George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Two Who Didn’t Run

His neighbors in 1940s Oklahoma would have found it hard to imagine the boy they knew as Stanley Francis Rother as a future martyr and the first beatified American parish priest. Young Stan did reasonably well at school, enjoyed farm work and sports, drove a tractor at age ten, and was a gifted mechanic. Change the scenery from “suburban” to “rural” and Stan Rother, in his elementary and high school photos, could have stepped right out of the cast of Leave It to Beaver: the quintessential American kid.

But with a difference. Stanley Rother had a deep piety, of the sort one never saw in Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver or his family. That piety led Rother into the seminary, where he struggled with his studies, at one point being dismissed and sent home. He persevered, however, and finally found his academic legs at historic Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Ordained in 1963, he spent the first years of his priesthood in Oklahoma before volunteering for service in Latin America.

For over a decade, Fr. Rother—known to the indigenous peoples he served as “Padre Francisco”—worked on the uttermost peripheries of Catholic life in a small village near Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. And by “work,” I don’t mean simply running a sacramental service station. Yes, he celebrated the sacraments, evangelized and catechized his people. But he also did hard, manual labor, using the skills he had mastered on his family farm. Fr. Stanley Rother walked the walk, demonstrating with his sweat that example was a powerful form of witness and an effective catechetical tool. And the quondam seminarian who had had a very hard time with Latin mastered both Spanish and the difficult local native language, Tz’utujil, in order to translate the Missal and the New Testament into his people’s first tongue.

Guatemala was a political madhouse for over three decades, as a civil war tore the country apart between 1960 and 1996. Home on leave in 1980, Stanley Rother was warned not to return to his Guatemalan parish, as he would surely be a target for the death squads who murdered the indigenous peoples with impunity. But he was having none of that. “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” he famously said. So he returned to Santiago Atitlán, where three masked men killed him on July 28, 1981—but not before he seems to have put up a heroic fight at close quarters, in order to distract the murderers from the religious sisters living at the parish.

Stanley Francis Rother was beatified as a martyr on September 23, 2017, and his body now rests in a magnificent shrine built on the south side of Oklahoma City—a new pilgrimage site in U.S. Catholicism, visited by tens of thousands in its first year. Blessed Stanley’s heart, however, remains in the church at Santiago Atitlán, at the request of the people for whom he gave his life as both priest and martyr.

It was perhaps providential that I was praying at the Blessed Stanley Rother Shrine on the day I learned of the death of Alexei Navalny, the latest victim of Czar Putin’s homicidal autocracy. For here was another martyr, if of a different sort. By the testimony of his friends, Stanley Rother was completely apolitical; he died in odium fidei, “in hatred of the faith.” Alexei Navalny, a political leader of the noblest kind, died in odium libertatis, “in hatred of freedom”—the freedom and decency he wished for his beloved Russian people.

I never had the privilege of meeting Alexei Navalny, although I knew of his heroic work to build civil society in Russia and a democratic opposition to the Putin regime through my nine years on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy. Navalny was not just a committed freedom-fighter and master polemicist; he was a happy warrior, and I suspect paranoid Czar Putin most feared Navalny’s cutting humor and mockery. After surviving an assassination attempt in which he was poisoned with Novichok, a deadly nerve agent, he returned to Russia after recovering in Germany—and was immediately arrested on spurious charges. Consigned to a strict regime prison camp north of the Arctic Circle, he died there on February 16. Only fools imagine his a “natural” death.

Both Stanley Rother and Alexei Navalny exemplified the cardinal virtue of courage, which is also a gift of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps, one day, a radically reformed Russian Orthodoxy, returned to its Christian senses, will honor Navalny, as the Catholic Church has rightly honored Stanley Rother.  

George Weigel’s column “The Catholic Difference” is syndicated by the Denver Catholic, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Denver.

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