Telling the Stories that Matter: July 28 – Stanley Rother, Martyr, Priest, Shepherd of Guatemala

Stanley Rother experienced a life quite like that of many Midwestern Roman Catholic priests. He was born in 1935, attended seminary, and was ordained in 1968 (though he struggled with Latin enough to make this a challenge at times). He served as an associate minister at a few churches before being commissioned and called to the congregation of Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala. Stanley Rother, with his heart full of love and anxiety, left the United States of America and became shepherd of a people miles away in geography and culture.

After some time, he had mastered the language of his flock: a Mayan dialect of the Tzutuhil. He was the first to translate the scripture into Tzutuhil. More than that, he offered services in the language of his flock and became greatly endeared to them. Soon, more than 3,300 people were attending the Sunday masses. Stanley did not accomplish this with flash and programs aimed at reaching the unreached but, rather, by slowly pouring his life our for those whom he comforted, baptized, buried, married, counseled, trained, taught, and assisted. When he wasn’t busy about his priestly duties, he lent a hand in a field and offered love wherever he might be. Stanley did not see his life as something that was his own to hoard but, rather, a gift that he could gleefully spend on others to ease their pain and buoy them up in their distress. In short, Stanley Rother was much loved by the Guatemalan people because he loved them much. Because of this great love, he was honored with a Tzutuhil name: Padre A’plas.

Guatemala’s history is rife with violence and kidnappings. Santiago Atitlán had, for many years, been a haven from this violence and the country’s political distress had not stepped across the threshold of parish for some time. However, this peace would not hold once some politically minded people had determined to escalate the violence to accomplish their destructive goals. After all, the way of violence leads only to more violence and not into the way of life and peace. Stanley diagnosed the problem as such: “The country here is in rebellion and the government is taking it out on the church…The Church seems to be the only force that is trying to do something about the situation, and therefore the government is after us.”

Stanley was urged to flee and return to the United States but Stanley refused saying, “At the first signs of danger, the shepherd can’t run and leave the sheep to fend for themselves.” He stayed and, eventually, one of the lay leaders from the congregation was kidnapped during the day by armed men. One day, as he walked through the streets, he was accosted and informed that his name was on a list of those condemned to death by the powers.He resisted leaving but, upon the advice of his friends and parishioners, returned to Oklahoma so that his flock might not be harmed because of him.

Yet, being the shepherd that he was, he was unable to stay away from the place where he belonged and where he was, truly, home. He left the chalice his parents had gifted to him with his parents and said good-byes to his family and friends. Stanley knew well that he was likely walking back into his death. Yet, As Archbishop Salatka said, “Father Stanley Rother did not go back to Guatemala to die. He went back to help his people.” He left Oklahoma near Holy Week and returned to Santiago Atitlán to celebrate the Gospel story: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. In the early morning hours of July 28th, 1981, armed men broke into rectory and seized Stanley. Apparently, they were intending to kidnap him and torture him. Stanley did not beg for his life or cry out in fear or pain but, rather, told his would-be-abductors: “Kill me here.” Stanley Rother died when one of the armed men shot him in the head twice. He died where he requested and where he had returned: among the people of Guatemala.

For Stanley Rother, there was no other place he’d rather be than in Guatemala among his flock whom he cared for. The powers could not stand that this one person would dare oppose them and help the people they couldn’t help. With closed fists they had tried to aid the people not knowing that it was only with a peaceful and loving open hand that aid can be given to the broken. His body was returned to Oklahoma for burial but his heart was buried where it truly belonged: Santiago Atitlán.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 23 – Phocas, Martyr, Grave-digger

Phocas had finished tending his gardens and it seemed that yet another day had slipped away into dusk while he worked busily to grow the crops that had been planted and sustained. Giving thanks to God, he watched the Christian pilgrims sneaking away under the increasingly dark cover. Under the rule of Diocletian, food was becoming increasingly difficult to find for those professing Jesus’ name and lordship. More and more Christians were coming to Phocas to receive food from his vast gardens along with the poor and oppressed that had been coming for some time. This was a blessing and, yet, there was a catch: the more he helped his brothers and sisters, the more the Empire’s gaze turned to Phocas’ home at Sinope near the Black Sea.

As is always the case for those who attract the hatred of the empire, Phocas was ordered to die by an imperial sword. For, you see, the power of the empire is ultimately rooted in the power to deprive you of your life. Diocletian sent soldiers to find and execute Phocas for his obedience to Jesus—a power besides Rome. And, so, the soldiers traveled to Sinope where they found the gates locked. Looking for a place to stay the night, they came upon the home of Phocas. They did not know what he looked like when they arrived at his home looking for him. Phocas promised to show them where they could find the man they were looking for in the morning but, first, invited them into his home for a meal and a place to sleep. He fed them, perhaps he washed their feet and he provided them with a place to sleep and recover from their travel. As they slept that night, Phocas went out and dug a grave near his garden. Praying while he dug, he prepared himself for his own martyrdom.When he had finished digging his own grave, he spent the remainder of the night in prayer.

In the morning, the thankful soldiers awoke and prepared for the day. They were appreciative of Phocas’ hospitality and kindness but were unprepared for Phocas’ confession. Phocas agreed to show them the man they were looking for and lead them out of his home. As they approached Phocas’ garden, he stood in front of the grave he had dug, turned to face them, and confessed to being the man they were looking for. The soldiers who had been tasked with killing Phocas—menace and rebel that he was—suddenly found their imperial resolve weakened. They offered to return to Diocletian and lie: “We couldn’t find him.”

Phocas knelt in the dirt, bared his neck, and refused to let the soldiers lie, sin, and risk their own lives to save his. He assured them that he was not afraid of death—a concept entirely foreign to the threats of the Empire—and, instead, eagerly anticipated his martyrdom. Having given permission to his executioners, they decapitated him and finished the burial he had started the night before.

Phocas denied the power of the Empire over him and left an indelible impression upon not only his executioners—the soldiers—but, also, all who would hear the story of the willing martyr and grave-digger. The great power of the Empire—the ability to deprive you of your life—had failed to convert Phocas and, yet, Phocas’ seemingly incomprehensible willingness to love and die converted many.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 17 – Bartolome de las Casas, Priest, Bishop, Opponent of Slavery

Bartolome de las Casas was born in Seville, Spain, in 1484 and so he was only nine years old when Christopher Columbus returned to Seville to tell of the world he had discovered to the west.Columbus had gained the favor of queen Isabella and king Ferdinand II by insisting that there was another route to the East Indies that didn’t involve traveling through Arabia but, instead, meant sailing west from Spain to approach the Indies from the other side. This interested the Spanish nobles because access to the East Indies, unencumbered by Italian and Arabian merchants and rulers, meant a lucrative trade in spices. In other words, the rich could get richer if Columbus was right. Columbus, of course, was wrong and had severely underestimated the circumference of the Earth but in his error he had stumbled upon the land we call the Americas. Bartolome was fascinated by the tales of a distant land and different people and so he was thrilled when Columbus brought several of their men and women off of his ship and paraded them before the curious crowds. They came in chains and did so unwillingly but this fact was overlooked by those who were enchanted with dreams of foreign riches and conquest. When Columbus returned for his second voyage, Bartolome’s father and uncle went with him and Bartolome was left behind to imagine.

Bartolome’s father brought him a slave to be his servant and he developed a friendly relationship with the man. When Bartolome was eighteen, he went with his father and uncle to what we now know as Hispaniola aboard the ship captained by Nicolas de Ovando. Bartolome had spent years imagining that foreign land and it had become something mythical in his own imagination. Consequently, Bartolome was horrified to see the brutality and cruelty being perpetrated against the people of the island by virtue of their different appearance and different language. The Spanish settlers were given land to which they had no legitimate claim and slaves with which to work their ill-gotten gains. Bartolome was uncomfortable with the savage approach the Spaniards were taking and, as a Dominican priest, began to wonder if this wasn’t a repudiation of Jesus’ way of love and mercy. Columbus was sending native peoples back to Spain as currency to repay his debts to the crown and wealthy financiers. Bartolome began to question the rightness of such barbarism. Bartolome began ministering to the native people in whatever little ways he could but it never seemed to be enough. Then, one day, Bartolome heard a Dominican priest named Antonio de Montesinos preach about the evil being committed against the people and being called “progress.” Antonio’s preaching–he was the first clergy member to vocally oppose the Spanish actions in the colonies–seemed to give Bartolome permission to join the fight for liberation and love.

