Blessed Stanley Rother: First U.S. Born Martyr | Fr. Patrick Briscoe & Fr. Joseph-Anthony Kress

May 16, 2024

Fr. Patrick: This is Father Patrick Briscoe. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: This is Father Joseph-Anthony Kress. 

Fr. Patrick: Welcome to Godsplaining. Thanks to all who support us. If you enjoy the show, please consider making a monthly donation on Patreon. Be sure to like and subscribe to Godsplaining wherever you listen to your podcasts. Father Joseph-Anthony, how are you? 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Oh, I am peachy, peachy keen. 

Fr. Patrick: One of the things that I like about the show and the way we structure it is we just kind of check in and see what’s going on. And I know that you’ve had a recent development because you’ve been brought on to the team, the liturgy team, for the National Eucharistic Congress, which is gonna happen in Indianapolis this summer. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: That’s right, that’s right. I’m super excited. Blessed to be able-

Fr. Patrick: You could smile when you say that he’s not. This isn’t a hostage video. Father Joseph Anthony is actually excited about the Congress. No, he really is. He talks to me about it all the time. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: All the time. Yeah, I’m really blessed to be able to have the invitation to support the liturgical team and the liturgies that will take place really at the center of the Eucharistic Congress. There are many, kind of large-scale events in the Catholic Church, that are multifaceted that involve different elements of formation and small groups and breakout sessions and social things. But the Eucharistic Congress is unique because its real center point, the whole purpose of it, is to have people encounter the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. And that primarily happens in a liturgical setting. So it’s gonna be mass, it’s gonna be adoration every day. And so I’ve been extremely blessed to have that invitation and support the liturgy team and the committees surrounding the Eucharistic Congress. My main, I don’t know if I wanna say this out there ’cause it’ll be, I’m responsible for it. So if it goes well, I’ll take that. If not, I have no idea. But my main responsibility is to kind of oversee the liturgical logistics for all the liturgies and to draw on my experience. Our experience in World Youth Day in Krakow and multiple other large-scale events and kind of-

Fr. Patrick: The USCCB Convocation in Florida in the summertime. That was hot. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: That was very hot, yeah, yeah. Well-

Fr. Patrick: Remember that procession? I think I’m still sweating from that procession. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: I do, I do, yeah. 

Fr. Patrick: Good old Orlando. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Orlando in the middle of July is a great time to do a multi-mile procession or not. No, we chopped it down. It was not a mile. 

Fr. Patrick: I finally got the stink out of my habit after that, yeah. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: But I’m excited. It’ll be the largest event I’ve ever worked upon. I’ve done many different events in arenas and multi-tiered arenas and things like this. But we’re looking at Lucas Oilfield, 55,000 people. And to be able to be in one place worshiping the Lord and encountering him is just, is so exciting. And so it’s months worth of preparation, a lot of meetings, a lot of diagrams, and oh my gosh, all those different things. But it’s a labor of love. And it’s, you know, the reason that myself and all of the members of the liturgical team have spent so many hours in conversation and planning is to facilitate the prayer of the attendees. And to be able to do that together with 55,000 of my closest friends is quite exciting. So I’m looking forward to it. It’s gonna be, I really do believe this. I think it’s gonna be a watershed moment for the American church. And so if you’re able to be in Indianapolis, please come there. And if you are thinking about what is happening, it’s the Lord and his mercy. That’s what’s happening. And so I wanna extend that invitation to our listeners that you still have time to make your way to Indianapolis and to join this, I do believe, for our church in this present age as we move deeper, deeper into an apostolic age, deeper and deeper into this new kind of phase of life, both in the phase of the church as individuals, this is gonna be a critical moment. So I’m excited to be a part of it. And yeah, I’m looking forward to it. 

