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The holy road: Former Mount St. Mary's seminarian moves closer to sainthood


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By Nancy Lavin | October 13, 2017

Fr. Rother with parishionersAcademics were a struggle for the Rev. Stanley Rother during his time as a student at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.

In fact, Rother came to Emmitsburg after he failed out of another seminary program, according to Monsignor Andrew Baker, the seminary’s rector and vice president.

But Rother persevered and successfully completed his schooling at the Mount in 1963. The same determination characterized his mission work in war-torn Guatemala, where he stayed on to serve the people of the poor, rural town even after his fellow missionaries fled amid escalating danger.

His unwavering conviction would also be his undoing. Rother was 46 years old when he was killed in 1981 at the hands of what were believed to be members of a political extremist group tied to the corrupt government in power. His death, deemed martyrdom by the Catholic Church, has paved a path for a seemingly ordinary man to rise to one of the rarest honors in the church: sainthood.

Though not yet canonized, Rother is the closest any American-born priest has ever come to the sacred recognition.

His beatification, celebrated last month in a Mass in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, puts him one step away from canonization. The ceremony drew thousands of people to an event center in the city — Vatican representatives, members of the Guatemalan congregation he served, and a choir of Mount St. Mary’s seminarians who sang hymns before and during the Mass.

The Vatican-certified blessing marked his entrance into heaven and lets worshippers pray to him directly for intervention and protection.

A miracle that cannot be explained by natural causes resulting from prayers directly to Rother must still be proved and certified before he becomes a saint. It could take centuries, Baker said. It might never happen at all.

But it is Rother’s legacy that serves as a source of inspiration for Baker.

In spite of the fame and acclaim Rother’s sacred recognition has attracted, Baker emphasized Rother’s humility.

“He was just a normal guy that led a fairly normal life,” Baker said. “It makes him very accessible to people because he’s such a normal person.”

The fact that Rother, a farm boy from Oklahoma, studied and prayed in Emmitsburg, makes him all the more relatable to local seminarians, priests and laypeople, Baker added.

Although Rother struggled academically, his connection to the Earth and to nature was evident at the Mount, where he tended to gardens and helped with landscaping and memorials, including those at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Seminarians who attended a retreat Rother led at the Mount shortly before his death said that it was during his prayer in the grotto that he came to the decision to return to Guatemala, despite the danger posed by death threats and increasing violence, according to the Rev. Ted Trinko, chaplain at the grotto and the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg.

“The Mount was not just where he went to school,” Trinko said. “It was something very influential in his own spiritual life.”

Mission work was perhaps an even greater influence on Rother. After five years as a priest with the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, he was appointed to a mission serving the indigenous community in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.

“It was like a fish to water,” Baker said of Rother’s mission work. “He really found a real niche.”

He struggled to learn Latin in the seminary, but mastered two languages as a missionary: Spanish and Tz’utujil, the native language of the indigenous Mayan community he and other missionaries served.

Their work centered on bolstering a faith community among the people but also included other social services such as establishing a health clinic, a school, a credit union and a radio station in the native language, according to information on the Mount seminary’s website. Amid a civil war and political division, they faced escalating threats and violence from right-wing government extremists who perceived their missionary work as treason.

The other missionaries returned home, as did Rother, for a brief period before he went back to Guatemala during Holy Week in 1981. He refused to abdicate what he saw as his responsibility to God and to his congregation.

“The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” he wrote in a letter at the time.

A few months later, on July 28, three masked men broke into the rectory, fatally shooting him.

But his death was not in vain. Not only did his willingness to die for his faith earn him recognition as a martyr in the church, his faithfulness to his missionary work also helped what was once a struggling congregation to grow and thrive, according to Archbishop Paul Coakley, who leads the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, where Rother was ordained.

When Catholic priests arrived in the 1970s, Santiago Atitlán’s Catholic congregation had been without a resident pastor for 100 years, Coakley said. There were no vocations — people who pursue the priesthood or other vocational calling — among the congregants in the prior four centuries, Coakley said.

Since Rother’s death, nine congregants have become ordained as priests, with seven other seminarians studying to become priests, Coakley said. The archdiocese no longer sends priests to Guatemala, but it still provides financial support.

Rother’s recognition as a martyr and his beatification blessing also serve as a much-needed boost for the Catholic Church in the U.S. after recent years plagued by scandal.

“The experience of the last 15 years with the clergy sexual abuse [was] demoralizing for many priests,” Coakley said. “This is a great affirmation for all of us priests, to help us with a sense of pride and confidence in our vocations.”

For Coakley personally, it was Rother’s humble beginnings that inspire him to carry out the duties of a priest for his own congregants. Coakley, who also graduated from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, was a student there when Rother was killed.

“I felt an immediate connection with him,” Coakley said of Rother.

Coakley named Rother’s determination and generosity as qualities he sought to embody in his own vocation, virtues also applicable to laypeople of all faiths.

“In many ways, I think Father Rother is kind of every man’s saint,” he said. “It was amazing to us how many people who were not Catholics came to the [beatification]. ... His qualities, I think, are universal in their appeal.”

Asked about the likelihood of Rother’s canonization, Coakley said, “I believe in miracles. People are already praying to him.”

 
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