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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Christian Martyrs as Artists of the faith

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Today’s readings bring to light a theme that is pretty far from a good Mother’s Day theme: christian persecution.  While Paul & Barnabas are harassed by the faithful Jews in Antioch (just a small dose of the terrible persecutions to come for them), John has a vision of the faithful martyrs in heaven wearing white robes with palm branches.  While their earthly lives may be destroyed, this vision proves Jesus’ words that “No one can take them out of my hand.”

Martyrdom is not a thing of the past.  Bombing in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.  Two years ago similar bombing in Egypt killing many Coptic Christians.  In fact, it would take way too long to try to form a complete list for us all, as Christians are the most commonly persecuted faith in our world.  Last century in fact, more Christians suffered and died for the Lord Jesus than any other century prior.  If anything, martyrdom is a thing of the present, not the past.

The courage of the martyrs is a model for us all.  The martyrs, like trained artists, studied their subject intensely, looking at it again and again, sometimes for extended periods of time, and noticing all the little components of it.  They teach themselves to see things that we normally wouldn’t see, because they are looking so closely and paying such perfect attention to patter, detail, relationship, proportion, shape, light, etc. etc. This is how the artist can truly represent the world before them which they are trying to draw or paint or sculpt.

It is that depth of study that allows the martyrs to be martyrs.  They have studied the Lord Jesus, and His Paschal mystery, with such a similar tendency as an artist.  Instead of studying to represent it on canvas or sculpture or other media, the Christian martyrs are shaping themselves and painting the image of Jesus on their own minds and hearts by daily living.  They study Christ and then live Christ, more and more.  This is why they (and all saints) are our best models of the faith.

We should study their lives as well.  To learn from a master painter or a professional of any trade is the greatest way to grow in that skill or way of life.  So we must study Christian masters, including our patroness, but especially today the Martyrs.  Learn about Maximillian Kolbe, Tarcisius, Sebastian, Perpetual & Felicity, etc.

Father Stanley grew up in a devout German Catholic family on a farm in rural Oklahoma. He struggled in the seminary and, after failing his first year of theology, was sent to Mount Saint Mary’s. He did well at the Mount. He was great at manual labor and quite often visited the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes on the mountain above the seminary. He would pray and do manual work there. In fact, he helped to make the Grotto’s rock wall. And he did a lot better in his studies at the Mount. 
After his ordination in 1963, Father Stanley served five years as a parish priest in Oklahoma. Then, he volunteered to serve in the diocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala. He arrived there in 1968 and served as part of a mission team. He would eventually be the only priest to remain there. Immediately, Father Stanley identified with the simple, farming lifestyle of the people of Santiago Atitlan. He studied Spanish which he never really mastered, but he also studied the native language spoken by his indigenous parishioners, the Tzutujil Indians, and he became fluent in their language. For thirteen years, he served as their priest, their shepherd. He worked very hard among the people whom He cared for spiritually and materially. He built a farmer’s co-op, a school, a hospital, and a Catholic radio station used for catechesis. He worked on the farms with the Tzutujil farmers which he saw as part of his vocation as a minister of God’s love. Amid all the hard work, Father Stanley fell in love with the people he served. 

The civil war in Guatemala reached the peaceful village of Santiago Atitlan in the late 1970’s. Some of Father Stanley’s parishioners, including his catechists, disappeared. Some were killed. The situation became very dangerous. He wrote in a Christmas letter to his diocesan newspaper the following words: “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, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.” 

Father Stanley returned to Oklahoma in early 1981 because his name appeared on a death list. He was warned not to return to Guatemala. Father Stanley visited Mount Saint Mary’s for a little retreat. He prayed and discerned that he could not abandon his people. He remained resolute in his belief that the shepherd cannot run. He returned to Santiago Atitlan in time for Holy Week in April, 1981. The people rejoiced that their pastor had returned. 

That summer, amid all the tensions, Father Stanley and his parishioners still had their annual celebration of their patronal feast, Santiago, Saint James, on July 25th. Father Stanley was warned the day before that his assassination was imminent, but he proceeded with the celebrations. A few days later, at 1:30 in the morning on July 28th, three masked men broke into the rectory and attacked Father Stanley. He fought them hard, but they shot him twice in the head and killed him. The whole room was splattered with blood. The religious sisters who found his body wiped up the blood which is venerated in the parish church today. His beloved people cried and mourned at his death. A couple thousand came to his funeral. He had served faithfully as their priest, their spiritual father, their shepherd, for 13 years. And he laid down his life for them. They considered him “their” saint. Father Stanley’s family wanted his body returned to Oklahoma, but they agreed to allow his heart to remain and it is kept in the parish church of Santiago. Today, Father Stanley is venerated there and also in Oklahoma. 

The early Church Father, Tertullian, in the third century wrote the famous words: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.” These words ring true today. During Father Stanley’s lifetime, there were few, if any, priestly vocations among the Tzutujil Indians. Today, there are many priestly vocations among the Tzutujil Indians. Reflecting on Father Stanley Rother’s martyrdom and its fruits among his people, we can say: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of priestly vocations.”

I shared this summary of Father Stanley’s priestly life and his death at this Chrism Mass especially as an example for our priests, an example of our calling to love our people and to be close to them.

Father Stanley Rother fought his attackers. You don’t often hear that in regard to our Christian martyrs. But, Father Rother did not want to be taken by them and tortured, nor did he want to risk the lives of his people who would try to rescue him. Here he is also a model for us. I hope we have the courage to fight to protect our people from the forces of evil. This is “the good fight” spoken of by Saint Paul. It is the battle won by Jesus on the cross. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, did not run from the cross. Father Stanley, an icon of the Good Shepherd, did not run from the cross. The Good Shepherd cannot run. “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” My brother priests, this is our vocation and the great promise we renew at this Mass. Like Father Stanley Rother, may we follow Christ the Head and Shepherd, not seeking any gain, but moved only by zeal for souls. My brothers and sisters, please pray for me and our priests, that we will love you and all our people with the heart of Jesus and that we will never run from the cross. In the words of Father Stanley Rother to the people of Oklahoma in his last Christmas letter: “Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people.”

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