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Pope Francis announces first US martyr, leading the way for beatification

05 December 2016 | by Catholic News Service

The recognition of Fr Rother's martyrdom clears the way for his beatification

Pope Francis has recognised the martyrdom of Father Stanley Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, making him the first martyr born in the United States.

The Vatican made the announcement last Friday (2 December) after Francis met with Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. 

Father Rother was born 27 March 1935, on his family's farm near Okarche, Oklahoma. He was brutally murdered in 1981 in a Guatemalan village where he ministered to the poor.

For over twenty years he helped the people there build a small hospital, school and its first Catholic radio station. He was beloved by the locals, who called him "Padre Francisco".

Many priests and religious in Guatemala became targets during the country's 1960-1996 civil war as government forces cracked down on leftist rebels supported by the rural poor. Many lost their lives and thousands of civilians were kidnapped and killed during the years of state-sponsored oppression in the country.

In the years leading up to his death, the bodies of some of Father Rother's deacons and parishioners were left in front of his church and soon he received numerous death threats over his opposition to the presence of the Guatemalan military in the area.

He was gunned down at the age 46 in the rectory of his church in Santiago Atitlan, an isolated village 50 miles west of Guatemala City.

Government officials there put the blame on the Catholic Church for the unrest in the country. On the day he died, troops also killed 13 townspeople and wounded 24 others.

While his body was returned to Oklahoma, his family gave permission for his heart and some of his blood to be enshrined in his church; a memorial plaque marks the place.

Father Rother was considered a martyr by the church in Guatemala and his name was included on a list of 78 martyrs for the faith killed during Guatemala's 36-year-long civil war.

The list of names to be considered for canonisation was submitted by Guatemala's bishops to St John Paul II during a pastoral visit to Guatemala in 1996

Because Father Rother was killed in Guatemala, his cause should have been undertaken there, but the local church lacked the resources for such an effort. The Guatemalan bishops' conference agreed to a transfer of jurisdiction to the Oklahoma City Archdiocese. 

News of the recognition was welcomed in Oklahoma. "This comes as a great joy to all of us here not only in Oklahoma, but I think it's a great blessing to the church in the United States," Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City told Catholic News Service after hearing the news.

He also called the recognition of the priest's martyrdom a gift to the Catholic Church in Guatemala.

Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, author of a 2015 biography of the priest, described Father Rother's martyrdom as a "reminder that we are all called to holiness in our ordinary lives, and that holy men and women come from ordinary places like Okarche, Oklahoma".

"This is what his community remembers – that he was one of them," she said. "And when their village suffered oppression and killings from a violent and brutal civil war, he remained one with them. He was truly the shepherd who didn't run."

Photo: Fr Stanley Rother 



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