In a remarkable testament to the ministry of a martyred American missionary priest who tirelessly served the poor in rural Guatemala, more than 20,000 people turned out last weekend in Oklahoma City for the beatification of Father Stanley Rother.
We expect there’ll be a similar large turnout of the faithful Nov. 18 in Detroit, at the beatification of another down-to-earth American priest, Father Solanus Casey, O.F.M. Cap., a compassionate listener whose willingness to help others led thousands to seek his blessing and counsel over the years.
Both of these men struggled academically as they pursued their path to priesthood, and both suffered setbacks along the way. But they used their unique gifts to lead the people they served to God’s grace.
While the paths they took were different, their faith and dedication serve as an affirmation of the U.S. priesthood and its many and varied ministries.
Father Rother, who excelled at farming tasks but had trouble learning Latin and other subjects, was advised to withdraw from his studies for the priesthood after several years at a Texas seminary. His local bishop in Oklahoma, sensing the young man’s dedication, put in a good word for him at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., leading to his ordination in 1963.
The new priest served in parishes of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City until 1968, when he volunteered to serve in an archdiocesan mission in the rural highlands of southwest Guatemala ministering to the Tz’utujil people. His struggles with Latin notwithstanding, he made it his business to learn not just Spanish, as well as the unwritten indigenous Tz’utujil language as well.
He became the leader of the Oklahoma-backed mission in 1975 and was beloved by the people he served. He was proud of his preaching skills in the local language, and regularly put his farming skills to work in the community, including operating a bulldozer to clear land for farming. With civil unrest and violence increasing in Guatemala, and in the face of death threats against those who helped empower the poor, Father Rother was murdered in his mission rectory in 1981.
Father Casey, a Wisconsin native who died in 1957, similarly struggled academically in the high school seminary he entered in Milwaukee. He was gently nudged toward a religious order, which could allow him to fulfill his vocation as a “simplex” priest—meaning he could celebrate Mass but could not preach doctrinal sermons or hear confessions.
Ordained by the Capuchin Franciscan Order in Detroit, he was assigned early on to Capuchin parishes in the Archdiocese of New York, where he served for 20 years as a friary porter in parishes in Yonkers and Manhattan before returning to Detroit to carry out similar duties for his remaining 33 years of priesthood. Yet he was able to touch so many who sought his quiet, healing grace and many who continue to seek his blessing through prayer.
At a time when vocations to the priesthood are not plentiful, these two holy men exemplify the difference that good priests can and do make in their parishes and communities, wherever they may be.
At the beatification Mass of Blessed Stanley Rother, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints Causes, said the priest is an “authentic lighted torch of hope for the Church and the world.”
“Formed in the school of the Gospel, he saw even his enemies as fellow human beings. He did not hate, but loved. He did not destroy, but built up,” Cardinal Amato said.
It’s a lesson we all could stand to learn.