Oklahoma set to welcome world for beatification of 'ordinary' native son

IMAGE: CNS photo/Daniel LeClair, Reuters

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholics in Oklahoma have been
preparing for a long time for this moment. Many, like Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, had faith it would come, but there’s
still a sense of awe, to think that a farm boy, one of their own, is about to
take a step toward official sainthood.

On Sept. 23, Oklahomans will get a front row seat to the
beatification of Father Stanley Rother, an ordinary man from an ordinary town, who
died extraordinarily as a martyr in Guatemala while serving in a mission. He
knew well the dangers of the Guatemalan highlands, where government forces tortured
and killed anyone suspected of dissent during the most politically tumultuous
moments in the country’s history.

However, Father Rother refused to abandon the
community he so loved from 1968 until his 1981 assassination. Like many of the
poor and persecuted he served, he died long before he had to at age 46, shot in
the head in the parish rectory.

“People are justly proud of this native son, but one wouldn’t
expect something like this, such a recognition to be accorded to somebody from
Okarche, Oklahoma,” said Archbishop Coakley in a phone interview with Catholic
News Service.

Okarche (pronounced oh-car-chee) is a small farming town
with a lot of windmills, said Archbishop Coakley, and one that’s increasingly
receiving visitors and pilgrims wanting to learn more about the tranquil
setting that was home to Father Rother. He left it behind because he wanted to
serve the church in a place where priests were needed and, in the late 1960s,
priests were needed in the remote highlands of Guatemala, where the Oklahoma
City Archdiocese had a mission in the town of Santiago Atitlan.

“We weren’t talking about the peripheries 30, 35 years ago
when Father Rother was killed but certainly he had that missionary spirit,”
said Archbishop Coakley. “He had a heart for the people there. He recognized
their dignity, he recognized that they were precious in the Lord’s sight.”

Some say Father Rother arrived “knowing 10 words in Spanish,”
but the agricultural skills he imported from Okarche and his kindness endeared
him to the locals. Archbishop Coakley has visited Santiago Atitlan on a couple
of occasions, once during a pilgrimage and also for an event honoring Father

“The devotion of the locals to Padre Aplas, as they call
him, is amazing,” he said. “He’s venerated and honored as the beloved shepherd
who laid down his life for them. We were there for the very special day of the
anniversary of this death so there was a large festive Mass, a colorful event,

“For many, many years, his heart has been enshrined in the back of
the church, where people approach reverently and pray … evidence of their
esteem for him, their appreciation for him. Their devotion to him is really

Though his heart, physically and otherwise, was left in Guatemala, the rest of his
remains returned to Okarche. For years, people stopped by to pray at his grave
at the Holy Trinity Cemetery in town, said Archbishop Coakley, even before he
was declared a martyr by the Vatican in late 2016. His remains have since been
exhumed as part of the beatification process and moved to a chapel in Oklahoma
City, where the ceremony declaring him Blessed Stanley Rother will take place.

Though Oklahoma is not a predominantly Catholic state,
there’s a lot of interest outside of Catholic circles, particularly with the
upcoming beatification. Archbishop Coakley said he has tried to meet with local
groups eager for information about the event and recently gave a presentation to religious
leaders of various faith traditions who wanted to know more about the priest
and the significance of his beatification.

“Some of them undoubtedly plan to attend the beatification,”
he said. “It’s touching people well beyond our Catholic community.”

Two of Father Rother’s siblings as well as a delegation from
Guatemala will attend the ceremony at the Cox Convention Center. Guatemalans
from Santiago Atitlan will participate in the liturgy, which will include the
prayers of the faithful in their local dialect. A large banner that will be
unveiled at the time of the beatification will display elements of Guatemalan
culture, said Archbishop Coakley.

He said he wants Catholics to understand that a martyr and a
holy person such as Father Rother can come from an ordinary beginning.

“There was nothing exceptional about him,” said the archbishop
about Father Rother. “But he was extraordinarily faithful to his calling, to
his vocation, to grace. He’s a witness to all of us that God chooses the
humble, the lowly, as he always does, to accomplish great things for those who
allow themselves to be used by God.”

And God gave him the extraordinary gift of martyrdom because
of Father Rother’s fidelity and generosity, the archbishop said.

“Ultimately, if God calls a young man from Okarche, Oklahoma,
to be a saint, to be beatified, to be a martyr, it reminds us that all of us, no
matter our beginnings, our circumstances, are called to holiness as well,” he

Because of Father Rother’s sacrifice, Guatemala no longer
needs help from Oklahoma, Archbishop Coakley said.

“In the aftermath of Father Rother’s death, the church’s
holy words proved to be true, that the blood of martyrs is the seed of
Christians,” said Archbishop Coakley. “The church (in Santiago Atitlan) really
began to flourish after Father Rother’s death and they’ve seen a number of
vocations from the parish and, ultimately, the local diocese thanked us for our
service there but said that they could now staff the parish.”

In addition to the beatification, the archdiocese also is in
the midst of its first capital campaign, which includes raising $55 million —
half will go toward a shrine honoring Father Rother.

“We have a master plan, an architect, we have a conceptual
design. … We’re just beginning our fundraising for it,” said Archbishop Coakley.

For now, the archdiocese is squarely focused on the
September beatification, which has interest beyond Oklahoma, the archbishop

“He is being lifted up and being offered to the whole church
as a witness of holiness and fidelity to the Gospel, a witness to pastoral charity,
to inspire all people,” he said. “We need these kinds of heroes in light of the
many challenges that priests have had to deal with the last 15 years or so.
This is good news that we have a holy heroic priest being lifted up and honored
to remind us that all of us are called to holiness.”

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina

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