Bl. Stanley Rother, God’s Friend.
Once, a long, long time ago, it seems to me now, in a religious galaxy far, far away I sat in a class on Patristics as an Episcopal priest explained that no one today would go to their death over a pinch of incense. He thought we were, finally much saner now. I think of this event from time to time and wonder if he was right. Would anyone do it now? Did it make any sense, even then? Most Romans knew
the Emperor wasn’t divine. The priests and cults of the empire had needed to invent stories as Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero ruined one by one all the sacred traditions and offices of the Republic. The people watched one entire mythology end and a whole new one begin. What did they care? It’s only a pinch and politically wise. The philosophers since Socrates had long spoken in monotheistic terms and, while it was still largely woven over by polytheistic animism, it was clear that the Divine Augustus (etc) was not
this deity. So who cared?
In March of 1935, a farmer and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child, Stanley Rother. Raise in a Catholic home and a student of Catholic schools, he was an Oklahoma Farmer’s son, through and through. He did chores, served at the altar, studied well enough in school, danced, and played sports with his friends. And after school was over he thought maybe to go into the priesthood. That was not an easy choice: he failed Latin and his grades were poor. He was asked to leave seminary. But his Bishop saw something in Mr Rother and found another seminary for him. Finally he was ordained to the Catholic Priesthood 55 years ago today on 25 May 1963.
Fr Stanley volunteered to go as a missionary to Guatemala. Pope St John XXIII had called for priests to go and Stanley took that call to his heart. The Bishop who ordained him sent him to Santiago Atitlan as a priest for the tribe named the Tzutuhil, decedents of the Maya. To serve his people this man who had failed to learn Latin became fluent in both Spanish and the Tzutuhil language. He could, after the Council, even celebrate Mass in the native language of the people! The team even gave the Tzutuhil a written language which they had not had until this time.
Meanwhile, in Imperial Rome, Jews were exempted from the pinch of incense by treaty. But Christians were not. They came from every corner of the empire, they were not an ethnicity or a people with a country. They cared deeply and refused to even pretend that the Emperor was divine and in doing so they rejected the politics and the religion of their neighbors. What my former teacher, the Episcopal priest, misunderstood was that the religion of one did not “shape” the politics, it was the politics. To reject the claim of the Emperor to be divine was to insist that humanity could not debase others, that the Roman emperor had no more right to worship than a Roman slave, and – in a world where the pater familias was divine ruler under his own roof, the Christians said, nope: men and women are equal before God and it is God that is ruler. They refused to participate in a system that denied that or to even pretend to participate. When the system said “Caesar is Lord!” the Christians said, “Jesus is Lord.” Rome hated them for it.
The Gov’t of Guatemala, along with many of the other Gov’ts in Central America, were under pressure to fight off the “Reds” who were trying to “infiltrate” these countries. Infiltrate here means teach, find food for the poor, keep farming tools in working order, bring in fresh, running water, etc. The pressure came from the United States. While in Europe, for much (but not all) of the 20th Century, the political persecution of the Church came from the Left, in the Americas it was from the Center and the Right. In every case from Mexico south, where a right-wing puppet or dictator was persecuting the Catholic Church, it was with American arms up the puppet’s backside and American-trained fingers from the School of the Americas on the guns by which that oppression was accomplished.
Christians have, since Rome, been far too liberal for their worldly conservative friends: they welcome immigrants, they feed the poor, they walk among the sick without fear and treat them (we invented the Hospital when the Rich and Powerful of Rome were throwing their sick into gullies to die). The Christians of Rome pulled together and ignored the world view of the secular traditionalists around them. They shared their food, they cared for the sick, from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs. They built real community around the Church. They refused to even pretend to play along with a system that said one mad idiot was god and everyone else was his slave – even when they daily, faithfully prayed for his salvation and peace. They would not offer incense to him but they willingly offered it for him.
Stanley kept this tradition alive in Santiago Atitlan and when the way to keep out the Reds involved keeping the powerless, poor, and illiterate Tzutuhil exactly powerless, poor, and illiterate, the good shepherd of his people said, “No!” They built real community around the Church. The people learned to farm together (with Stanley’s farming skills from Oklahoma) and when the machines broke it was Stanley that helped them fix things.
People began to vanish – catechists, altar servers, Sunday school teachers, language teachers, farmers. When Stanley dared to stand up to the gun squads who were “Disappearing” his people, his fate was sealed – so we might say in the world. But Father’s fate was sealed when, as a little baby, the faith of the Church was washed into his soul. To be a friend of God means to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…
And he did so: on 28 July 1981, three gunmen entered the Rectory that was Stanley’s home and shot him. He was venerated as a Martyr from that day forward – first by his own people, the Tzutuhil, then by the Church in Oklahoma, and now – officially – by the entire world. He is known as Blessed Stanley Rother, Priest and Martyr. Although he is not yet a saint that will come in God’s time.
The pinch of incense Stanley was asked for was to stand aside while a Gov’t, following funds and support from a mad king in the Rome of the modern world, tried to deny the people of his parish their personhood, their divine icon of God. Stanley could have stayed in the States (he was home less than a week before his death) and he could have let the flock be scattered. Everyone would understand. Oklahoma, today, might be celebrating a priest’s 56th ordination anniversary.
But Stanley did not offer this pinch of incense. He refused to even pretend to play along. The world – a world that pretended to be “Christian” at the time – hated him for it.
(This man is my patron saint. I started this essay with nary a clue that today – the readings for Saturday, that is – was the anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. I only knew that after my posts of the last two days about God’s friendship meaning our death… I wanted to show what I was intending. This man is what I mean.)
May he pray for us. May it be so with us as well.