“To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His Blood, who has made us into a Kingdom, priests for His God and Father, to Him be glory and power forever and ever.” These words from the Book of Revelation, proclaimed in the second reading, express our joyful praise of Christ at this Chrism Mass. This liturgy, like every liturgy we celebrate, is an act of divine worship, in which we offer praise and thanksgiving to the One who loves us has freed us from our sins by His Precious Blood. We are able to do so because Christ has made us priests for His God and Father. At our Baptism and Confirmation, we were anointed with sacred Chrism, anointed with the Holy Spirit, consecrated to be a holy priesthood. We received a sacramental character, a seal, by which we share in Christ’s priesthood. This seal is indelible. It remains forever as a vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church.
The Chrism that I will consecrate at this Mass will be used to anoint many people in our diocese in this coming year, to anoint babies after their Baptism, and to anoint young people and adults at their Confirmation. By the anointing of the Holy Spirit, they will be initiated into Christ’s Kingdom. They will be consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood.
At the Chrism Mass, the Church highlights in a special way those members of the holy priesthood of Christ whom God has chosen and consecrated by the sacrament of Holy Orders. They too were anointed with the sacred chrism at Baptism and Confirmation so we can call our priests “our brothers in Christ.” But they received another consecration of the Holy Spirit which enables them to act in the person of Christ the Head, for the service of all the members of the Church. Their hands were anointed with the sacred chrism at their priestly ordination. In the Church, they represent Christ the Good Shepherd and High Priest. And so they are called “father,” since in their ministry, they are called, like Jesus, to reveal the Father’s love in all they say and do. We give thanks that the chrism that will be consecrated at this Mass will be used this year to anoint the hands of two new priests for our diocese and two new priests for the Congregation of Holy Cross.
At the Chrism Mass, our priests renew their priestly promises. They express their resolve to follow Christ the Head and Shepherd of the Church, not seeking any gain, but moved only by zeal for souls. As I was reflecting on this priestly promise, I thought about a priest who was an alumnus of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, ordained in 1963 for the Diocese of Oklahoma City. This coming September, he will become the first U.S. born priest and the first U.S. born martyr to be beatified. As many of you may already know, his name is Father Stanley Rother.
At this Mass, I wish to hold Father Rother up to our priests as a model for them, not because I anticipate any of them suffering martyrdom, at least not in the strict sense of being killed for their witness to Christ. But his witness can inspire us. My brother priests, Father Stanley Rother was in many ways an ordinary priest like you and me. I think we can relate to him, his joys and his sorrows, and his struggles and sacrifices.
Father Stanley grew up in a devout German Catholic family on a farm in rural Oklahoma. He struggled in the seminary and, after failing his first year of theology, was sent to Mount Saint Mary’s. He did well at the Mount. He was great at manual labor and quite often visited the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes on the mountain above the seminary. He would pray and do manual work there. In fact, he helped to make the Grotto’s rock wall. And he did a lot better in his studies at the Mount.
After his ordination in 1963, Father Stanley served five years as a parish priest in Oklahoma. Then, he volunteered to serve in the diocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala. He arrived there in 1968 and served as part of a mission team. He would eventually be the only priest to remain there. Immediately, Father Stanley identified with the simple, farming lifestyle of the people of Santiago Atitlan. He studied Spanish which he never really mastered, but he also studied the native language spoken by his indigenous parishioners, the Tzutujil Indians, and he became fluent in their language. For thirteen years, he served as their priest, their shepherd. He worked very hard among the people whom He cared for spiritually and materially. He built a farmer’s co-op, a school, a hospital, and a Catholic radio station used for catechesis. He worked on the farms with the Tzutujil farmers which he saw as part of his vocation as a minister of God’s love. Amid all the hard work, Father Stanley fell in love with the people he served.