Fr. Patrick: And we’ve talked about the revival a few times on the show. I had some different guests, and I’ve been really involved as a Eucharistic preacher. And of course, Our Sunday Visitor, the ministry where I serve currently has had a lot to do with supporting the Congress. So my amazing colleagues, Jill Adamson and Jason Shanks have been really devoted to ensuring that the event is gonna be a success. But one thing that I’ve been pushing to people is saying, you know, don’t just come for yourself, because there are going to be many graces that Jesus is going to offer, but bring someone with you. Find, go because there’s someone that you know that’s kind of beginning to grow in their faith, and make that invitation and take them with you, because this is really a pilgrim opportunity to go and to seek the Lord with someone. You know, like this, you say like, well, I don’t really want to invite someone to Sunday Mass in my parish because it’s not that exciting. Like, well, hello, you know, this is the thing. I mean, you should always do that because the Lord of the universe is at your parish every Sunday. So I can’t imagine what could be better than going to see, oh, I don’t know, the maker of the Heavens and the earth. But we’ll set that aside and we’ll say like, I’m looking for the kind of thing to invite someone to. You should invite them to the Congress. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Yes! 

Fr. Patrick: Because it’s gonna be fabulous. The liturgy’s gonna be beautiful. Everyone will get communion in a timely and orderly manner because I know you and that’s your brand. And I just think, you know, as you’re saying, that this is really gonna be an outpouring of grace in the life of the church. Now, the Lord in his providence has done so much to give Americans many graces over the years. In our history of the American church, one of the things that I have learned because of the revival is a lot about the martyrs of La Florida, for example, which people might not really know about because of Jesuit propaganda. So many people think that the first martyrs in the United States are the North American martyrs. And I don’t mean to besmirch John Brabough, who’s an exemplary and holy man, right? Or Isaac Jogges or any of the other North American martyrs whose stories are so encouraging. But martyrs died in Florida, several of them, Dominicans and native people that we evangelized on the shores of Florida, they died for the Eucharist. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Yes. Yes. 

Fr. Patrick: And I think that in the United States, if we know anything about our country’s martyrs, about the North American martyrs, or maybe our listeners are already better catechized than I am and they already knew about the martyrs of La Florida. But we tend to think of martyrdom as a historic category in the US Church. And that’s because we’ve been so blessed, I would say, in this country, that there was real waves of Catholic persecution in the 19th century. A lot of that was the anti-immigrant sentiment that the Italians suffered. Like people can see in the Angel Studios film about Mother Cabrini or that the Irish suffered. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Right, right. 

Fr. Patrick: But we don’t really see many modern American martyrs, but there are some. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Yeah! 

Fr. Patrick: Which is why we wanted to take the time on this episode to talk about Blessed Stanley Rother. So why don’t you, Father Joseph-Anthony, introduce Blessed Stanley to people who maybe have heard nothing about this great man? 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: No, I don’t think I really heard much about him until he was beatified. Like, I’ll be very honest. I didn’t know anything about this man until there was this big beatification ceremony in Oklahoma City. And it was this kind of making the waves in news outlets. And it was like, oh, there’s a new American beatist, like a new American saint from Oklahoma. And he was a martyr. And then you see the picture and there’s this guy with a nice kind of red tight shaved beard. And he’s wearing a little kind of knit multicolored stole. I’m like, we’re beatifying this guy? Like, he’s wearing like a polo shirt in the picture. Like, what is going on here? And so I just kind of cast that to the side and I was like, ah, whatever, like local devotions and things like that. And then-

