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.

A Dangerous Book

Popular histories can tend to be strident, combative affairs: they carry on arguments on and off their pages, and come with definitive points of view. People love them or hate them. They divide readers and reviewers into camps of good and evil based on reaction to the book. This is very different from scholarly history which is supposed to be “unbiased”.  If you didn’t like the history text in Western Civ I or American History (shoutouts to Dr Doug!) then you were not evil in the author’s eyes: you were only failing in class. Disagree, however, with Howard Zinn’s point of view in A People’s History of the United States and you, Dear Reader, are part of the problem, not the solution. It doesn’t matter if you read Zinn calmly and put it away having done your duty. The author is clear: he’s evangelising with his point of view and if you don’t agree you’re not just “another point of view”, you’re wrong.

A great bucking of this trend surfaced in 2010 when BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum did A History of the World in 100 Objects. This podcast (and radio show), coupled with a website, talked about all of history, while focusing on 100 things ranging from a mummy and a hand axe, to communist propaganda and solar powered products. This history was different on two points: it was not combative, and it was inclusive. Even when discussing something as potentially heated as a war with modern political applications, the British folks managed not to be name callers or to imply you were a dupe if you came to another conclusion. It was so popular that they made a book and a travelling roadshow of the 100 things. (I’ve never seen the BBC’s book, who needs a book when there’s a podcast and a website?) Still, as friendly as they were, they were also very skilled at unveiling history’s events: I found episode #67 on the Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy to be particularly troublesome for me because if its historical honesty. (That’s worth a whole post, maybe later.) Yet even with all these comments and a specific point of view, the Beeb kept saying, “You could have an entirely different history if you took a different 100 objects and read them differently.” And they invited listeners to participate by uploading photos of their own objects with their own histories. So, “Here’s history as we read it: but DIY.”

A History of the Church in 100 Objects, by Grace Aquilina and her father, Mike, falls into the middle. Clearly taking their cue from the BBC’s work (the cover of this book reminds me of the 2010 edition cover on the BBC book as I’ve seen it on Amazon’s website) they write their own history with their own 100 objects. At the same time they have a specific point of view and they are evangelizing.

Christianity is not a religion of mental acquiescence to a few points in a prayer. Christianity is a life of prayer, ascetic struggle, and stuff. St John of Damascus wrote that since God has become flesh, the very stuff of the world has become holy. We can venerate the wood of the Cross, or the image of Christ, or the flesh and bones of a holy dead person – or even of a living person – and know we are venerating the very stuff of God. This is the physical world God gave us, in which we are to work out our salvation. The history of the world is salvation history.

This book uses the stuff – ranging from the star of Bethlehem to the birth control pill – to talk about the history of the Christian Church. The authors clearly believe what they believe: the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ on the Rock of Peter. They are not telling only one possible story of a Christian community, they are telling the Story of the Church. If the reader is not Roman Catholic, however – as with Howard Zinn’s work – the reader will know they’re on the outside looking in. But Mike and Grace do it with such love and, pardon me, grace, that you’ll want to be on the inside, I think. They are evangelizing here.

The book pulls no punches with the bad parts of Church history. The struggle against an invading Islamic army is not covered up as politics in religion sauce. The divisions between the Church and various departing elements is not seen through warm and fuzzy ecumenical glasses. The Vatican’s history of Bad Popes is not glossed over. The presence of Apostate Catholics at anti-Catholic moments is very honestly discussed. Still, popular notions are challenged: the Crusades are presented as defence and there is no “religion of peace” in this book. Missionaries to the New World are presented as missionaries of truth liberating folks from a culture of death and blood sacrifice. The actions of capital and those who worship it either from the left or the right side of its altars taken against human beings is pointed out – and the struggle of the Church to align herself with the poor is highlighted. Popular revolutions of the 18th Century are not seen in a good light. The Second Vatican Council is seen in a positive light that has nothing to do with guitar masses and bad vernacular translations from the Latin.

The presentation is easy to digest. Each of the 100 objects is presented in 2-3 page chapters together with a full page image of the thing in question. Each object is discussed and analyzed and plugged into the over-all story. Unlike the BBC’s work there is no material analysis: the Geek in me would like to know who cut the wood for St Junipero’s cradle and from what tree. But that’s not important in this work: what is important is that one of the greatest missionaries of the world was raised up from that cradle to spread the Gospel in humility to my part of a darkened world. Each chapter ends with a couple of footnotes for more reading and the authors graciously invite more questions and offer themselves to answer them.

As a new Catholic, I felt plugged in by this book: my story is part of this story. My life is part of this life now and this book helped me to connect to people as different as Charlemagne (via his coronation stone) and an auto mechanic in Mexico (via his tools on his tomb). I can’t help but imagine that anyone, new or not to the Church, would be able to draw the same benefit. Like other popular histories, the reader may find himself on the outside of the authors’ point of view. But “you’re part of the problem” is not the attitude of the authors here. Quite the reverse, in fact. If you’re on the outside looking in, why not come in?

Perhaps someone on the outside would want to be drawn into that story which is why is this a dangerous book:

The loving presentation, the careful selection of objects, and the clear goal of evangelism make this a dangerous book. The table of contents alone will show that: the ramble from Bethlehem to the Jerusalem temple, from catacombs to Diocletian, from Helen to Charlemagne, from Homer to Ethiopia and beyond will expose you to the great Catholic claim that there is no secular history. All history is the Christian story. This is the physical world God gave us, in which we are to work out our salvation. The history of the world is salvation history. You’re in it, like it or not. You’ve no choice. Any history of stuff is part of God’s story.

The second reason this is dangerous: you may disagree with their point of view on the Aztecs and you may want to debate – that’s what they’re here for. They’ve drawn you in already. And if you read the chapter on the Aztecs (or Martin Luther or Margaret Sanger) and find yourself agreeing: why are you not Catholic? This book is dangerous because it is covert Evangelism for a History Geek. You can read this story and agree or disagree. But if you agree with the story (and how could you not?) then, you should be going to RCIA. God is using the very stuff of the world to draw you closer to him. That is solid Catholic teaching. Mike and Grace have presented a partial catalogue of how God’s doing that to one end: to get you, the reader, to come home.