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Priests for the People


by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

Blessed Stanley Rother and Father James Coyle gave their lives in priestly service and sacrifice

Carl A. Anderson

ON A TRIP TO ROME in the 1980s, I had a long conversation with an African priest who was serving in the Vatican. We had become friends, and he had just returned from a vacation in Guatemala. When I asked him about his trip, he replied that it had gone very well — he had been able to relax, catch up on his reading and get much needed rest.

But he was also very troubled by what he had seen concerning the situation of the indigenous people there. “They treat these people like animals,” he said with emotion.

His words struck me, since years earlier he had lived through a violent transition in his own country, from centuries of colonial rule to independence.

I remembered this conversation in September while attending the beatification ceremony of Father Stanley Rother in Oklahoma City.

Blessed Stanley Rother was a priest from Oklahoma serving as a missionary among the Tz’utujil people in the mountains of Guatemala. He was one of 10 priests murdered in Guatemala in 1981, and the seventh in less than three months. Warned that his name was on a “death list,” he had returned to his parents’ farm in Oklahoma, and he could have remained there in safety.

But Father Rother repeatedly said, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.” He returned to his parish in Santiago Atitlán, well aware of what he was facing. A short time later, three men murdered him in his rectory.

St. Francis de Sales once said, “All the science of the saints is included in these two things: To do, and to suffer. And whoever has done these two things best, has made himself most saintly.” Blessed Stanley Rother did both with great courage.

Returning from the beatification of Father Rother, I also thought of another priest — a brother Knight of Columbus, murdered in his own rectory 60 years earlier.

At a time when the Ku Klux Klan was asserting itself as a national power and mobilizing a nationwide anti-immigrant campaign, Father James Coyle emerged as a spokesman defending the Catholic laborers in the coal mines and factories of northern Alabama. As a result, he soon became a target of death threats.

But like Father Rother, Father Coyle refused to abandon his flock. On Aug. 11, 1921, after celebrating the wedding of the daughter of a Protestant minister and a Puerto Rican migrant worker, the woman’s father, who was also a member of the Klan, approached Father Coyle at his rectory and shot him dead.

St. John Paul II often spoke of what he called the “nuptial mystery” at the heart of Christ’s love for his Church, which we see reflected in a priest’s love for his parishioners.

In his book Gift and Mystery, John Paul II asks, “What does it mean to be a priest?” He then writes, “According to St. Paul, it means above all to be a steward of the mysteries of God…. The steward is not the owner, but the one to whom the owner entrusts his goods…. The priest receives from Christ the treasures of salvation.”

We see in the sacrifices of Father Rother and Father Coyle that they understood, as stewards and shepherds, that among the “treasures of salvation” entrusted to their care were the people of God in their parishes. Both were prepared, at the cost of their very lives, to live in persona Christi — as priest and victim for their people.

This same devotion is reflected in the life of our founder, the Venerable Servant of God Father Michael McGivney, whose daily sacrifices for the families of his mostly immigrant parish led to the sickness that ended his life at age 38.

We are grateful to Pope Francis for bringing to the attention of the world the courageous life of holiness that marked the life and death of Blessed Stanley Rother. May this saintly priest pray for us and for all Catholics, that we, too, may be worthy stewards of those goods the Lord has entrusted to our care.

Vivat Jesus!