Bartolome’s first decision was to free every slave on his settlement and to renounce the land he had been gifted. Having set an example of the way of the Kingdom of God he called upon other settlers to do the same, yet they refused and Bartolome was forced to travel back to Spain to seek reform. At his impassioned request he received permission to establish a settlement at Cumana in the northern portion of the region we call Venezuela. Bartolome imagined a settlement where native people and Spaniards would co-exist and help each other to live peacefully and comfortably. The problem, though, was the tension that had already developed between the Spaniards and the native people in the region. When Bartolome left the settlement, fighting would break out and people would die. Eventually, Bartolome left the settlement after Spanish raids took most of the native people as slaves and went to the Dominican monastery in Santo Domingo. From there he began to write accounts of the brutal murders of native people by Spaniards who claimed the yoke of Christ the Crucified. He lobbied Spain for laws that would protect the people upon whom they had intruded so much already. Meanwhile, he engaged in missionary work among native tribes and led many to place their faith in Jesus even though counter-arguments abounded in the colonists with whom they were acquainted. Though it meant defending himself against treason, Bartolome returned to Spain and was able to bring about new laws that abolished Columbus’ way of doling out land for support and slaves for loyalty. When Bartolome died in July of 1566 he was in Madrid but his heart still rested with the people he had learned to love in a distant and fantastic world.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 15 – Julitta and Cyricus, Martyrs

Julitta had known that eventually she would be recognized–one of the costs associated with influence and power was the loss of anonymity. Julitta had anticipated that the potential gain offered to the “good” citizens of Rome would prove too enticing for some poor soul and that, eventually, somebody would turn her over to the authorities as a Christian and a traitor to Rome. Diocletian’s campaign against Christians was a popular one among those who sought power and influence and at the time there were few better ways to advance in society than to denounce one above you as a Christian–especially if they truly were one. So, it came as no surprise that the authorities eventually captured Julitta in Tarsus where she had fled after spending time hiding in Seleucia. Julitta had left behind the estate and wealth of her family in Iconium. In doing so, Julitta left everything her dear, departed husband had ever given to her except for the blessed memories she carried with her as she fled and the son she concealed behind her: a little boy named Cyricus. Julitta had expected all of this but what came as a surprise to her as she was interrogated by the governor Alexander was his intentions to make Cyricus a ward of the state.

Julitta had always known that her confession of Christ as Lord and Savior would likely cost her her life if she was ever identified and arrested but she had been too afraid to consider what might happen to her only son Cyricus. Perhaps Julitta assumed that Cyricus would escape her capture and be cared for by her Christian brothers and sisters. After all, she wanted Cyricus to be raised as a Christian but since he was only a very little child she knew that he had not yet made confession of his sins or profession of his faith and trust in Jesus. As the soldiers beat and tortured her she repeatedly insisted that she was a Christian and would never deny her faith in her Lord. But Julitta’s mind and eyes drifted to Cyricus’ face and while the lashes of her tormentors only made her bleed, fear for her son’s soul caused her far more pain and suffering. Alexander refused to allow Cyricus to go to his mother as she bled and offered forgiveness to her torturers and, instead, decided to capitalize on Julitta’s love for her son. Alexander sat the boy on his knee and tried to soothe him so that Julitta might look up and know that her son would be raised by those who outlawed the saving faith for which she was willing to die. Cyricus would be raised as a “good” Roman citizen before ever able to make a confession and profession of faith. Alexander wagered that Julitta was willing to die for her faith but that she might rethink her stance if it meant Cyricus would be raised by the deniers of Christ.

