Editor's Space

Reading in the Times of Pandemic

During this painful spring, we have been unexpectedly forced to stay indoors. We have been dealing with the shelter-in-place spring season by cooking more elaborate meals, spending more time with the family — and watching TV. According to Nielsen, the average viewer spent 40 hours in front of a TV during the week of March 16, compared to 33 hours during the same week a year before.

In my family, we have done our share of binge-watching, but I have also tried to catch up with a reading list that has become longer and longer during the past year. Novels have been a welcome escape but the best experience was re-reading the book “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Father Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma,” by my friend, Maria Scaperlanda.

The biography of Blessed Stanley Rother is fascinating and inspiring. It is the story of “a priestly underdog.” When Rother decided to become a priest, he enrolled in the Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas. After almost six years, his professors advised him to withdraw. They thought he lacked the intellectual capacity to be a priest. His second try was successful and he was ordained in 1963.

In 1968 he asked to be sent to the mission of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. When h arrived, there were 12 people in the mission — priests, women religious and lay volunteers. According to Scaperlanda, Father Rother felt out of place.

Every night, the missionaries would have dinner together and long debates about the mission, the best way to evangelize the indigenous people, and fight injustice.

Father Rother was not an intellectual and didn’t have much to say, so he would retreat to his room to pray and smoke his pipe. He was good at farming and fixing tractors — he had grown up on a farm — as well as building houses.

He enjoyed working with the indigenous people on their farms more than debating different pastoral styles.

Years later, people started leaving the mission — two priests left, lay volunteers returned to their lives, religious women were called back to their orders.

Father Rother was the last one left. And he refused to leave even when, in the middle of a bloody civil war, he received death threats.

In December 1980, he wrote a letter to the faithful of his diocese in Oklahoma. Talking about the dangerous situation in Guatemala, he said: “This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”

Seven months later, on July 28, 1981, minutes after midnight, three gunmen broke into the rectory and assassinated Father Rother.

In December 2016, Pope Francis recognized him as the first American martyr of the faith. He was beatified on September 23, 2017, in Oklahoma.

The man who once was not considered good enough to be a priest became a martyr for his faith and the poor people of Guatemala. The man who didn’t know enough pastoral theology to discuss with his fellow missionaries was the only missionary left at the end.

I find that particular detail illuminating. We hear heated debates every day about each decision or prediction about the pandemic. And we see so many people who never appear on TV doing their work in dangerous conditions without debate

From the doctors and nurses to the bus drivers and cashiers at the supermarkets, these people remind me of Father Rother’s quiet heroism.

He is a saint for all seasons, but I find him a perfect example of Christian testimony for our cruel spring of 2020.

María Scaperlanda tells his story in a direct, simple style that is perfect for the man she is presenting in her book. And in a second reading, it has been a source of hope and inspiration once again.

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