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 on Saturday placed him one step closer to canonization.
"To a Carmelite nun who asked what to do if he were killed, our martyr responded: 'Raise the standard of Christ Risen.'" — Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome and representative of Pope Francis.
A global spotlight shined on Oklahoma native son Stanley Rother as the Roman Catholic Church beatified the Okarche-born martyred priest Saturday in a much-anticipated ceremony in downtown Oklahoma City.
The beatification Mass for Rother drew an estimated crowd of 20,000 faithful from all over the world to the Cox Convention Center, according to police estimates given to the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Some who gathered had known the humble priest whose faith and compassion led him to the small Central American parish where he served until his death.
Rother, 46, was murdered in the rectory of his Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, parish by unknown assailants in 1981. In December 2016, Pope Francis declared him a martyr, which means he was killed “in hatred of the faith.” The declaration was historic because Rother is the first U.S.-born male and U.S. priest named a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church.
Beatification is a declaration by the pope that Rother lived a holy life and is a good example to follow, the Most Rev. Paul Coakley, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said Saturday.
Saturday's ceremony was only the second beatification to be held in the United States.
The beatification places Rother one step closer to canonization as a saint.
The priest's remarkable journey from a rural Oklahoma farm to the priesthood and on to Guatemala was not without struggle, more than one person noted during Saturday's poignant ceremony.
That was what made the story of this ordinary man so extraordinary, they said in a documentary called "An Ordinary Martyr" that was shown to the crowd.
Rother had trouble grasping Latin at his first seminary and was asked to leave. Yet, he persevered to fulfill his vocation and was ordained to the priesthood in 1963 at Our Lady's Cathedral in Oklahoma City.
Five years later, Rother volunteered to join a team of Oklahoma Catholic missionaries serving in Guatemala. There he taught the indigent agricultural techniques learned from his years on the family farm back in Okarche. He helped open a hospital and school and learned to master the native dialect of the Tzutuhil people of his parish, descendants of Mayans.
Rother translated the New Testament into Tzutuhil to help further the Gospel in his parish.
Eventually, the priest and other leaders and members of the church found themselves at odds with the right-wing government in Guatemala as they supported the rights of the Guatemalan people to live peacefully and in better conditions. Many people from Rother's parish were kidnapped, tortured and killed in the Guatemalan civil war, and Rother would go and find the bodies for burial.
When his name was placed on a death list, he decided to stay with his beloved parishioners, his flock.
His cousin, the Rev. Don Wolf, a priest who is pastor of St. Eugene Catholic Church, said Rother may have had fears but he also had a steely quality about him and a resolve that meant he did not shirk from the danger around him.
"He simply tried to be a shepherd for his flock and the wolf was coming in all sorts of directions," Wolf said in the documentary.
Ceremony filled with meaning
Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome and Pope Francis' representative, delivered the homily and presided at the Beatification Mass, along with a group of bishop celebrants wearing red vestments, which are worn on the feasts of martyrs.
The celebrants included Coakley, the Most Rev. Gonzalo de Villa, bishop of the Diocese of Solola, Guatemala, and Oklahoma City Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius Beltran, who began Rother's cause for canonization in 2007.
The rite of beatification came at the beginning of the 2 1/2-hour ceremony. Amato read an apostolic letter from Pope Francis officially beatifying Rother and stating that he be called "Blessed" moving forward.
In his homily, Amato talked about Rother's life as an Oklahoma farm boy and devoted priest as well as his death as a martyr.
"The 13 years spent as a missionary in Guatemala will always be remembered as the glorious epic of a martyr of Christ, an authentic lighted torch of hope for the Church and for the world," Amato told those gathered.
"This is the invitation that Blessed Stanley Francis Rother extends to us today. To be like him as witnesses and missionaries of the Gospel. Society needs these sowers of goodness."
Coakley thanked the Church and all those who joined in the ceremony in person or watched via live-stream or on television to recognize Rother's "holiness and heroism."
He said Rother's feast day will be July 28, the day he killed, which the archbishop described as the "day of his heavenly birth."
The unveiling of the official painting and tapestry of Rother was met with cheers from the crowd. The tapestry featured an image of Rother standing in front of his parish mission in Santiago Atitlan, while holding a copy of the New Testament that he helped translate into the villagers' native language.
Numerous bishops, priests, seminarians and other religious from around the country and the globe filed into the arena in a processional filled with pomp and pageantry. Representatives with the Oklahoma City archdiocese said 52 bishops and cardinals from Italy, South Africa and Guatemala, and more than a dozen states, including Idaho, Kansas, Texas, New York, Seattle, Arkansas and Nebraska, were in attendance.
The gathering also included 288 priest, 137 deacons, 199 religious brothers and sisters, archdiocesan leaders said.
The VIPs sitting in reserved areas near the stage included Rother's siblings, younger brother Tom Rother of Okarche and his family, and the priest's only other living sibling, his younger sister, Sister Marita Rother, a nun who is a member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ religious community in Wichita, Kansas.