Cyricus continued to struggle to break free from Alexander’s grasp and continued to cry out to his mother as she bled and prayed. Cyricus knew why they were torturing his mother: she trusted Jesus more than them–more than anybody. He had heard her many stories about Jesus and he loved every one of them. Cyricus had spent many days with adoptive uncles and aunts in the congregation where his mother worshiped and he knew the Christians to be a loving people devoted to a loving God. As he watched the soldiers beat his mother for her allegiance to Jesus he thought about what she had said it meant to be a Christian. Cyricus needed no more evangelism than to see the stark difference between the way of the Kingdom of God and the way of Rome. Cyricus pulled away from Alexander and yelled, “Let me go to my mother! I am a Christian, too.” In this powerful statement of defiance, Cyricus made his first profession and officially placed his trust in the Lord that had led his mother to die while muttering her forgiveness for her executioners. Cyricus didn’t understand everything about the faith of his mother but he knew the difference between Rome and the Kingdom of God and he knew whom he trusted. Alexander kicked Cyricus down the stone stairs and he bashed his head against the corner of one of the stairs. Cyricus died a martyr seconds after confessing Christ. Julitta rejoiced that his profession had come so easily and quickly and that she would be with Christ to welcome her in a few moments. Disgusted with the whole ordeal and the defiance of the child, Alexander ordered the soldiers to kill Julitta. They complied and sent her to rest in Christ with her beloved husband and son.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 9 – Augustine Tolton, Ex-Slave, Priest

Augustine was born in Missouri to Peter Paul Tolton and Martha Jane Chisley in the year 1854.They were slaves of a white man named Stephen Elliott who suffered under the delusion that men, women, and children could be held in bondage simply because of the color of their skin. Perhaps Stephen rationalized that the men in charge had made the decision and it wasn’t his place to rebel against the status quo but, ultimately, he was a part of the problem if for no other reason than his refusal to be a part of the solution. All of this meant that their four children–Charles, Augustine, Cordella, and Anna–were born into the slavery that held their parents captive. The Elliot family was Roman Catholic and insisted upon all of their slaves being baptized into the faith of their choosing. Peter Paul and Martha Jane had developed a faith of their own in a Lord who promised liberation to those held captive and life to those who dwelt with death. Their children were raised in this faith and began to claim it as their own long before Peter Paul escaped slavery to help put an end to the heinous institution. Peter Paul joined the Union army at the beginning of Civil War and served as best he knew how to put an end to the system that so many others refused even to acknowledge as problematic. Peter Paul died in some battle now lost to the fog of history.

Martha Jane and her children, including Augustine, soon fled the land where they were enslaved and forced to work. Taking advantage of the uproar that gripped their area, they slipped away from the farm at night and began travelling for the“free state” of Illinois. When they crossed the Mississippi river she told her children never to forget the day that they had gained their freedom and, more importantly, never to forget the goodness of God to lead them out of bondage. Augustine, his mother, and siblings went to work in a cigar factory but after the death of his older brother Charles it became clear that he would need to find a better and safer life if he was going to help take care of his mother and sisters.The priest in the church they attended–Peter McGirr–took a liking to Augustine and decided to take a stand on his behalf: he admitted Augustine to the parochial school of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic church. This caused an uproar among even those who had fought against slavery–they were comfortable with freeing slaves but not freely offering equal opportunities to ex-slaves. Father McGirr was constantly berated and criticized for this decision and it indubitably cost him much of his credibility in the community but he was not willing to be complicit in a system that dehumanized ex-slaves.

Augustine received an excellent education and professed a calling to become a priest like the man who had given him a chance at a better life. He applied to seminaries throughout the United States and was rejected from each and every one. So, instead, Father McGirr talked to those he knew in Rome about Augustine received his education at the Pontifical Urbaniana University. He was admitted and received the training he needed to enter the priesthood. He became fluent in Italian, Latin, and Greek and, finally, was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in the year 1886. He returned to the United States where he tried to establish a parish in Quincy, Illinois, but he was resisted heavily by both the white and the black residents of the town. He stood in the middle and insisted that both black and white citizens were welcome in the church even as both sides insisted that the other should be outcast.Eventually, he was transferred to Chicago where he was able to establish a parish church that had over 600 parishioners. In this place they welcomed people of any color and nationality in a hope to banish the status quo of the past from the minds of men and women set free from the evils of slavery. When Augustine died in 1897 his body was taken back to Quincy and buried in the priest’s cemetery next to St. Peter’s Roman Catholic church where his new life had begun in the ashes of slavery left behind.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: July 1 – Moses the Black, Martyr, Peacemaker, Convert

