'They killed a man but created a saint,' prelate says of slain priest

By Maria Wiering

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — Retired
Archbishop Harry J. Flynn was rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in
Emmitsburg, Maryland, when he got a call in 1979 from an old friend from the seminary,
asking if he could visit for a week.

That friend was Father Stanley
Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and a missionary in a
rural part of Guatemala.

He picked up Father Rother from
Dulles International Airport near Washington and was appalled by the horrific
situation the priest described in Guatemala. Members of his congregation had disappeared
and were presumed dead, victims of a civil war between the government and
guerrilla groups.

“If they asked for a few more
cents for picking coffee beans, they were considered communists, and a truck
would come into the village that night, stop at the home of the man or woman
who asked for a few more cents, take them out to the country, torture them,
kill them, and then throw their bodies into a well to poison that well,” said Archbishop
Flynn, who headed the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from 1995 to 2008.

Father Rother described the
situation “with a passion,” Archbishop Flynn recalled. “It was haunting him. He
said, ‘If I speak, they’ll kill me, but if keep silent, what kind of a shepherd
would I be?'”

The friends shared meals
together that week, but Father Rother spent his days praying at the seminary’s
historic Lourdes grotto, a place he had loved while he and Archbishop Flynn
were seminarians at “the Mount.” At the end of the week, he told then-Father
Flynn, “I know what I must do. I must go back and speak.”

“But,” Archbishop Flynn
recalled, “he also said this: ‘They’re not going to take me out and kill me
somewhere in the country and then throw my body into a well.’ He said, ‘I’ll
put up a fight like they’ve never seen before.'”

Archbishop Flynn took Father
Rother to the airport and said goodbye. He knew it would be the last time he
would see him alive. Two years later, in 1981, Archbishop Flynn opened a
newspaper to read that an American priest had been killed in Guatemala. He
didn’t have to read further to know it was Father Rother.

Archbishop Flynn was to be among
others who knew the priest gathering in Oklahoma City’s Cox Convention Center
Sept. 23 for Father Rother’s beatification. In December 2016, Pope Francis
officially recognized Father Rother as a martyr, making him the first U.S.-born
martyr recognized by the Catholic Church. Also attending will be members of the
Rother family, including distant cousins from Minnesota.

Father Rother grew up on a farm
near Okarche, Oklahoma. He was a farm boy with a knack for fixing things. After
high school, he left home for seminary in Texas, but he was asked to leave
after struggling with Latin. Undeterred, he transferred to the Emmitsburg
seminary, where he met Archbishop Flynn, who was three classes ahead of him.
Archbishop Flynn noted his friend’s deep prayer life.

“We could be downstairs in recreation,
laughing and carrying on, and then the bell would ring to go up to chapel for
night prayer and Stanley seemed to me to go right into prayer, which I found
enviable,” Archbishop Flynn recalled in a recent interview with The Catholic
Spirit, newspaper of the Minnesota archdiocese.

The two were in the seminary
around the time that Pope John XXIII encouraged U.S. bishops to form
partnerships between their dioceses and those in Latin America. The
then-Diocese of Oklahoma City-Tulsa paired with the Diocese of Solola,
Guatemala. In 1968, Father Rother was asked to minister there in Santiago Atitlan,
a mission established by Franciscans. The Mayan people there had been without a
priest for nearly a century.

People who knew Father Rother
weren’t surprised that he returned again and again to Guatemala after the
violence began, even with many opportunities to stay in the U.S. The Christmas
before he died, he famously wrote to his archbishop, “A shepherd cannot run at
the first sign of danger.”

On July 28, 1981, three men
burst into the parish rectory, demanding Father Rother. He was hiding, but when
the men threatened the life of one of his protectors, he emerged. He was ultimately
gunned down in his rectory, his knuckles raw from the fight, his spattered
blood staining the wall. The Guatemalans left the stains, and to this day,
visitors — many of them pilgrims — can see the aftermath of what the gunmen
did to their priest. The fatal bullet remains lodged in the wall.

In 1999, Archbishop Flynn
traveled to Father Rother’s church in Santiago Atitlan, visited the room where
he was shot to death and celebrated Mass in the parish church. Father Rother’s
body returned to Oklahoma, but the missionary’s heart was left behind with the
Guatemalans, who have since enshrined it as a relic.

Archbishop Flynn also prays for
his friend’s intercession, keeping his photograph on his altar for Mass. He
feels that he had a graced opportunity to be with Father Rother that summer
while he was discerning his impending death.

“I’ll always remember sitting in
the room where he was martyred, and sitting there and looking at his blood all
over the wall, splattered, and experiencing anger in my heart with the people
who did that to him — this gentle, gentle shepherd,” he said, “and then
realizing what he would have said — something that Christ said, ‘They don’t
even know what they’re doing,’ and they probably didn’t. … They killed a man,
but they created a saint.”

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Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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