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.
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.
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