Marita Rother spoke to the media before the ceremony, saying that her parents Franz and Gertrude Rother would have been "very overwhelmed and very, very proud."
She said her brother Stan "didn't relish the limelight."
"He would say 'What's this all about? Just calm down people, calm down," she said, smiling.
Marita Rother, who is a religious sister with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Wichita, Kansas, shared one of the Scripture readings during the ceremony.
Some Guatemalans who knew Rother when he served in Santiago Atitlan also sat watching as the man they knew as "Padre Aplas (Father Francis)" was recognized by the Church. There is not a word for the name Stanley in the Tzuhijil language of Rother's Guatemalan parishioners, so they affectionately called him by his middle name of Francis.
One highlight of the ceremony was an opportunity for the faithful to interact with a sacred first-class relic, a cross with a part of Rother's rib inside. Some attendees touched the relic with their prayer cards and rosaries and some kissed it as an act of veneration or respect for the martyred priest.
Another touching highlight was the prayer readings in English, Tzutujil, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish, Comanche and Filipino, which helped feature the diversity of the Catholic Church.
Lush floral bouquets in vivid orange, red, yellow and green were placed around the stage, providing bright pops of color amid the white and red robes of the clergy leaders. Oklahoma City archdiocese leaders said the large floral arrangements were designed to highlight the vibrant colors found in Rother's beloved Guatemala.
In his closing remarks, Coakley told the crowd that there was "more work to do," referring to Rother's possible canonization. He has said a miracle attributed to Rother's intercession must be confirmed and verified by the Church in order for the priest to be canonized.
The Rev. Brian Buettner, the Oklahoma City archdiocese's vocations director and pastor of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Lawton, said he was moved by the ceremony.
"Several times, I would just look up at all the people and almost be overwhelmed that we're here for a brother, a priest just like me who lived a life heroic," Buettner said.
Day began with joy
Meanwhile, hundreds of people took part in a 3 1/2-mile pilgrimage walk that began at sunrise from St. James the Greater Catholic Church in south Oklahoma City. Members of other parishes, including Little Flower and Sacred Heart, joined in the faith walk headed downtown for the beatification. The walk included singing, prayers and colorful matachines dancers in the tradition of the Hispanic Southwest.
At the convention center, people began lining up to enter the arena before 7 a.m. The ceremony began at 10 a.m.
A large group of people who called themselves the Charismatic Group from Sacred Heart Catholic Church sang songs in Spanish as they waited in line. Inside the building a Hispanic band played songs for the waiting crowd.
Dee Guzman and Alex Aguilar said they traveled with a group from the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, where their bishop is the Most Rev. Anthony Taylor, a former Oklahoma City archdiocese priest. They said there were 110 people as part of their group.
"You don't get to see a beatification that often because most of the time, they only happen in Rome," Guzman said.
Mustang residents Lauren Ivy and her daughter Anna said they knew they didn't want to miss the historic ceremony in their own backyard.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Lauren Ivy said.
Guatemalan Chico Chavajay, 37, who works in Santiago Atitlan with the humanitarian organization Unbound, shared his thoughts in his native Tzhujil language through translator Dora Tiznado. He said he was only one year old when Rother was killed but "his legacy is still alive and I grew up knowing the stories of how he lived his life."
"The remarkable thing is that he didn't give up."
Chavajay said his brother the Rev. Bartolo Chavajay served as a priest in Rother's Guatemalan parish in 2016.
Not everyone who hoped to see the ceremony in the arena got to do so. Diane Clay, communications director for the Oklahoma City archdiocese, said once the arena was deemed full, people were directed to three overflow rooms that had been opened in the Cox Convention Center. She said there were more than 14,000 in the arena, another 2,300 in the first overflow room and several thousand people filled an area on the second floor near the ballrooms.
Those who were turned away had to make other plans to watch the beatification.
Mark Cearley, of Tulsa, is a member of the Knights of Columbus and an offshoot biker group called Knight on Bikes. Seven members traveled from Arkansas, Texas and cities in Oklahoma to see the ceremony, but weren't able to get into the Cox Convention Center.
"He is the first to be beatified from the United States. We thought we should be here. Unfortunately, we got here a little too late. But that doesn't mean we're not here in spirit,” said Cearley said.
A few dozen people watched the ceremony on the big screen outside of The Oklahoman offices at 100 W. Main St.
Among them were Scott Bassett, of Tulsa, and his family.
"We were hoping to get in. It was jam packed. People were being turned away," said Scott Bassett, a father from Tulsa who instead watched the beatification on The Oklahoman's big screen with his family.
"It means so much. As Catholics, there is no greater honor than to be named a saint. We are so excited someone from Oklahoma is being recognized as someone worthy of that."
CONTRIBUTING: Staff Writer Juliana Keeping