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.

It’s only a little pinch.

Bl. Stanley Rother, God’s Friend.

+J+M+J+

The Readings for Saturday in the 5th week of Easter (C1)

I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.

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.

Stanley & Becoming a (Lay) Dominican (Tertiary)

+JMJ+

I’m too old. Roman Catholic orders want young men. They all seem to max out at guys 15 years younger than me. Some don’t want guys more than 20 years younger than me. This is a sad reality for me. For while my experience in a monastery proved to me I wanted to try in another community rather quickly, it also proved to me that I was not yet at home. When Coming Home to Rome, as they say, a community, a rule of life, a structure of prayer and study was also needed. But I’m too old to be welcomed in the religious orders that I might like. So it was that when – last year – I thought I’d found one that might be a fit, after sniffing around the edges for a while I realized they made Fr James Martin look very conservative. And decided that wasn’t a good match. All this by way of back story…


When I was moving back to SF in 2016 I asked Twitter for Church recommendations. Given my home and my job my only concern was that I should be able to get between house, Mass, and work rather easily. So there was this tweet. It posted moments after Fr Thomas Petri had tweeted something, if I remember correctly, about reading his Midday Office on California’s famous Hwy 1, overlooking the Pacific while on a drive away from San Francisco.  Someone pointed out this coincidence and said, “Go to St Dominic’s”.  Looking on a map, St D’s was one bus ride away from both work and home. I had also heard of St Dom’s in two very different contexts prior to that – but both were good, prayerful connections. St Dominic’s had a daily mass and also had daily morning and evening prayer. And so it seemed as though it was good to the Holy Spirit, to Twitter, and me at the same time. I arrived at St Dominic’s on the Saturday before the 2nd Sunday of Advent, 2016. And, I’ve been told, 3 days later I moved in.


There have been places that felt like home before but somehow this is home in ways beyond description. In time past I’ve needed to be invited, to wait. It felt as if hesitation was proper until something was needed; on;y then putting myself forward. (This is the case in most of my world, to be honest.) At St Dom’s though, I had put my hand to the plough and there was no looking back. This is a sign of growing up, perhaps. Also “Convert glee”. It’s also a sign of dealing with internal demons. But something at St Dominic’s keeps not only calling me out, but also giving me the courage to act.


So it was that when it was announced there was a chapter forming at St Dominic’s I craved admission. (There are many names: Dominican Laity, Lay Dominicans, Dominican Tertiaries, Third Order Dominicans, Lay Fraternity.) The Dominican charism of Preaching, based on a foundation of Prayer, Community, and Study, of Contemplation and taking the fruits of the Contemplation to the World… these all resonated with my journey, my blogging, my teaching… there was connection here that begged for exploration and deeper digging.


Discernment is a process, an action verb. To begin this there was first required an entrance (there are a total of at least five years of formation). Except to be admitted as an Inquirer, one needed to have been a practicing Catholic for two years. It had only been 6 months since swimming the Tiber. But I asked for a dispensation: the reason is because Orthodox are considered Catholics – a favor not returned, usually – so by Church teaching I had been a curious form of Catholic since my Chrismation in 2002, albeit a cranky, anti-western one for a large part of that time. The Church moving slowly, the dispensation did not arrive until about 2/3 of the way through the first year. But it did come through and so, lo, there’s a Dominican Journey happening.


And now there’s another step: candidacy. In terms of monastic parallels, it is candidacy rather than inquirer that is like my time as a novice at St Laurence’s. One is a Candidate for at least a year and also there’s a new name. I’ve had so many new names in my life… although the last one – Dunstan – I gave back. Any saint is ok, but if there is not a Dominican connection, there also needs to be a Dominican name picked. 


So, my Dominican saint is Robert: for Blessed Robert Nutter, a Dominican Martyr under the English Crown. A devotion to the English martyrs began while I was at St Laurence’s Monastery. As I cleaned I would listen to the life of St Edmund Campion, and the other stories of that time – including R.H. Benson’s brilliant Come Rack! Come Rope! Considering how much Anglicans – and thus a certain species of WR Orthodox – lionize the English Reformation and the English Monarchs, it’s really an embarrassment to realize their greatest gift to the western Church was a huge passel of martyrs and some good hymnody. Also furthering this devotion an ancestor, Blessed William Richardson, is another of the English Martyrs. So, Robert Nutter: who may or may not have been an actual Dominican Friar. But was attached to the Order in some way – possibly as a priest received in, or as a member of the priestly fraternity which would make him a tertiary. This is purported to be a holy card… but although the hagiographic elements are correct, the time is all wrong. I’ve seen the same image linked with other Dominican Martyrs. But  ok:



Stanley, however, for Blessed Stanley Rother, is the name I’m picking. The first time I saw this image of Stanley Rother, at his beatification, something reached out and touched my heart.



Both Stanley and Robert received martyr crowns via the hands of people we tend to lionize: Robert was slain under Elizabeth I. And Stanley was martyred by right-wing hit squads in Guatemala, enjoying the patronage of the School of the Americas and Our Glorious Leader, Ronald Reagan. Both men are one of several martyrs created by the same politician. Both men seem models (along with Blessed William) of the sort of Catholic men we need today: willing to go the extra mile, to endure rough life consequences, to live in bad political situations standing athwart the accepted leaders’ intentions, and, in the end, to die for the faith if needed.  Both men knew that when the leader goes bad, the Church must stand with the people. Both men knew the dignity of the human person stood above the secular government, and that human rights proceed from God – not from Caesar. Both men knew the Church’s ministry to her people must continue at any cost. Since Reagan, we’ve continued to have some pretty bad leaders in this country and I can’t imagine them getting better. That’s not the way the political landscape works. We need men like this to guide us in our prayers and to intercede for us in heaven.

This seems like a good fit. In term of Signal Graces and Peace of Mind, and even mad passionate love, this feels like the right thing. Yes: post-conversion bliss, and also a few other things, but also, peace. Also: the age thing is not important.

I’ve a personal reason to pick this name as well: Stanley is the middle name of my stepfather and his father also. The Church needs more men like them also: faithful, loving, caring, generous to a fault, strong, centered in Christ, and good at raising kids (who are anything but good, most of the time). While Richardson is from my Mom’s side, Stanley is from Dad’s side.  This Candidacy Year begins on the 10th of November at the 5:30 Mass, if you’re around (or about and about) I welcome your prayers.

Update: This showed up, a new video about Blessed Stanley Rother.