Fr. Patrick: I mean, what could possibly be going on in Oklahoma, right? 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: I know, what good can come from Oklahoma, you know? And then one of my focused missionaries who served at the University of Virginia with me a number of years ago had a devotion to Blessed Stanley and had studied or had gone to Guatemala and studied the Spanish language to brush up on his Spanish skills. And it was during his time in Guatemala that he had visited the small town where Blessed Stanley was murdered, or martyred and murdered, and had this very deep devotion to him because of the priestly sanctity that was there. And he was in seminary at the time and it was that visit that actually confirmed his vocation. And his vocation was actually not to be a priest. And his deep devotion to Blessed Stanley was my first introduction to it. So shout out to Dan, love you, man, appreciate it all. But then let’s fast forward until this past October and I end up in Oklahoma City. And I’m giving a talk out there and I was invited to give a talk and so I’m there and my flight leaves the next day at like 2p.m. And one of the attendees at the talk came up to me and said like, hey, I’m willing, I’ll be happy to take you to the airport. Do you have anything going on tomorrow morning? No, nothing. He’s like, would you wanna go to the Blessed Stanley Shrine? It’s this new shrine we just built. And I said, sure, why not? And I was like, I’ll go pray for my buddy Dan who was the one I know he has a devotion to it and for his family. And I went to the shrine and it was spectacular. Absolutely stunning. Spanish kind of Renaissance style with a beautiful plaza in front of it. The architecture took a lot from Lake Atollon which is where Blessed Stanley was and influenced the design of it. But they have this small little museum that tells the life of Blessed Stanley. And I was just captivated by this man. His deep, deep love, his roots from Oklahoma, love for the priesthood, perseverance. He barely made it through seminary. So many charitable works are just like, all right, let’s get him through. Wasn’t academically astute. So always a big fan of the saints who maybe struggled in seminary, aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. I connect very strongly to them. But seeing how he loved the Lord in his early years, how he loved the Lord here in the United States in Oklahoma, his time in seminary at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland, and then his time as a missionary in Guatemala and how he just poured himself out there and the love of the native people for him. And that drew him to the point that he gave his life for them. And we’ll talk more about all the circumstances and his life around that. But that was a really profound moment for me to walk through that museum and how well it was curated to tell the story of this native born Oklahoma, one of their own, and then to be able to pray in front of him. His body is there in Oklahoma City now. And it was a unique experience. I’m very, very grateful for the people of Oklahoma City, the Bishop of Oklahoma City, to be able to claim this man as their own and to promote his sanctity as a model and example for all of us, and I was, yeah, I love him. 

Fr. Patrick: I think that, yeah, there’s really something, too, this discovery of American saints, which is ongoing because we don’t have the history that Western Europe has, that the Church in Jerusalem has, that the Church in the Middle East or the Mediterranean world have. And I think it leads us to a kind of joy when we discover these American saints, right? So I first encountered Blessed Stanley at Mount St. Mary’s. As you mentioned, that’s his alma mater because in the chapel there, there’s a shrine and a relic of his which can be venerated. So if you’re passing by the mount, swing into Immaculate Conception there, and you can venerate this great saint’s relic. And then I got to know Blessed Stanley a little bit better because Our Sunday Visitor has what I would argue is the best biography of Blessed Stanley. Oh, yeah. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Right here, down lens. This is it, yes. 

Fr. Patrick: There we are. Thank you, Vanna White, for anyone watching on YouTube. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Yeah, exactly. Big fan of this book, by the way. 

Fr. Patrick: So, “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run”, “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run”, is the title of the biography about Blessed Stanley from O.C. And part of the reason why the biography is so good, I mean, it’s really well done as a book, but because his story is so interesting. So how does one go from being a diocesan priest in Oklahoma to being a missionary in Guatemala? What’s the story there for Blessed Stanley? 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Yeah, so Blessed Stanley was ordained in the mid-20th century. And it was right around that time there was a call from the Vatican to Western countries, United States, Canada, Europe, to invest their missionary efforts into Central America. And so at the time, there was one diocese in Oklahoma. It was the Diocese of Oklahoma City. And that diocese took on the responsibility of this one small area in Guatemala. And so they had committed to that. Now, during the time of the missions down there, there was actually, the Diocese of Tulsa was established and things like that. But the mission in Lake Atollon, Guatemala, was a responsibility of the entire state of Oklahoma. And so the bishop there took priests and sent priests down to serve that area. They also had medical professionals, there were doctors, there were religious sisters that came down, there were lay evangelists. So this was a missionary activity of the entire diocese and not just the presbyterate of a diocese. It was a commitment of the people of Oklahoma to serve and evangelize the native people of Lake Atollon. And it was a really beautiful kind of mission. And it had its fits and starts. It had its positives and negatives and struggles and things like that. But I think it’s important to recognize that when Blessed Stanley went down to that mission, he was a part of a much larger fabric of a missionary activity from the diocese, from the state of Oklahoma, that included other missionaries, other professionals, and other religious to serve in that area. 