Moses was a slave to an Egyptian slaveholder and did his job only because he was forced to do so. He was known as a man of excess who ate too much and drank too much as well as being sexually immoral and physically and verbally abusive. Eventually, he was cast out of the home of his master because he was finally caught stealing from the coffers and then he had murdered another slave to cover over his offense. He was cast into the wilderness but his hard life and dark desires had formed him into the kind of man who could survive for quite a while with very little. For those years he was fueled only by a dark rage and vengeful passion. He assembled around himself a band of thieves and bandits who obeyed his commands and executed his sinful desires. Having placed himself in a position of dominance and control he was able further to drift into the grasp of corruption–indeed Moses could be said to “live by the sword.” One night he swam across a stream, with a knife clenched in his teeth, to murder a man in his sleep. He had targeted this man because the man’s dog had foiled a previous robbery attempt by Moses and his fellow bandits. In that attempt, many of the band that followed Moses were arrested. Luckily for his victim–and for Moses–the dog alerted the owner and the authorities yet again. Moses knew he would be executed for his many crimes if he was caught and so he fled so that he might keep his freedom.

He fled from the authorities who were now searching for him and found refuge in a monastery in the desert of Scetes near Alexandria. At first, it was a convenient place to hide where the authorities would not come and take him and nothing more but through the slow and steady ministry of the monks, he began to be converted to the faith of his hosts. After many long day, he finally professed faith in the one who had said that all who live by the sword will die by the sword. He renounced his past life and sins and devoted himself to the monastic life even as he failed to fit into it well. He was a novice in the faith and often asked questions of his brothers so that he might learn how to live like a Christian. He now believe that his previous way of living was bankrupt and led to death but he knew no other way and so he had to be taught slowly. One night, thieves broke into the monastery to take some of their meager possessions. Being a big man and given to adventure, he disarmed each of the men and dragged them by the collar of their clothing into the chapel where the monks were praying. He interrupted their worship to ask their advice: “I don’t think it’s Christian to hurt them,” Moses said, “so what do I do with them?” The thieves looked at the peaceful man who had skillfully disarmed them without a weapon and were impressed by his words. If Moses the Black could find peace through Jesus, they reasoned, then they could do the same. Soon, they converted.

Moses spent the rest of his life trying to become the best follower of Jesus that he could be. It was hard and though he was not especially gifted for the monastic life–his background game him no assistance–he grew slowly and steadily. Once, he was asked to attend a meeting of monks to discuss an appropriate penance for a brother who had sinned against the others.Moses didn’t show up on time and so they sent a man to fetch him but Moses was unwilling to come. Finally, the brother in charge of the meeting went to bring Moses to the meeting and Moses agreed to do so because of his love and respect for the man. Before he left, though, he grabbed a jug of water that had a small hole in it. They walked all the way back to the meeting with the water leaking out behind him. When he finally arrived they asked him why he had brought a leaky jug with him and he responded,“My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, but today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” The group dismissed themselves to reflect upon the message that Moses had brought to them and later decided that grace, mercy, and forgiveness were the appropriate responses to a brother who has sinned when each of us–all of us–has the same problem and same need.

Years later, Moses had become the leader of a group of desert monastics. As a group of Berber raiders bore down upon the monastery the monks argued that they must prepare to resist their attackers. Moses–who had once lived by the sword–forbade any resistance and, instead, instructed his monks to pack their things and flee the monastery immediately. He insisted it was better to run or to die than it was to take up the sword in resistance and when he said it he spoke from dark and painful experience. Most of the monks took him up on the offer but Moses and seven others stayed behind and waited for the raiders with open arms and plates of food. Moses knew that his own martyrdom was fast approaching and insisted that this was a good thing for he had lived by the sword and, now, he would gladly die by the sword. When the raiders arrived, they had no time for the hospitality of the monks and cut them down where they stood. Moses the Black who had misspent his youth found redemption not on the day he was martyred but on the day he met a group of monks who taught him another way–a way of peace, love, mercy, and grace.

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