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The Oklahoma priest who could become the first American-born man to be canonized a saint

By: Ross Kenneth Urken, Special to The Washington Post
September 23, 2017 Updated: September 23, 2017 at 10:05 am
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photo - American-born priest Stanley Rother at a festival in Guatemala. Rother was murdered in his rectory there in 1981. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
American-born priest Stanley Rother at a festival in Guatemala. Rother was murdered in his rectory there in 1981. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. 

A priest from Okarche, Oklahoma, a very small town perhaps most famous for the succulent fried chicken at Eischen's Bar, could help to revitalize the U.S. Catholic Church as the first man and first priest born in this country to be canonized a saint.

Perhaps an unlikely candidate to spur such a momentous movement, Father Stanley Rother, a humble priest from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City who was murdered in Guatemala in 1981, will be one step closer to that status on September 23 during his beatification, a Catholic Church blessing process that recognizes a dead individual's entrance into heaven and lets devotees pray to that person for protection.

"It's a source of great joy and encouragement for the church in Oklahoma and, indeed, the Catholic church in the United States to have a church priest who came from very ordinary beginnings achieve something truly extraordinary," said Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Diocese of Oklahoma City. "He was not an extraordinary man. He was an ordinary man. But he was extraordinarily faithful to what he perceived to be God's will for his life and God's plan. He demonstrated such sacrificial love and selfless service. It lifts us all up and helps us aspire to be our best selves."

With the acknowledgement that Rother was killed "in odium fidei" (in hatred of the faith), Pope Francis declared him a martyr on December 1, 2016, and paved the way for this next step toward sainthood to take place at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City. During the beatification Mass, an apostolic letter will declare Rother to have earned the honorific "blessed," and church leaders will acknowledge a feast day dedicated to him on the liturgical calendar in Oklahoma. A contingent from Guatemala will join the hundreds of priests and thousands of faithful in attendance, along with Cardinal Angelo Amato, the prefect in charge of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints who will be in Oklahoma City as Pope Francis' delegate.

The Vatican's canonization process is particularly abstruse, but, in this instance, Rother's potential elevation may be just the strategic boost needed in the American Catholic community, whose numbers have been plummeting - down about 10 percent since the 1990s amid church sex scandals and the rise of secularism.

Of course, a martyr must have a posthumous miracle attributed to him to reach sainthood. A sick person who asks for Rother's intercession and recovers from a seemingly fatal disease in a manner that can't be attributed to medical science, natural causes, or another saint or servant of God would constitute such a miracle. Although no concrete miracle has yet to be floated for Rother, devotees will be invited to submit their examples to the local diocese where an alleged miracle has occurred to be considered in a rigorously vetted process that includes scientific and theological commissions. If the miracle is approved at the diocesan level, the miracle goes through a similar process at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and then all the way up to the pope for approval. Though nothing is guaranteed, Rother does have one major advantage working in his favor.

Given that Pope Francis is the first Holy See from Latin America, there has been more focus on priests who historically sacrificed themselves there while combating anti-religious regimes. By contrast, John Paul II canonized saints from around the world, with a special focus on Asian martyrs, but largely neglected those who served in Latin America.

"It is true that Pope Francis may be more familiar with the causes from his region, as would be normal, which could make him more interested when they are presented to him," said Greg Burke, director of the Vatican Press Office.

And Rother's work in Guatemala was particularly valiant considering the dangerous circumstances. After Rother was ordained a priest in 1963 in Oklahoma, he moved to Guatemala in 1968 to serve the Tz'utujil community in Santiago Atitlán from 1968 until 1981, when he was murdered at 46 years old in an attack attributed to right-wing extremists from the country's paramilitary units.

As tensions flared in Guatemala during the country's civil war and his indigenous congregation supported liberal rebels, Rother found himself placed on a death list. Though he briefly returned to Oklahoma in 1981, he operated with an unwavering mindset amid the danger: "A shepherd cannot run from his flock."

After midnight on June 28, 1981, three masked gunmen broke into the rectory and shot him twice - once in the jaw and another time in the left temple. His corpse was flown to Oklahoma to be buried in Okarche's Holy Trinity Cemetery, and his heart was removed and buried under the altar of his Tz'utujil church. In preparation for his beatification, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City reinterred his body at Resurrection Ceremony in Oklahoma City, but his actual heart remains in Latin America where he served.

Pope Francis' past shortcomings in Latin America may also make him more enthusiastic about Rother's cause. The pontiff has been criticized for not standing up to the military junta in Argentina during the 1970s when he was provincial superior of the Society of Jesus there and thus has an added incentive to recognize priests who faced religious persecution in Latin America. As such, his support for Rother's canonization would be "poetic justice," said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and the author of "Citizen Saints: Catholics and Canonization in America," forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.

By church standards, Rother is proceeding swiftly toward sainthood. Since 1588, when the Catholic Church created the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, it has taken an average saint 181 years from the time of death to be canonized. Many canonizations occur centuries after a person has died: Pope Francis recently canonized 813 saints - the so-called Martyrs of Otranto - whom Ottoman soldiers murdered in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, who died in 1821 and who in 1975 became the first American-born woman to be canonized, reached that milestone more than 150 years after her death. Rother, by contrast, has been dead for fewer than 40 years.

Support for Rother has helped speed his movement through the many rungs in the process. The Sololá-Chimaltenango diocese in Guatemala, where Rother served, heartily offered a forum transfer for his sainthood cause to the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City on September 3, 2007, and in 2014, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints received a formal Positio dossier, a collection of documents to detail a candidate for sainthood's heroic virtues and deem the person "venerable." The theologians on the Congregation approved the cause on June 23, 2015. Pope Francis' declaration of martyrdom the next year certainly didn't hurt. Now after the beatification, those supporting Rother's cause will look to solicit miracles to put before local dioceses and then before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Rother's candidacy for sainthood would be a boon for U.S. Catholicism. While there are other male saints identified as Americans given that they served in the U.S., they were all transplants born elsewhere: St. John Neumann was born in Bohemia (in what is now the Czech Republic), St. Damien de Veuster of Molokai was born in Belgium, St. Junipero Serra was born in Spain, Isaac Jogues was born in France.

This is not at all a trivial point, as many in the heartland, where Catholicism has waned in part due to church abuse cases, want to identify with a homegrown priestly role model and are looking to Rother to galvanize enthusiasm for the church. Given that Catholicism in the United States has recently come under fire from the Vatican for being too closely allied with dangerous right-wing politics, Pope Francis' support for Rother's cause would also show a modicum of support for the American Catholic church. Furthermore, given the fallen status of the American priesthood, this is also an opportunity to try to restore the good name to the Catholic clergy in the States.

"Admittedly for the Catholic Church in the United States and the history of the past years of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and things of that sort, I think it's a great source of encouragement as well," Coakley said. "Here's a priest that we can look to as a genuine hero who became what all of us as priests aspire to be. So this is a good story to be told and a good source of encouragement for priests and for young people."

The Bishop of Little Rock, Anthony B. Taylor, who was formerly a priest in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and who met Rother and conducted interviews in Guatemala on behalf of his canonization cause, agrees.

"[Rother] is an especially powerful witness for our priests, especially in a time when we very much need models of priestly courage and holiness," Taylor said. "And he was such an ordinary man, a plain old American like you and me. . . . But he stuck with his flock in their most difficult times, and today's priests are called to do the same thing."

Experts look to these canonizations as having the potential to boost morale among church congregants, as was hoped for when Seton was canonized in 1975 after Vatican II when the church was in crisis, Cummings said.

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