He didn’t do very well in school. Called—he thought—to the priesthood, he failed several of his seminary classes and was then in fact told to leave. His fifth-grade teacher urged him to persevere, and he went on to finally graduate from Mount St. Mary’s and follow his vocation.
Still, it doesn’t sound like an auspicious beginning, does it? But soon after he was ordained, Father Stanley Rother answered Pope John XXIII’s call for missionaries to the struggling Church in Central America, where he became the beloved “Padre Francisco,” ministered for 13 years, and finally was martyred.
And on September 23rd, Pope Francis will beatify the priest who kept failing seminary.
It’s easy to think that the Church wants stars, and that the rest of us are ordinary, prone to making mistakes, failing at the goals we set for ourselves. But time and time again we see that God does indeed “lift up the lowly.” There was nothing that seemed extraordinary about this boy from Oklahoma who couldn’t learn Latin—and yet who, out of love, mastered Spanish and translated the New Testament into Tzutuhil, one of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan dialects. His biographer, Maris Ruiz Scaperlanda, says, “the fact that everything about Father Stanley was ‘ordinary’ makes him a special gift to the universal Church—to all of us trying to live out the call to become holy men and women within our very ordinary lives.”
(But are they so ordinary? “There are no ordinary people,” writes C.S. Lewis. “You have never talked to a mere mortal… It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snob, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Created by God and destined for Heaven, we are all perhaps more extraordinary than we think.)
Father Rother was more interested in working with his hands than in studying, and as soon as he arrived in Guatemala (having driven himself there in his beat-up Chevrolet), he set about constructing a hospital, replacing the church’s stained-glass windows, and experimenting with different crops on the parish farm, all the while fulfilling his pastoral duties of five Sunday Masses in four churches and one thousand baptisms a year. Villagers trusted him: he was unpretentious, comfortable on a tractor or sitting on the floors of the huts they called home.
But by 1980, Guatemala’s so-called civil war—in fact a genocide committed against Mayan people and a government repression of the rural poor, with over 40 people killed daily—had reached the highlands where Father Rother lived and worked. That October, in an eerie parallel to the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero the year before in neighboring El Salvador—Stanley Rother’s closest friend was kidnapped and murdered, followed in January by more killings. Then he learned that his name, too, was on a death list. He returned to Oklahoma for a few months, but couldn’t settle down. He told a friend about some nuns in Nicaragua who left during the fighting and later wanted to go back. The people asked them, “Where were you when we needed you?” In his letter to his friend, Father Rother wrote, “I don’t want that to happen to me.”
It didn’t. Stanley Rother returned to his adopted home and was just 46 years old when he was shot to death in his rectory in the early morning hours of July 28, one of 10 priests killed in Guatemala in 1981…and the first American-born martyr.
His Latin instructors probably thought that the future Father Stanley Rother wouldn’t amount to much. They might have assumed that he didn’t apply himself—or even that he didn’t care. If you’ve experienced failure, people might think that about you; you may even think it about yourself.
And it would have been easy for Father Rother to give up on his vocation. After all, failing seminary seems like a pretty clear sign, doesn’t it? He could have given up, gone back to Oklahoma, worked the farm. Something told him not to do that. Something told him to persevere. Something told him that God was, in fact, calling him, and that he couldn’t let his failures stand in the way.
And perhaps it was because he was in the right place at the right time—having gone to the right seminary—that Stanley Rother heard and heeded the pope’s call to mission. Perhaps it was because of those very failures that he was able to give everything he had—including his life—to the Mayan people of the villages he served.
We may not know clearly what God is calling us to. But persevering, working through our failures, trying to ascertain what we’re meant to learn from them—that’s everyone’s call.
Get a free retreat and/or study guide when you check out Prophet of Hope, our biography of Archbishop Oscar Romero.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir