Book Review: The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run

JMJ

Hagiography is a tricky thing. What you say can be nearly eclipsed by what you do not say. I have a friend who was served in a leadership role in a Protestant denomination. After his death, many folks talked about his fierce loyalty: but few mentioned how his fierce loyalty blinded him to the failings and criminal behavior of those around him. We generally do not speak ill of the dead. Hagiography, telling the stories of the lives of the Saints, is another matter entirely. It’s intended for edification: writers tend to gloss over the bits that would leave questions in the reader’s mind or doubts in their hearts about the sanctity of the saint at hand. For this, you must know your audience. If your readers are a bunch of folks from the rural Plains States, you may need to gloss over some things from column A, a reader from the urban coasts, however, might rather not be told about things in column B.

To return briefly to my friend and his loyalty to a criminal: when that other party had to flee away, there was an announcement of their retirement. They were retiring, it was said… and moving far away… because suddenly their husband had a new job. Entirely believable under normal circumstances, but not in this case. Those of us in the room at that moment looked at each other and said, “What? There’s a hole in this story so big you could drive a truck through it.”

The same is true of the Hagiography of Bl. Stanley Rother. It’s good… it’s edifying. But there are some things missing from column A. And so the whole thing doesn’t quite make sense.

Nota bene: there is a Revised Version now. The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Blessed Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma, Revised. These truck-sized holes may be filled in in this edition, but I suspect the main difference is my version did not yet have him as “Blessed”.

By way of full disclosure: Stanley Rother is my Patron Saint. I feel closer to him than I’ve felt to any other saint, in devotion and in personal experience for a number of reasons. None of what follows is intended to deny his sanctity – but rather to point out openings in this book where questions are raised.

In brief, the Martyr’s life looks like this:

Born on 27 March 1935 (a year before Pope Francis was born), and raised in Okarche, OK, Stanley Francis Rother was a farmer and the son of a farmer. But he felt a higher calling and went to seminary where he was a poor student and was sent home. But his bishop believed in his calling and found another seminary for him. He was ordained and served in parishes before answering another calling: to be a missionary. In 1968 his diocese sent him to their mission parish in Santiago Atitlán. He couldn’t learn Latin in Seminary, but by God’s grace he learned Spanish and the local Mayan Dialect. He…

…immediately identified with his parishioners’ simple, farming lifestyle. He learned their languages, prepared them for the Sacraments, and cared for their needs. Fr. Stanley, or “Padre Francisco” as he was called by his beloved Tz’utujil Indians, had found his heart’s calling.

After nearly a decade, the violence of the Guatemalan civil war found its way into the peaceful village. Disappearances, killings, and danger became daily occurrences, but despite this unrest Fr. Stanley remained hard at work, building a farmer’s co-op, a school, a hospital, and the first Catholic radio station, used for catechesis.

In early 1981, his name was on a death list, so he returned to Oklahoma and was warned not to return. But he could not abandon his people, so he went back, and made the ultimate sacrifice for his faith.

His Guatemalan parish was a busy place! “In 1974, for example, there were 649 babies baptized at Lake Atitlán; approximately 2,000 holy communions were distributed each week; 85 couples made marriage vows at a group ceremony during The Village’s annual Fiesta; and about 150 little ones came forward for their First Communion.”

Why was such an active parish life a threat? What is never explained in this book is why the right-wing death squads would be targeting the church here as they did in other places in the 80s – also producing martyrs such as the Maryknoll Martyrs, St Oscar Romero, and the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador. Why was the Church a target? Also never mentioned is that these killings (including Stan’s) were done at the hands of men largely trained in America (or by Americans trained) at The School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, located at Ft Benning in Columbus, GA. These happened during the Carter and Reagan administrations. Our foreign policy has not changed much since the mid 1950s in this respect: Communism is bad. Ergo, rightwingers are good.

It was a CIA-backed dictatorship that was causing trouble. And the “death list” was theirs. The Church, here as in other places, was targeted because the Church knows that human beings in the image and likeness of God, come before politics, before economics, before governments. And those systems that treat icons unjustly must be opposed by those who live the Gospel: not with guns or even votes, but by open disobedience.

I once laid Stanley Rother’s death at the feet of President Reagan, but it was Carter that was in charge at this time. Here’s a fun picture in that context:

My parents, the President and Mrs Carter, and your host.

