An OKIE martyr

“A nice compliment was given to me recently when a supposed leader in the Church and town was complaining that ‘Father is defending the people.’
He wants me deported for my sin.
“This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm.
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 for the coming of the Kingdom.”
Father Stanley Rother
1980 Christmas Letter

Thirty-five years ago, on July 28, 1981, a priest from Oklahoma, Father Stanley Rother, was killed in the rectory of the church of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. María Ruíz Scaperlanda has written a beautiful book on his life, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run.

He, like another US missionary whom I knew, Maryknoll Father Ron Hennessey, took accompanying the poor as central to his missionary work. Father Ron lived and served many years in Guatemala and El Salvador, living in situations of war and injustice, and quietly making known the sufferings of his people. Fr. Ron died on a visit back to his native Iowa.

Father Stan, Apl’as to the indigenous members of his parish, had a shorter life as a missionary as he was killed one evening, a few days after the town’s feast of Saint James. He knew that “To h the hand of an Indian is a political act.”

But Father Stan is not the only martyr from this beautiful town on Lago Atitlán. Note two plaques in the church in Santiago Atitlán – here and here.

On January 3, 1981, Diego Quic Apuchan, Mayan Indian catechist, was disappeared and killed, Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, 1981. As he had noted to Fr. Stan:

“I have never stolen, have never hurt anyone, have never eaten someone else’s food. Why, then, do they want to hurt me and kill me?

On April 21, 1989, Juan Sisay, painter, president of Catholic Action, martyred in his home in Santiago Atitlán.

On December 2, 1990, Thirteen campesinos killed in Santiago Atitlán massacre, as the army fired on several thousand unarmed peaceful Tzutujil Mayas. Their story is told here.

It is important to remember Father Stan and to recall his witness. But we are also called on to recall the many others killed because of their faith and their commitment to the poor – in his parish, in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Honduras, and even now in other parts of the world.

And the challenge for us? How to be witnesses in our daily lives in such a way that if we are facing martyrdom we may face it with joy and love and forgiveness.


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