In some parts of the country, a number of Diocesan parish priests take a pause in their work as pastors of parishes in the U.S. to spend five years or more as a “temporary missionary” somewhere in the world. While it has not been a tradition for the priests of our region, I met some of those priests during the two summers I spent in Bolivia. One day, on the way to the Amazon jungle for an excursion, we stopped at a small adobe house that was home to two priests – one from Massachusetts, one from Iowa – who were temporary missionaries there. The American priests supply much needed help to the strapped and far-flung parishes of poor regions of Central and South America, and then they return home to a North American flock with a new sense of the struggles in the wider church and a refreshed appreciation for the bounty we enjoy and often take for granted.
One of those priests, Fr. Stanley Rother, went from his home diocese in Oklahoma to serve in Guatemala in the late 1970s, a time of civil war between, the military, the guerilla paramilitary and death squads. During his time as pastor in the town of Santiago Atitlan, members of his parish began to disappear and were presumed dead. When the values of the Gospel made it clear to him that he must defend his people and give the voiceless a voice, he quickly became the enemy of several radical factions, who placed him on their hit lists. This was unthinkable for his parishioners and loved ones back home in Oklahoma, who knew him as a meek and sensitive person. It was clear that the evil of the situation had awakened him.
On a routinely scheduled visit home, he was told by his diocese that the situation was too dangerous for him to go back, but he said that he was compelled, because “A shepherd does not abandon his sheep in bad times.” The inevitable happened not much later. He was gunned down by assassins in his rectory on July 28, 1981, not long after assassins had killed Archbishop Oscar Romero in neighboring El Salvador while he celebrated Mass.
Just two weeks ago, Fr. Stanley was beatified by the Church, meaning he is now a “Blessed,” a final station on the way to full sainthood. This makes him the first U.S. – born martyr recognized by the Church. At his beatification, his friend Archbishop Harry Flynn said, “They killed a man, but they created a saint.”
Let us pray for all those priests, sisters and brothers who serve in dangerous places. And for conversion in the hearts of those who think killing a human person could ever solve a single problem.