‘This was the plan of God’
Oklahoma priest loved parish in Guatemala
Editor’s note: This story is part of “Road to Sainthood,” an ongoing series about the late Rev. Stanley Rother, the first U.S.-born male and U.S. priest named a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church. His beatification, at a ceremony planned for Sept. 23 in Oklahoma City, will place him one step closer to canonization.
A retired Oklahoma City bishop recently recalled his last visit with the Rev. Stanley Rother in spring 1981.
The Most Rev. Eusebius Beltran said his memory of the meeting is particularly vivid because of the priest’s urgent request:
He wanted Beltran to intercede on his behalf with then Oklahoma City Archbishop Charles Salatka who had rejected the Okarche native’s plea to return to Guatemala.
“He was extremely sad that he couldn’t return. Because he felt so strongly about it, I told him that I would talk to Archbishop Salataka,” Beltran said during a recent interview.
Now, as Beltran, 84, awaits Rother’s Sept. 23 beatification ceremony, he recalled how the clergyman exuded love and compassion for the people of his beloved Guatemalan parish.
So it came as no surprise that the priest wished to return to them — despite knowing that his name had been placed on a “death list” amid the turbulence of the Guatemalan Civil War.
Beltran is currently archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. He was bishop of the Diocese of Tulsa when he met with Rother that final time.
It was customary for mission priests to meet with bishops of both dioceses on a regular basis because the dioceses supported and prayed for their mission efforts.
Beltran said Rother had come home to Oklahoma to visit his family and tend to some business.
“I thoroughly enjoyed
meeting him and hearing about the mission,” he said.
“I told him I wanted to visit, but he said because of the Civil War there it was not a good time.”
Beltran said Rother reiterated his now-famous phrase — “the shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger” — and he agreed with the priest’s idea that the Church should stand firm even in the face of trouble.
“I felt it was what the Church should do. I felt that the Church should not run from dangers and problems,” Beltran said.
Rother didn’t hesitate to return to Guatemala once Salatka gave the OK.
Beltran said the next time he spoke to the Oklahoma City bishop about the priest was when Salatka informed him of Rother’s death on July 28, 1981. The priest was shot and killed by unknown assailants in the rectory of his Guatemalan parish.
Shock set in immediately. But, with an understanding of Rother’s reasons for returning to danger, eventually came a sense of acceptance.
“I was dismayed, and yet I was relieved because this was the plan of God,” Beltran said.
He traveled with Salatka to visit the Guatemalan archbishop shortly after Rother’s death and the three of them agreed that Rother “was truly ‘martyred for the faith.’”
Beltran said he made it a priority to see that the priest was placed on the path to sainthood.
Championing the cause
Rother was among several clergymen and religious sisters who were killed while they served the Church in Guatemala during the Civil War.
Beltran said there was a movement in Guatamala to send a list of names of these missionaries who had been martyred to Rome in the hope that they would be recognized in some way by the Church.
George Rigazzi, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s archivist, said there were 28 people on that list. Rother was No. 28.
Beltran said that project ultimately failed, perhaps because the Guatemalan church didn’t have many trained people to oversee the complex process of the cause for canonization. After a couple of years went by, he said, he successfully obtained the permission of Guatemalan clergy leaders and Rome to begin the cause for Rother’s canonization in his home diocese of Oklahoma City.
Beltran said his fervent wish was to see the Oklahoma City archdiocese’s portion of Rother’s cause for canonization completed by 2010 — before he retired.
The process was begun in 2007 and completed in August 2010. Beltran retired in February 2011. He was 78, the mandatory retirement age for bishops in the Church.
Beltran wondered if he would live long enough to see Rother’s beatification. He said he feels blessed that the time has arrived.
“I was convinced from my first meeting with Father Rother that he was a good and holy priest. I’m convinced that he had a call from God to become a priest,” Beltran said.
He has now set his sights on attending Rother’s canonization, which he is sure eventually will happen.
“I would love to see that. I would go to Rome or wherever it is,” he said, smiling.
“Father Rother has been an inspiration to me.”
The Most Rev. Eusebius Beltran, then archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, in 2007 discusses the cause for canonization for the Rev. Stanley Rother at a news conference at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Oklahoma City.
The Most Rev. Eusebius Beltran, archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, visits an exhibit Friday about the Rev. Stanley Rother on display in the Heritage Gallery at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Oklahoma City.
The Most Rev. Eusebius Beltran, then archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, holds up in 2007 a picture of the Rev. Stanley Rother as he discusses the cause for canonization for Rother at a news conference at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Oklahoma City.
The Rev. Stanley Rother blesses a child during a ceremony at his Santiago Atitlan parish in Guatemala.