“They killed our priest,” the elderly woman sobbed, on her knees and absorbed in grief. “He was my priest, our priest. . . . He spoke our language.” The people of the remote Guatemalan village of Santiago Atitlan had come out to their church as soon as they heard the news. Armed gunmen had entered the rectory in the middle of the night, where they had beaten their missionary priest, Fr. Stanley Rother, and shot him dead.
Rother had come to Guatemala in 1968. And in thirteen years, he went from being an awkward outsider to a respected elder and a father to them all.
Called to the Priesthood. Stanley Francis Rother was born in 1935 to a devout German farming family in rural Oklahoma. The eldest of four children, he knew what hard work meant. If something broke on the farm, Stan fixed it. If something needed to be built, he built it. If he saw a need, he would meet it. A reserved young man, he preferred action to words.
In high school, Stanley discerned a call to the priesthood and entered seminary after graduation. It wasn’t easy. He struggled learning Latin, and he didn’t have much time to study because faculty and staff kept asking him to do odd jobs for them. It might have been a consolation to have something productive to do, but it didn’t help his studies. On the news that he had failed Latin, he told a friend he was “pretty disgusted. . . . Wish I could quit now.”
After several years, Stanley was dismissed from seminary for academic reasons. He was devastated but couldn’t deny his call to the priesthood. So he went to plead his case with the bishop. “Don’t lose heart,” the bishop told Stanley. “It’s not my smart priests who are my best priests.” Later that summer, a second chance emerged: Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
With its remote location and its more supportive environment, the Mount turned out to be perfect for Stanley. He completed his studies and was ordained a priest on May 25, 1963. His priestly motto? “For my own sake I am a Christian; for the sake of others I am a priest.”
A Missionary’s Heart. At age thirty-three, Fr. Stanley Rother was given a chance that would change his life. He was invited to join a group of missionaries who were working in Guatemala. He accepted eagerly.
When he reached Santiago Atitlán in fall 1968, Rother found eleven other missionaries already there. But while they engaged in lively theological and philosophical debates, Stanley kept to himself. He was viewed as a “Mass priest,” not too bright and good only for celebrating the sacraments.
Fr. Carlin, the head of the mission, assigned Stan to a small parish close by, where he worked on building a medical center. He quickly showed aptitude at the native language, Tz’utujil, and his confidence grew. On his yearly report to his bishop in 1971—in classic understated fashion—he wrote, “Plan to stay here for some time.” By 1975, Fr. Stanley, the “Mass priest,” was made pastor of Santiago Apóstol.
Committed to His People. Rother came into his own in this new position. He showed a dogged determination to bring Christ to the villagers and to make their lives better. And that commitment was not lost on the people, who opened their hearts to him—so much so that they gave him a new name: Padre Ap’las. Since they had no word for “Stanley,” they used his middle name, “Francis,” and translated it into their native tongue.
Fr. Stanley worked full days in the hot sun bulldozing land for a cooperative farm. He planted, tilled, and harvested alongside the villagers. One fellow said that Fr. Stan “would keep us going when we were down. He would say ‘God is with us.’”
But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Rother made it a point to speak and pray and preach and teach in Tz’utujil. He wanted to embrace his parishioners fully, as members of his own family. Working together with them, he staffed the medical center, launched a radio station, and organized a weaver’s co-op. Maybe most significant, he formulated a written Tz’utujil language and supervised the translation of the New Testament. All this from a seminarian who couldn’t master Latin!
Along the way, Fr. Stanley cultivated close relationships with his people. He kept the rectory open and always took time to listen and take note of parishioners’ needs. He gave advice, pulled teeth, and took in orphans. Whatever need he saw, he would take care of it.
The Shepherd Cannot Run. Because of Fr. Stanley’s wholehearted commitment to his people, the elders of the village accepted him as someone who laid down his life for them in hundreds of ways. But his closeness to the people also aroused suspicion. Although he remained politically neutral, he realized that just “shaking hands” with one of the natives could be seen as a political act in Guatemala’s repressive social climate.
By 1979, Fr. Stanley wrote to his sister that “an anonymous hate sheet . . . made its debut a few Sundays ago. . . . I was number eight.” Number eight, that is, in a list of people marked for killing. This situation understandably alarmed his family. In Guatemala, priests and catechists would “disappear” regularly, and their bodies would never be found. Or if they were found, they showed signs of torture.
Tensions escalated, and in his Christmas 1980 letter, Stanley wrote his well-known declaration: “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”
Following a credible death threat in January 1981, Stanley spent some time in the United States with Fr. Pedro, his associate pastor and the first indigenous man to be ordained in Santiago. But the whole time he was there, he wanted to return. He knew that if he didn’t, he would be betraying his flock. He returned a few months later, just in time to celebrate Holy Week with his parishioners.
Stanley had just three more months in Santiago Atitlan. As the feast of St. James approached that July, tensions increased. The military was camping in farmland all around the church. The night before the feast, Fr. Stan opened the church to provide sanctuary for six hundred young men who feared being forcibly “recruited” into the army.
Giving His Life for His Sheep. Two days later, the night guard for the rectory told Stanley he couldn’t come that evening because his son was sick. He also had it on good authority that soldiers were planning to kidnap Stanley that night. But Stanley didn’t worry. He would sleep in the stone-walled living room. Francisco Bocel, the younger brother of Fr. Pedro, would stay in the upstairs bedroom. He had an escape route planned, but knowing the torture that awaited anyone who was captured, he also vowed that they would not take him alive.
At 1:30 a.m. on July 28, 1981, Fr. Stanley was awakened by a knock on the door. Francisco called out, “Padre, they’ve come for you.” Stanley’s mind raced. If he tried to escape, young Francisco would suffer. The Carmelite sisters on the other side of the courtyard would be at risk. Resolute, he went to the door and opened it and was greeted by three armed assailants. Francisco, who had run back to his room, heard Stanley tell the men, “You’ll have to kill me here.” Two long minutes later, amidst the sounds of fighting, two gunshots rang out, and Stanley Rother lay dead on the floor.
News of Fr. Stan’s death traveled fast, and during Mass later that morning, thousands of villagers packed into Santiago Apóstol. Hundreds more spilled out into the courtyard. The village was devastated by the loss of “their priest.”
A Faith to Live By. Fr. Stanley Rother’s influence is still evident. The farming and weaving cooperatives are going strong, as is the radio station. The Tz’utujil New Testament is still being used. The room where he was killed has been turned into a chapel, and a local school was named in his honor.
In 2001, the mission was returned to the local diocese. Stanley Rother’s martyrdom indeed was a seed for the local church: they now have enough indigenous priests to run the parish on their own. In fact, nine priests have been ordained from Santiago Atitlán, and seven more men are in seminary.
When Pope Francis preached at his first Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday 2013, he encouraged priests to be shepherds who live with “the smell of the sheep.” He meant that a priest should always share the life of his people. This is a perfect description of Stanley Rother, a priest who gave himself to his flock. A man who stood in the furrows and farmed with them. Who did backbreaking repairs with them. Who learned with them. Who took care of them when they were sick. Fr. Stanley Rother was a true shepherd who never abandoned his flock.
Hallie Riedel, an editor for The Word Among Us, lives in Frederick County, Maryland.