Tag Archives: Fr Stanley Rother

Where is your heart?

Some thoughts for this coming Sunday, based on the Gospel, Luke 12: 32-48.

“Where your treasure is, there is your heart,” Jesus tells us in this Sunday’s Gospel.


There is a legend about Saint Anthony of Padua that might surprise us. Many of us think of Saint Anthony as the saint to find lost keys; I admit I spent several hours searching for some credit cards I had hidden and prayed hard to this saint. He is also known as a wonder worker for all the miracles attributed to him.

But he was an awesome preacher who was not afraid to speak the truth. He denounced the vices of his day – not just drinking and gambling, but especially greed and usury.

One day, Saint Anthony was at a funeral for a rich and avaricious man in Tuscany. He began to cry out that the man should not be buried in the hallowed ground of a Christian cemetery. For his greed and usury, his soul was condemned to hell and his body had no heart – literally!

People were confused and astounded but they sought out some physicians who came and opened the chest of the dead rich man. They found that he had no heart.

But then some people went to the rich man’s house and opened his money boxes. There they found his heart.


When we put our trust in wealth and power and domination, these take away our heart; they harden our hearts and we live half-dead, since what supposedly moves us is dead matter – gold, silver, cash, coins, and all types of possessions. In fact, we don’t own these possessions; they own us. And so we walk about, heartless.

But there is another story that may help us see how we can live with our hearts in the right places.

For several years, an Oklahoman diocesan priest by the name of Stanley Francis Rother was a missionary in the town of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, from 1968 to 1981. He learned Spanish as well as the local indigenous language and even translated the Gospels into their language.

He and his pastoral team served the people, evangelizing them in many ways, including projects to improve the lives of the people.

But in Guatemala this was not a time to be interested in the well-being of the poor, especially the indigenous. Many were killed, villages were destroyed, indigenous leaders were disappeared and killed. Even church workers suffered disappearance, torture, and murder.

At one point, things got very dangerous for Father Aplás, as the people called him. He went to the states for a short time but returned, convinced that “the shepherd cannot run and leave the sheep to fend for themselves.” During the night of July 28, 1981, he was killed in the rectory. He was beatified as a martyr in 2017.


The room where Father Stanley Rother was martyred.

His family arranged to have his body flown back to Oklahoma to be buried there. But the people in Santiago Atitlán asked them to leave them his heart. The family assented. His heart rests in a shrine in the church.


Last year the pastor of the church I work in and I went to Santiago Atitlán, on pilgrimage. We prayed in the church, we talked to the current pastor, and we served at a Mass at the altar where Padre Apla´s presided; I read the Gospel from the ambo where he preached. We also got a chance to speak over dinner with someone who had worked with Padre Apla´s.

But one moment stands out for me.

We entered the church and noted that there were people praying in Adoration before the exposed Eucharist. We knelt and prayed. I took a picture. Later I noticed that in the front side of the altar there was a reliquary with the blood of Father Rother: Jesus in the Eucharist and the blood of a martyr below.


Where was Blessed Father Stanley’s treasure? It was in the lives of the people in Santiago Atitlán. And so, in the church from which he served the impoverished, oppressed indigenous people, there is his heart.

What do you treasure? Where is your heart?

Is your heart with the poor, the migrant, the oppressed – as Father Rother’s was?


If not, there is still time for conversion.

Where your treasure is

There are many delightful legends about Saint Anthony of Padua but there is one that should cause us to step back and examine our lives.

One day Saint Anthony was asked to preside at the funeral of a rich man who lent money at extremely high interest. We need to remember that lending at interest was called usury and considered a serious sin until the fifteenth century.

Saint Anthony didn’t want to preside at the funeral because he considered this man to be a public sinner who defrauded the poor. He noted the statement of Jesus, “Where your treasure is, there you will find your heart.”

Family members, going through the coffers of the rich man, found his heart there. Examining his body, they found there was no heart.


These questions for all of us are: Where is my treasure? Where is my heart?

I would hope my heart is like the heart of Father Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma priest, martyred in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, who will be beatified this September. He gave himself completely to the persecuted indigenous poor of his parish, even returning after he had left briefly because of death threats.

After his death his body was transported to Oklahama to be buried there, But the people of Santiago Atitlán asked that his heart be left in the church. When I visited the church in the early 1990s, I was moved to see the shrine around the heart of Padre ‘Aplas, as they called him. His heart was with the poor and there it still is.


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.


Getting political

“To shake the hand of an Indian is a political act.”
Fr. Stanley Rother

Fr. Stanley Rother was a priest – an Oklahama farm boy, as Robert Ellsberg writes – who spent many years in the indigenous town of Santiago Atitlan, serving the pastoral needs of the people.

On July 28, 1981, he was killed in the rectory by three armed men who sought to silence his voice.

Crucified Christ in Santiago Atitlán Church

Crucified Christ in Santiago Atitlán Church

From what I can gather he was not a very “political” person, like some people I know here in Central America, including some priests. But his work with founding cooperatives and training catechists and pastoral workers made him a threat to the powers of Guatemala in those days. Those rulers saw every effort to work with the indigenous peoples and to empower them as threats to their national security state.

I have always been struck by Father Stan’s statement: “To shake the hand of an Indian is a political act.”

I think this has been part of the inspiration of my custom to shake the hand of almost everyone I meet when I come into a meeting.`

Here it is customary for the men to greet each other with a handshake. But I try to shake the hand of everyone – man, woman, child. Sometimes the younger children recoil, or even cry – not having seen many gringos. But other kids just smile – a little embarrassed, perhaps.

But I consider that this simple act is a way to show that I try to respect their dignity as children of God, as my sisters and brothers in Christ.

The little things mean a lot.

Thus I have grieved when I see the reaction of some in the US to the tens of thousands of young people and children who have fled poverty or violence or have travelled far to meet up with their parents. The hate, the fear, the anger fill me with a deep sadness.

But I rejoice at those who welcome the stranger, open their churches and houses to the adolescent and child migrants who seek a like of tranquility.

Their acts are political acts – not because they are supporting a political ideology, but because they are opening their lives and their hearts to the poor, the migrant, the stranger.

And in that political act, which is really just a human act, they are – I pray – experiencing Christ.



July has been a difficult month for me. I am slowly recuperating from a bad case of bronchitis. My car has had numerous problems – brakes (twice), alternator (twice), clutch, and brake booster.

What’s almost worse is that the last week I have not gotten out to the countryside – which is what really gives me deep joy. Yesterday I did help with a workshop on Human Rights and Catholic Social Thought with campesinos from the rural areas of the Santa Rosa parish. But that’s different than being with the people where they live and work.

But this morning as I awoke – after sleeping in till 6:45 am – I had a sense that God was telling me:

I love you and I want you to share my Love with the world, with the poor.

In one way this reflects my experience in the chapel of the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi, before the San Damiano crucifix that spoke to Francis. As I knelt in prayer, I found myself asking God what I was to do.

Love. Love Me. Love My people. Love the poor.

All so simple – except when it comes to putting it into practice.

Crucified Christ in Santiago Atitlán Church

Crucified Christ in Santiago Atitlán Church

But then this morning, reading the entry for Father Stan Rother in Robert Ellsberg’s  All Saints,  I came across this request that Father Stan made to his friends, a few months before being killed on July 28, 1981, in his parish in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, a request that I make:

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.

So today I need to remember God’s love for me and ask for the love to be a sign of Christ’s love.

As Father Stan did, so do I ask for your prayers.

We are in this together.

It’s all too simple.