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, that’s really interesting to think about. I was just gonna point out that because of the surplus, the growth of the church immediately after World War II, there were a lot of missionary movements, actually, from American dioceses. And that’s kind of faded from our consciousness as we’ve approached vocations these days. But we don’t think about how even diocesan priests, we tend to associate religious with the works and the missions, but even diocesan priests in this era were very involved. And then as you say, the mission was much bigger than just the presbyterate. There’s really a kind of challenge there for us to think about how not only religious, but the laity have a responsibility to support missionary endeavors, not just financially, but to really be actively involved in them. So when Blessed Stanley gets down there, one of the things that we see as part of his legacy is his keen attention to the native peoples, right? Like you mentioned, the initial kind of, repulsion is too strong a word, but maybe at the very least, we could say a kind of question or a wondering because the icons depict him wearing a woven stole, which for many of us, we would identify with as a sign of a particular ideology. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Yes, absolutely. 

Fr. Patrick: But I’ve heard you talk about Blessed Stanley as someone who really understood enculturation and what it means to bring the church to a particular place. So could you say a few words about how that impacted his ministry? 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: In the biography, one of the things that repeatedly comes up is his deep love for the Mass and the Eucharist. And this was also really apparent in the kind of museum portion of the shrine, is how dedicated he was to the sacraments in allowing the native people to receive the sacraments and engage in those in a sacred way. You know, they had a church that was built by previous missionaries centuries before, but he devoted himself to ornamenting that shrine appropriately, making sure that it was a sacred place that when the natives were coming out of the coffee fields and the fincas and all those things, that they had appropriate sacred place to encounter their Lord. And he was very, very devoted to the Mass and making sure it was celebrated well, whether it was in that small church, or he would take it out into the coffee fields and into the huts where the people were if they couldn’t get to the town. And a lot of the native people really remarked on when he showed up, you know, he was bringing something sacred. And he brought enough of that that there was that engagement with the Sacred Liturgy in Jesus and the Eucharist. And that became kind of the great motivating factor to him. And so much so that he turned his very life into a holocaust, a sacrifice, that imitated the sacrifice of the mass that he was so devoted to and keen on putting his native people in contact with, that he imitated that by the giving of his life in a real way. 

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, let’s talk a little bit more about that because I think some of our listeners would understand, you know, have some knowledge of history and would understand how Guatemala was unstable, certainly in the years that Busset Stanley would have been a missionary there. For example, I could think of another great American missionary martyr, Blessed James Miller, who was a Christian brother and alumnus of my alma mater, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, there we go. So God bless the Christian brothers. And we ask Blessed James prayers. But why would someone who was just being attentive to the native culture and giving him the Eucharist, why would Busset Stanley have been killed? I mean, this sounds like something that would be, you know, just fairly non-controversial, actually. This is just a priest getting people to pray and kind of loving on them. So why did he die? 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Well, it was at the time there was a lot of kind of political upheaval in the country of Guatemala, and it was very unstable. And certain factions of that kind of political culture became radically militarized. And they started then to expand into more of the rural areas with a military force. And the kind of push was to minimize the influence of the native peoples. So kind of to purify, in a sense, the influence of the native Mayan culture. And it was done in a really radical militarized mode. Why did Father Stanley and a lot of the other Catholics become kind of public enemies, number one, of this radical militarized government movement? Well, it was because they recognized the dignity of each and every human person, including the natives. So Father Stanley, you know, for a variety of reasons, but some of them actually, the work that they were doing out of his small town was to kind of dignify the work in the individuals of the natives. And so one of the ways that he did this is he actually devoted himself to learning the local dialect. So in Guatemala, most people would speak Spanish, but there’s these pockets of native dialects. And he devoted himself, his Spanish was actually not that good. He was more fluent in the native dialect than his Spanish. And then he gathered many others around them and they started to translate the New Testament into the native dialect. And he was actually one of the major motivators to actually put it into a written language and translated the scripture so that the locals could understand the scriptures at Mass. That’s why he did the New Testament translation. And he promoted that. It was so that the natives could understand the readings at Mass. 

