By Tony Gutierrez
Catholic News Service
OKLAHOMA CITY – Wearing a red and black traditional Guatemalan shirt that had belonged to martyred U.S. priest Father Stanley Rother, Ronald Arteaga traveled from his village of Santiago Atitlan to witness the Sept. 23 beatification of the pastor he knew as “Padre Aplas.”
Even though Arteaga was only 10 when now-Blessed Rother was martyred in 1981, he remembers “he was always with the people of Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, and more than that, he identified with our indigenous population.”
The sleeves on Arteaga’s shirt had to be rolled up because, as he recalled, Blessed Rother was a tall man.
“He learned to speak Tz’utujil, the language of my people, and he always served the people most in need,” Arteaga said.
When Blessed Rother was killed, Arteaga recalled, it “broke the hearts of the entire village,” but “we had hope that he would receive this honor and thanks be to God that this day has arrived!”
An estimated 20,000 packed the Cox Convention Center from across the country and throughout the world to witness the beatification of the native Oklahoman who would become the first U.S.-born martyr. Ordained for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City in 1963, Blessed Rother went to the archdiocesan mission in Santiago Atitlan. He was gunned down in his rectory by three masked men in 1981.
Pope Francis recognized the priest’s martyrdom last December, making him the first martyr born in the United States and clearing the way for his beatification.
“We’re amazed at the size of the crowd and delighted so many people are interested in celebrating his life,” said Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City during a media availability. “He’s a local hero whose reputation goes far beyond Oklahoma.”
Father Don Wolf, a cousin of Blessed Rother, made an appeal for continued support of the missions the martyr served in Santiago Atitlan and Cerro de Oro.
“For the people of his parish in Santiago Atitlan and Cerro de Oro and all of us here in Oklahoma, he has led our eyes unwaveringly to the kingdom of God,” Father Wolf said.
It was for Father Wolf’s ordination in May 1981 that Blessed Rother made his last visit to the United States, which Father Wolf said is a distinction that links his priesthood to his cousin’s.
“At ordination they invoke the saints … at my ordination we had one,” Father Wolf said. “It’s an enormous inspiration and an enormous challenge – the kind of service his priesthood embodied is the kind of service that I strive to.”