What clued me into the truck-sized holes was a talk Fr Stanley did in Oklahoma in 81, just before his death. Members of congregation stood up after the talk and said that he was going to report Fr Stan to the gov’t and the Archbishop as a traitor. Why? It was never explained. But if he was speaking in the Clergy Ergot of the time, Liberation Theology, there would be a thing from Column A that might offend someone on the Great Plains. It’s pretty much communism in that context. And from that point on, the author says things like:

“He tended to provoke the right by giving Hospitality to those they thought were guerrillas and by helping the widows of guerrillas… The Army had the idea there was a military organization in the church… Stan tried to do it openly. As a result, from the Army’s Viewpoint, it looked like he was favoring the left.”

Was it just that there were no hospitality needs on the right? No widows on the right? Or is something missing from this paragraph? Father Stanley had taken sides with the poor people of Santiago and that put him on the “left,” as we would say, politically. Of course he was just being Catholic: Standing with the Poor, whom God favors.

Stan writes:

The president gave a speech where he laid aside the prepared text and spoke from the cuff. I haven’t seen the official text, but one remark made was that he wanted to expel all those religious who were catechizing the people.

How is Catechism opposed to the Gov’t? Why are Catechists, above all, and then priests and religious the targets of the Death Squads? These things are never covered. Stan is part of the generation of Latin American Clergy that gave us Pope Francis as well – and yes I think of Rother as part of the Latin American Church. He spoke both Spanish and the local Mayan Dialect spoken by the Tz’utujil. He translated the Mass into Tz’utujil and could understand cultural references. While he was not born there, he lived there from 68 until his martyrdom in 81. That culture formed him in ways as deep as the Oklahoma farm where he was raised.

Stan writes:

Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify attempt to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.

So it’s in light of this “coming of the kingdom” that I want to wrap up this review with this story from the “Traitor” talk I mentioned:

After Mass, one or two discontented listeners accosted Father Stanley. He recalled the incident later, “I got through and one man walked up and said, ‘I don’t agree with anything you say’… The fellow said, ‘I’m sorry I am a Catholic. I’m going to inform the Archbishop.'”

In addition to the letter to the Archbishop, an unsigned letter was sent to the “Embassy of Guatemala, Military Attache” in Washington DC. The author of the letter detailed a long list of grievances and criticisms, noting, “Our local pastor, a frequent visitor to your nation, invited a Catholic Mission Priest from Guatemala, to use God’s puppet to expound a political Dogma urging our local church members to pressure the present US Government Administration into allowing our country to decline military support for your current Administration in Guatemala, in order to provide the basis for a socialist Revolution which would oust the current government of Guatemala…

“In as much as the Catholic church is using the altar of God to influence the Catholic populous in the United States, I feel obliged to warn your nation’s government of the church involvement within the leftist organizations attempting to establish a socialist government in Guatemala…”

The author, however, cast these aspersions aside with a quote from a friend,” Stan was about as apolitical as a man can be.” Then the narrative moves on. This is the Truck-sized hole so big that a right-wing death squad marched into Fr Stan’s house a few months later and shot him. I think the author wants us to read this story as some odd moment in internal Church politics that resulted in the death of a pious man. But in the context of the US political climate, and the actions of clergy all over Latin America… as well as the Vatican’s opposition to “Liberation Theology” through this time, I think we would do well to imagine the letter actually describing Truth. Even if we might disagree (or agree) with what the letter’s author saw: a Catholic priest teaching what the letter describes as “church involvement within the leftist organizations attempting to establish a socialist government in Guatemala…”

Something was up. Stan was a fellow travelor – at least in the eyes of Americans and Guatemalans of the time. Was Stan a “Liberation Theologian” like the great Dominican writer, Fr Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP? This priest who fixes tractors for Guatemalan farmers seems far closer to that theology than the author wants to admit. I think there’s a whole other book worth writing here: a real biography that is less hagiography and more history. But for all that this book fails at the latter, it is quite good as the former. I was moved to pray, to ask for Stan’s intercession at several points in this book.

This book succeeds as the story of a holy man who gave his life for his sheep out of love for them. It seems only to fail in explaining all the ways he did so before his death.

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