On July 28, 1981, Fr. Stanley Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, was murdered in Santiago Attilan, Guatemala in his rectory. His death was dealt by supporters, if not members, of the military of Guatemala who ruled the country at that time. Fr. Rother was considered a subversive by the corrupt government because he tried to help the people of his parish. He was not interested in politics, only in his people for whom he had come to serve. He was considered by many to have been a kind and gentle soul.
The Catholic Church in Oklahoma (Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa) under Bishop Victor J. Reed decided to sponsor and staff a mission in Guatemala; Santiago Attilan was the chosen mission. In 1964, Fr. Ramon Carlin became the first pastor of the mission, known as “Micatokla” (Mission Catholica Oklahoma, or the Catholic Mission of Oklahoma). In 1968, Fr. Stanley Rother became the second pastor of the mission, remaining so until his death in 1981.
Fr. John Vesey, a priest from Brooklyn, New York, succeeded Fr. Rother three years after his martyrdom. Fr. Vesey invited his friend Fr. Henri Nouwen, the renowned Dutch author, to come to Santiago Attilan to pray with him. Nouwen agreed to come if he could bring his photographer friend Peter K. Weiskel. Vesey agreed. Nouwen and Weiskel arrived in Guatemala in the late summer of 1984. They saw many beautiful sights and many ugly things, too. They heard and witnessed beautiful events and heard about the evil things that had happened and were still happening.
Vesey asked Nouwen to write a book on Fr. Rother and the events surrounding his martyrdom and the aftermath. Nouwen agreed to do this and included some material on Vesey though he had not asked Nouwen to do so; he wanted the book to be on Rother and the people of Santiago Attilan. This portion on Vesey, though, shows what was still going on in Guatemala. Nouwen collected information in Guatemala, from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, Fr. Rother’s family and friends, and other sources, quoting from these various sources throughout the book. There are several black and white photographs by Peter Weiskel as well as pictures of Fr. Rother from other sources.
he first edition of Love in a Fearful Land was published in 1985; the second edition was published in 2006 to mark the 25th anniversary of Fr. Rother’s martyrdom. Fr. Vesey and Peter Weiskel added some new material and subtracted some old material; Henri Nouwen had died in 1996. Vesey and Weiskel unfortunately do not mention that Fr. Thomas McSherry succeeded Fr. Vesey in 1984 and was the last priest from Oklahoma to serve at the Mission. He left in 2001. On the front cover of the second edition is a large crucifix leaning against a whitewashed wall. The crucifix is one that you would most likely find in Guatemala, featuring a brightly striped colored shawl around Jesus’ waist.
Love in a Fearful Land gives the reader cause to reflect on the events that Nouwen presents in his tribute to this holy martyr. He also mentions other Central American martyrs, like Archbishop Oscar Romero and the four American women murdered in El Salvador. The dictatorial military governments of Central America declared war on the Catholic Church, considering it to be subversive and filled with Communists. There might have been some of these, but most were clergy, religious and laity who were simply trying to help people in order to make this world better and to save souls. These governments were not open to real democracy or of sharing anything with the poor or with Indians but wanted these peoples to unquestionably obey them and remain in their places in society. Anyone who even seemed to be opposed to them was to be destroyed or put into their place by terrorism; they had no respect for human life. The Church was the only major institution that stood up to the governments and said what they were doing was evil and wrong. Many in the Church paid for this with their lives, and one of these is Fr. Stanley Rother.
In Fr. Vesey’s addition to Nouwen’s book, he mentions that in 1994 Pope John Paul II asked for the local churches to submit names of martyrs, and Fr. Rother’s name was sent in with many other Central American martyrs. One day, Stanley Rother might be a canonized saint. Many of the people in Santiago Attilan and in Oklahoma believe he is a saint, as does this reviewer. Fr. Vesey did not get to stay in Santiago Attilan
too long himself. He ended up on a death squad list, too, but he was sent home
before they could kill him. The Catholic Church in Oklahoma still supports the
www.catharchdioceseokc.org/history/rotherindex.htm for more information on Fr. Rother and the Guatemalan mission).
The book is highly recommended to those interested in Fr. Stanley Rother and the Church in Guatemala, and as an example of the atrocities committed in Central America during the 1980s.