The civil war in Guatemala reached the peaceful village of Santiago Atitlan in the late 1970’s. Some of Father Stanley’s parishioners, including his catechists, disappeared. Some were killed. The situation became very dangerous. He wrote in a Christmas letter to his diocesan newspaper the following words: “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”
Father Stanley returned to Oklahoma in early 1981 because his name appeared on a death list. He was warned not to return to Guatemala. Father Stanley visited Mount Saint Mary’s for a little retreat. He prayed and discerned that he could not abandon his people. He remained resolute in his belief that the shepherd cannot run. He returned to Santiago Atitlan in time for Holy Week in April, 1981. The people rejoiced that their pastor had returned.
That summer, amid all the tensions, Father Stanley and his parishioners still had their annual celebration of their patronal feast, Santiago, Saint James, on July 25th. Father Stanley was warned the day before that his assassination was imminent, but he proceeded with the celebrations. A few days later, at 1:30 in the morning on July 28th, three masked men broke into the rectory and attacked Father Stanley. He fought them hard, but they shot him twice in the head and killed him. The whole room was splattered with blood. The religious sisters who found his body wiped up the blood which is venerated in the parish church today. His beloved people cried and mourned at his death. A couple thousand came to his funeral. He had served faithfully as their priest, their spiritual father, their shepherd, for 13 years. And he laid down his life for them. They considered him “their” saint. Father Stanley’s family wanted his body returned to Oklahoma, but they agreed to allow his heart to remain and it is kept in the parish church of Santiago. Today, Father Stanley is venerated there and also in Oklahoma.
The early Church Father, Tertullian, in the third century wrote the famous words: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.” These words ring true today. During Father Stanley’s lifetime, there were few, if any, priestly vocations among the Tzutujil Indians. Today, there are many priestly vocations among the Tzutujil Indians. Reflecting on Father Stanley Rother’s martyrdom and its fruits among his people, we can say: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of priestly vocations.”
I shared this summary of Father Stanley’s priestly life and his death at this Chrism Mass especially as an example for our priests, an example of our calling to love our people and to be close to them.
When I assign our priests and send them to a particular parish or ministry, I do so after considering the priest’s particular talents and the needs of the parish. Sometimes a parish may need a priest who has strong administrative skills or financial acumen or other particular strengths. But this is always secondary. I am sending them first and foremost to be shepherds, spiritual fathers, to love and care for the people I entrust to their pastoral care.
My brother priests, in our assignments, our primary duty is to make visible the love of the heart of Jesus. We are called and sent to feed our people with the word of God and with the grace of the sacraments. We are called and sent to be instruments of the power of Christ’s redeeming love. We share in the mission of Jesus, like Father Stanley Rother did, to bring glad tidings to the poor, to show deep compassion for those who are suffering, and to be generous with our time and energy in serving our people. My brothers, at this Mass, I will bless the oil of the sick. I entrust it to you to be used to bring the healing grace and comfort of Jesus to the sick, the suffering, and the dying. I encourage you to use it abundantly, to always be available and accessible, at any hour of the day or night, to those who need your presence and the grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
Father Stanley Rother fought his attackers. You don’t often hear that in regard to our Christian martyrs. But, Father Rother did not want to be taken by them and tortured, nor did he want to risk the lives of his people who would try to rescue him. Here he is also a model for us. I hope we have the courage to fight to protect our people from the forces of evil. This is “the good fight” spoken of by Saint Paul. It is the battle won by Jesus on the cross. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, did not run from the cross. Father Stanley, an icon of the Good Shepherd, did not run from the cross. The Good Shepherd cannot run. “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” My brother priests, this is our vocation and the great promise we renew at this Mass. Like Father Stanley Rother, may we follow Christ the Head and Shepherd, not seeking any gain, but moved only by zeal for souls. My brothers and sisters, please pray for me and our priests, that we will love you and all our people with the heart of Jesus and that we will never run from the cross. In the words of Father Stanley Rother to the people of Oklahoma in his last Christmas letter: “Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people.”