A recent edition of The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page featured an essay by Matthew Hennessy, one of their associate editorial features editors, titled “The Priesthood Is a Heroic Vocation.” Hennessy argues that “young men still want lives of heroic virtue and the priesthood offers that in abundance.” He suggests that vocation directors need to appeal to young men by telling the stories of heroic priests.
On Sat., Sept. 23, Father Stanley Rother will be beatified by the Church during a ceremony in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, his home diocese. Stanley Rother is a contemporary example of a HERO priest. He will be the first American diocesan priest to be declared Blessed and the first American male martyr. At the young age of 46 Father Rother was murdered out of hatred for the church.
When Stanley Rother entered the seminary, and after years of study and formation leading to priestly ordination in 1963, he could never have imagined that one day the church would recognize his holiness and propose to the faithful his example of life for imitation.
After ordination to the priesthood, he served for five years in a number of assignments in his diocese as a parish priest. He then volunteered for and was accepted to do missionary work in Guatemala in the parish of Santiago Atitlán which was administered by priests of Oklahoma City. At that time some American bishops responded to the invitation of Saint John XXIII to staff parishes in Central and South America. Our Camden Diocese accepted missions in Brazil and sent Camden priests to staff them.
In Santiago Atitlán Father Rother ministered with great priestly zeal to mostly poor parishioners. Among the pastoral initiatives he established were: a health clinic, the first Catholic radio station, instruction in farming, a farmers cooperative, sacramental formation, preparation of catechists, Bible study, a school, in addition to the multiple sacramental duties of a parish priest. He even helped develop a written form of Tz’utujil, the language of the local natives.
At that time a civil war was raging in Guatemala and the native Indian peoples were suspected of being revolutionaries. Most of Father Rother’s parishioners were Mayan Indians. Despite the danger he faced due to the political situation Father Rother chose to remain with his parishioners. “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people…” he wrote in his final Christmas letter which was published in the diocesan newspaper in Oklahoma City. “If it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then be it so.”
As the situation worsened the anti-church climate grew and focused on parish leaders who did things like feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, teach farming techniques, encourage the study of the Bible, proclaim the Gospel, explain the faith and love the poor. Some of these leaders (catechists) were kidnapped and murdered. The name of Stanley Rother was put on a death list. As the situation worsened, he went home to Oklahoma in early 1981 for a few months but then he chose to return to his people in Santiago Atitlán. The end came for him on July 28, 1981. He was martyred in his rectory. As the news of the murder of the priest spread around Santiago Atitlán, hundreds of his flock came to the church plaza. There they mourned the loss of their shepherd and stood in a deafening silence facing the parish church. Pope Francis declared Father Stanley Rother a martyr for the faith worthy of the honors of the Altar.
I have asked each of our 19 seminarians to have a special intention at Mass on Saturday Sept. 23, the day of Blessed Stanley Rother’s beatification. That intention is to pray for vocations to the priesthood for our diocese. Perhaps, you would also pray on the 23rd for priestly vocations for the Diocese of Camden.
We need young men who have a desire to SERVE people. We are looking for young men of COURAGE who are not afraid to consider a call to the diocesan priesthood. We need HERO priests right here in South Jersey. Priests who are inspired with a missionary zeal to go out to all with the Gospel and to invite all to our Catholic Church. We need priests who are willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We need priests who are committed to the New Evangelization. We need priests like Blessed Stanley Rother. Shepherds whose lives are gladly given to the flock. They are out there. Some of them just need a little push. Perhaps, your prayer and your word could assist with that.
I agree with Matthew Hennessey’s conclusion that young Catholic men are looking for a challenge. The diocesan priesthood is a very challenging life and a very rewarding life. We ask the intercession of Blessed Stanley Rother to move the hearts and minds of young men to discern a vocation to the priesthood for the Diocese of Camden.
Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us.
Most Reverend Dennis J. Sullivan, D.D.
Bishop of Camden