Fr. Patrick: Wow, that’s incredible. It’s like Cyrill and Methodius. It’s like the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet, right? 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: And when the environment in Guatemala got very tense and this was becoming a major issue, he actually took the catechists who were doing the major translations work and got a safe house for them in Guatemala City so that they could continue the translations without risk. So that once again, so that the people could be dignified in themselves and their heritage and as well as their native language. So those types of things where it was entering into a culture, receiving the culture for what it was, but also putting it in contact with the Lord Himself, those types of things which would elevate the dignity of the human person and he would care for them and he would bless their marriages and baptize their children and give them hope essentially. Even in their current context, he became an enemy of that because it was like they wanted to extinguish the Mayan culture instead of sanctify. And that’s why he became a very, a huge target. 

Fr. Patrick: Now walk us through how he actually died. We can think of really, really powerful martyrdoms in Latin America like Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Of course. 

Fr. Patrick: He was murdered while celebrating Holy Mass. How did Blessed Stanley die? 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: In his work, he became known and was on a kill list of the government. They knew it was gonna happen. He was well aware that he was not favored by the militarized government at that time. 

Fr. Patrick: And so he would have had plenty of opportunities to leave. 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: Yes, and it was early in the year. I think it was around March. He made his way back to Oklahoma. He would come back every few years or something like that to visit family. And it was his time in Oklahoma. He was preaching at a local parish. One of his good friends in… a priest in Oklahoma, he went to that. And I think he gave a talk after mass in the parish hall where people were asking questions about what the situation, ’cause it was very volatile and everybody knew there was a lot of violence and what the volatility was. Father Stanley himself had lost many parishioners that were murdered in the open or that were just disappeared. And he was dealing with the widows and their children and those types, it was very volatile, very violent, very violent, and so he was speaking openly about what the current situation was. And at this point, he was already on a kill list. And so he was encouraged to not return. And at that point, he said he wanted to go back because it was Holy Week and he wanted to celebrate Holy Week with his people. And so he said he would go back, but if it got to the point where he was very, very much in danger, then he would leave. But as the quote says, “A shepherd must be with his sheep.” And the accounts of his visit that last March, his last visit, everybody remarked on the fact that he was so comfortable and at ease ’cause he wanted to be with his people. He was not comfortable being back here ’cause he knew the violence and the danger that they were in and how much he needed to be with them and how much the sheep needed their shepherd at that time. And so he made his way back there. And there was actually a complaint issued from a parishioner in Oklahoma sent to the Embassy of Guatemala, which then made its way down to Guatemala. And that was kind of the final nail in the coffin where it was no longer, he was a kill list. He was at the top of the list and a plan was made from that time. And so he makes his way back. He was able to celebrate Easter with everybody, Holy Week, all that kind of fun stuff. And he kept saying he wanted to get to the Feast of St. James. St. James was the patron of the church in the area of the patron. And it was a huge just kind of whole community celebration. There would be a big procession with a statue of St. James, huge kind of just party in the streets community event. And in there, he celebrated the first communion of I think it was like 300 individuals. And he celebrated the weddings of over 200 couples on the Feast of St. James. And within four days, he was murdered. And that was the final straw. And so as he celebrated this great thing and he was fully aware that this was gonna be kind of the last big parish celebration, he wanted to make sure that as many of his faithful received the sacraments that they needed. And within days of celebrating these great celebrations, hundreds of weddings, hundreds of first communions, then he gives his life. And he was in the rectory and he had moved rooms to be a little more secure in the area. The assassins came into the rectory and they found him. And he had told his catechist to go up and go to the convent where the religious sisters were and to lock the doors and he was gonna stay back. And so the catechist went and locked the doors and he said, “Even if I come knocking on you, hear my voice, do not open those doors.” And so the assassins came in and it was in that moment that a fight broke out. And there were, I think it was three assassins came for him and he fought, he fought hard. And this is one of the things that came up earlier that he knew he was not going to be taken alive. That if they came for him, he was not gonna be taken alive because the assassins and the government wanted to kidnap him for a few reasons. They wanted to kidnap him because then they knew that they could get a higher bounty from the United States. They could get more money for him alive and they saw that as a great advantage. But Blessed Stanley knew that he was gonna be used in that capacity. But the other thing that he was really worried about was that if he got captured, then his parishioners would start looking for him. In the total disregard that the military had for the local natives, they would kill them with no cause or concern. And more of the people would die trying to save him than anything else. So he said, if the assassins come, he was not gonna be taken alive. He was gonna fight. And the fight broke out. And he fought, three men cornered in a room. And they said that you could hear him saying, “You’re not taking me alive. You’re not taking me!” And he fought to the point that they had no other option except to shoot and kill him. And three shots rang out and Father Stanley collapsed to the floor in a pool of blood. And he was shot in the head and shot a few other times. There’s a bullet still in the floor and the blood is still stained on the floor of the room where he was murdered. And all of his knuckles on his hands were broken and bloodied ’cause he fought to the death for his people. ‘Cause he knew to save his people, he was gonna fight to the death. 

