A few nights ago, I found myself wide awake with my mind spinning in a semi-panicked state. Maybe it was the fact that I had just celebrated my 37th birthday. Although I’m not one to mourn my age on birthdays, that number seems particularly large this year. It could also be that I am at a career crossroads, where I soon need to decide what kind of path I really want to take. The biggest portion of it is that in less than three months, I will be a father for the first time when, God willing, my wife and I will welcome our daughter into the world. This sleepless night seemed to be the culmination of change and transition along with the excitement, stress and anxiety in my life that I’ve mentioned in previous posts over the past couple of years.
Stress and anxiety aren’t unique to me. The American Psychological Association states that only 18% of Americans sensed a decrease in stress over the last year1. Money, work, family and society have most of us stressed out, overwhelmed and at times, feeling inadequate. Many, like me, have moments when they wonder if they are capable of overcoming the obstacles in front of them and accomplishing the goals they have set for themselves.
While tossing and turning through that restless night, my mind settled when I somewhat randomly began to ponder the life and martyrdom of Fr. Stanley Rother. If you haven’t heard of Fr. Rother, he was a priest of what was then known as the Diocese of Oklahoma City-Tulsa. After a few years of serving in parishes around Oklahoma, in 1968, he volunteered to serve at a mission parish in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala during a time of great civil unrest in the Central American country.
The work he did to support the people of Santiago Atitlán did not sit well with the radical military forces that were rampaging the country, and his name ended up on a “death list”. After hearing of the threat, the bishop called him back to Oklahoma, but he could not stay away from his people. He returned and within a few weeks was murdered by assassins in the middle of the night at the rectory.
The anniversary of his death was on July 28 and is quite important to Catholics in Oklahoma, especially this year. A Vatican commission recently determined his death to be that of a martyr. This is a giant step toward his beatification. Many Oklahoma Catholics hope that, by this time next year, we will be referring to Fr. Rother as “blessed”.
You might ask, “What does a martyred priest have to do with those of us that are overstressed and overwhelmed?” The reality is, thankfully, that the martyrdom portion of Fr. Rother’s life is something most of us will likely never encounter. The details of how he got from small Okarche, Oklahoma to the precipice of canonized saint, however, offer some lessons for facing challenges in our lives.
Newly ordained Fr. Rother with his family in Okarche.
Fr. Rother was a humble farm boy from a small town. By small, I mean a population of roughly 1,200 people. Having grown up in a slightly smaller town as part of a farming and agricultural family, it is easy for me to relate to the environment in which he grew up. Like many kids from similar towns, he developed a strong work ethic by working on a farm. Later, when he attended seminary, the ingenuity he learned on the farm made him a great asset as someone willing to do various bits of manual labor.
His skills were so valuable that his work often got in the way of his studies. Additionally, growing up in a rural community meant more time spent in high school focusing on classes like agricultural education than other subjects like Latin. This made his seminary studies even more difficult during a time when all study was done in Latin. After five years in seminary, he was told it was better for him stop his studies and try another vocation.
No doubt feeling defeated, he met with Bishop Victor Reed, then Bishop of Oklahoma City/Tulsa. After re-affirming his desire to be a priest, Bishop Reed arranged to send him to another seminary where his studies improved. Fr. Rother faced the stuggle, overcame it and a few years later he was ordained a priest.
Fr. Rother with some of the local children.
That willingness to roll up his sleeves and serve through working, which was an obstacle early on in seminary, became his greatest asset when he arrived in Guatemala. The natives in Santiago Atitlán were some of the poorest of the poor. He once again used the skills he learned on the farm to help establish crops, teach the people farming techniques and build housing.
Serving the people there elevated Fr. Rother’s intellectual abilities, as well. He helped establish literacy programs and build up medical services. The same man who struggled with Latin in seminary, learned Tzutuhil, the native language of the people. He even worked on a translation of the Bible into their native tongue.
Of course, while all the work he did made him beloved by those he was serving, it made him a target of those seeking control over the country. This led to his biggest obstacle: a decision to leave for safety or stay for certain death. The rest is history. He chose to trust God’s call for him and face the obstacle, and it cost him his life.
Again, most of us will never face such a perilous obstacle, but the stressors, challenges and struggles in our life present us with the same challenge that Fr. Rother faced. Do we trust in God’s call and face the struggle, or do we retreat from it? Popular quotations aside, there will be times in life that God gives us more than we can handle. Life will at times seem like it is simply too much. When those times come, maybe instead of considering how much we can handle, we should accept that we can’t handle it all. For all those things in life that we simply can’t handle, we must, like Fr. Rother, entrust them to God.
Father Stanley Rother, Servant of God, Pray for Us.
1 Stress Snapshot