended the Sept. 23 Mass for Beatification in Oklahoma City.