The room where Fr Stanley Rother was killed is a spine-tinglingly holy place

The bullet holes are still there in the room in Santiago Atitlan, in the highlands of Guatemala, where Fr Stanley Francis Rother was murdered on July 28, 1981. One is in the floor under the tabernacle. And there are bloodstains too, faded now but in plain view, on the wall above the low-slung, simple bed, marking the spot where this tall, gentle Oklahoman fought for his life with the death squad that came to silence him forever.

They succeeded in murdering him with a bullet in his left temple, but his voice will never be silenced. Tomorrow, the pipe-smoking priest whom the local Mayan Indian population still revere as Padre A’Plas (“Father Francis” in their language, since they could find no equivalent for Stanley), will be beatified as the Catholic Church’s first-ever US-born martyr. Though the ceremony will take place in Oklahoma, conducted by Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, it is Fr Stan’s fearless dedication for 13 years to his parish in Santiago Atitlan, which stands on the shores of the lake of the same name, that will be recalled.

“The shepherd can’t run and leave his sheep to fend for themselves at the first signs of danger,” he wrote in 1981, after finding himself on a “death list” because of his solidarity with the indigenous Mayan Indian population, regarded by the military in Guatemala’s long-running civil war as subversives. Many had urged him to return to the States for his own safety. He did briefly, at the start of 1981, but couldn’t stay away. He was back in Santiago Atitlan for Easter, shoulder to shoulder with his people. “Service,” he explained, “has to be our motto.” In his case, as he surely knew, it was to be a Christ-like service unto death.

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The Xocomil wind – “the wind that takes your sins away”, according to local legend – had turned the waters of Lake Atitlan choppy as we made our way in a small boat towards Padre A’Plas’s church, built by the Franciscans in the 1550s when they pitched up there with the Spanish colonisers, its white-painted tower peeping up among the buildings on a skyline, then as now dominated by volcanos and fast-moving clouds. It was a family holiday to Guatemala, but we had taken a detour for a pilgrimage to honour the memory of this extraordinary man, whose example I had first read about in 1985 – in my early days at the Catholic Herald – in Love in a Fearful Land, a book by the Dutch teacher and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen. It made such an impact that I was still clutching my shabby, much-thumbed copy that day as we got off the boat at Santiago Atitlan and walked up the hill through a busy, colourful marketplace towards the church.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, these streets were awash with fear and blood, as the Guatemalan civil war between a US-backed military dictatorship and leftist rebels shattered the country, turning neighbour against neighbour, and costing 200,000 lives before it was ended by a fragile peace accord in 1996.

The government had long regarded the indigenous people of these stunningly beautiful highlands as second-class citizens. Meanwhile, the rebel fighters claimed to be championing their cause. So the Mayans found themselves caught in the middle of a battle that wasn’t theirs as it descended into the dirtiest of dirty wars.

From the moment of his arrival here in 1968, at the age of 33, Fr Stanley, later supported by seven Carmelite Sisters who worked alongside him, refused to take sides in the war, but instead practised what Pope Francis today preaches. Theirs was explicitly and actively a “poor Church for the poor”, on the side of human dignity and against oppression of any sort – political, social, military or economic.

Those who knew him remember that there was a strength that shone out of Fr Stan. “He was a quiet person,” his sister says, “but when he had a job to do, he did it completely. He never left anything unfinished.”

And so he set to work challenging the poverty and malnutrition that scarred the town, despite it being surrounded by fertile fields of corn, beans, squash and avocados – owned by absentee landlords but worked for buttons by local Indians. He set up a hospital, clinics and schools to tackle chronic rates of illiteracy, teaching himself both official Spanish and the notoriously difficult Tzutuhil language. Like Martin Luther, he was to give the word of God to the community in their own language, producing the first translation of the Mass into Tzutuhil. Some 3,500 people attended his church every Sunday.

At the end of the 1970s, he began to see increasing numbers of those who worked with him for justice being labelled “subversives” by the government, the army and the death squads associated with them. Many “disappeared”, only for their mutilated bodies to turn up weeks or months later by the roadside.

“The army was here in force during the fiesta,” he wrote home to his Oklahoma archbishop, “dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying submachine guns. Since then we have had strangers in town, asking questions about the priests, this catechist or that one, where they live, who is in charge of the cooperative, who are the leaders.”

In a later letter, he stared his own fate in the eye. “If it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it … I don’t want to desert these people. There is still a lot of good that can be done.”

On July 28, 1981, just after midnight, three masked men broke into the rectory. When they didn’t find Fr Stan in his bedroom, they woke a young local man staying in another room and told him they would kill him if he didn’t lead them to the priest. Shaking with fear, he took them to the ground floor sanctuary where Padre A’Plas had chosen to sleep, believing it would be safer in the event of the sort of grenade attack that had been made on other churches and convents. (Ten priests were murdered in Guatemala in 1981.)

Awoken, and realising what the intruders were about, Fr Stan cried out “Kill me here!” He didn’t want to cause his family the drawn-out grief of being “disappeared”. The evidence suggests that this farmer’s son put up some fight for his life. He may have been prepared for martyrdom, but he did not go willingly to His Maker. His knuckles were bruised and bleeding. When the intruders knew they couldn’t abduct him, they murdered him there and then before fleeing. While three men were later convicted of his killing, alleging it was part of a bungled burglary, they were later cleared after what most regard as pressure from the government and army on the court.

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The room was just as it was when he died. Locals were using it as a shrine. They already regarded Padre A’Plas as a saint. They didn’t need to wait for Vatican approval because they were convinced of his continuing presence in their midst.

It added to the sense that this was a “thin” place, somewhere God feels very close. Still today that room encapsulates – more powerfully than anywhere else I have been since – the challenge of faith how to live out the Gospels without fear and with absolute trust in God.

Afterwards, we walked around the church. Another of the challenges Fr Stan confronted here was how far to accommodate existing Mayan beliefs into Catholic worship. The official line was not at all, but the practice we had observed on our travels suggested that in some places it was much more mixed. And, indeed, there was plenty of evidence in the Santiago Atitlan church itself – including statues of minor Mayan deities – that Fr Stan did what to him felt right in the circumstances, without betraying the core of Catholicism.

But it has left a sad legacy. Locals told us that they had had no resident priest for many years now, only the occasional peripatetic visiting cleric. No one, it seems, was prepared to live with the full range of what Fr Stan had started there. Instead, some now go to local Pentecostal churches that have sprung up in the town, much more open to incorporating Mayan aspects into their worship, but without a similar commitment to the Gospels’ essential call to action.

While the crowds gather in Oklahoma City to celebrate the beatification of Fr Stanley Rother, the people for whom he so courageously and willingly gave his life had gone for many years without the pastor that they so need (though, since my visit, I am told someone has been appointed and indeed will be there at the ceremony in the US).

In one of his last letters home to his cousin Don, on the occasion of the latter’s ordination, this exceptional man wrote: “Take care of your priesthood. I have heard that a certain group of priests in Oklahoma are expecting to be served, rather than to serve. That is one accusation I don’t want … Pray for me.”

Peter Stanford is an author, journalist and broadcaster. His latest book is Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident (Hodder & Stoughton)

This article first appeared in the September 22 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here