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, I mean, Blessed Stanley. It’s such an inspiring story, such an inspiring legacy that he insisted on being there with his people, that he understood the value of enculturation, that he had this pronounced love for the Eucharist and respect for the dignity of the native people. I mean, there are just so many great themes here in his life that are definitely worth our studying. For listeners to have something to take away if they’re looking to come to know Blessed Stanley better, what would you recommend, Father Joseph-Anthony? 

Fr. Joseph-Anthony: First off, I do recommend the book. I think it does a beautiful job of portraying his life. If you are out in the Oklahoma area, as here in Washington DC, the Basilica National Shrine is a place of pilgrimage for most people on the East Coast and even into the Midwest. I firmly believe that the Blessed Stanley Shrine in Oklahoma City will be that kind of gravitational pull for those in the plains and in the central part of the United States. Please go and visit and pray in front of him. But I think the best ways to begin to understand him is to learn about his life. Like this is a young man from Oklahoma. His family owned a farm. He grew up on a farm. He like worked on tractors. And so for me, growing up in a blue collar environment, I very deeply resonated with his heritage, but also seeing him be slowly formed by his priesthood and the demands that the flock that was entrusted to him have. And so I think learning about him via the shrine and via these biographies that are being now put out more and more are fantastic ways to recognize that the Lord’s invitation and activity, even in this very modern America that we all know and come from, that that invitation, that movement and sanctification comes from these very places. And it’s exciting. And I think he’s somebody to be able to imitate in his courage to fight for the dignity of his flock, but also in the gentleness, the humility, his own piety. It’s all very apparent. And it takes a little bit of kind of going past those initial portrayals or going just past that surface. There’s a tremendous depth and it’s very, very accessible for us as Americans. 

Fr. Patrick: Well, we surely invoke blessed Stanley’s prayers for you, our listeners, and for the friars who work here on the Godsplaining podcast. Thanks to everyone for tuning in for this episode of Godsplaining. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Like, subscribe, and leave a five-star review. If you’d like to donate to the podcast through Patreon, follow the link in the description. You can also follow the links there in the description in the show notes to shop Godsplaining merch and to get information on upcoming Godsplaining events. Most of all, listeners, we ask that you would pray for us and please know of our prayers for you. God bless.