– Father John Goggin was serving as a missionary priest in Guatemala on July 28, 1981, when he was woken up early with the news that Father Stanley Rother, from the parish just up the road, had been killed in the night by a government-backed death squad.
While another priest went to be with Rother’s people, it became Goggin’s job to drive an hour to the Sololá-Chimaltenango diocesan office to alert the people there. He also had to tell the news to the American embassy and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
Goggin said he knew Rother for many years, having been missionary priests in the same region of Guatemala.
Rother was a priest from the small town of Okarche, Oklahoma, and spent 13 years of his priesthood as a beloved missionary in Santiago, Atitlan, in Guatemala before he was killed. Pope Francis declared him a martyr last year, paving the way for his beatification.
His sacrifice is something that continues to inspire and challenge Goggin as a priest, which is why he made the nearly 2,000-mile journey to Oklahoma City to be present for his beatification on September 23.
“I certainly wanted to be here, I never thought I would know a person who would be (on the path to canonization),” he said. “Being able to come to Father Stan’s beatification is just wonderful to me.
“In all the prayers as a priest–it’s the whole idea of trying to give yourself, doing what the Lord asks, what the people ask, and you find that in Father Stan,” he added.
Rother was also known for not wanting to abandon his people, even though he knew his life was at risk. After Rother died, Goggin said he still did not want the people to feel abandoned.
That’s why he was grateful when the opportunity came to work with Unbound, a non-profit founded by lay Catholics who had also spent time serving as missionaries in Latin America.
The group works as a sponsorship program, pairing children and elderly people with sponsors in other countries, who provide monthly financial aid and moral support in order to help them achieve their own dreams and goals. Sponsors communicate with their partners through letters and e-mail, and also have the opportunity to visit the communities through awareness trips sponsored by Unbound.
Unbound currently serves in 19 countries, including countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
“When the opportunity came to become part of Unbound…I felt it was the direct result of a gift from Father Stanley Rother,” Goggin said, “because we were trying to fill a little bit of his shoes.”
One of the founders of Unbound had known Rother while serving as a missionary in Guatemala, and was inspired by his spirit of solidarity with his people, which he kept in the ethic of Unbound.
Rother had once flunked Latin studies, but he had mastered the local indigenous dialect of Tzutuhil and had become a beloved member of his community in Santiago Atitlan. He would share meals with them, visit them in their homes, and lived a simple life just like his people.
“We come from the same roots,” said Andrew Kling, director of community outreach and media relations for Unbound.
“Walking with, rather than speaking for the community, is part of our ethic. Rather than passing out stuff, we walk with the families. We have social workers who ask them: what are your dreams, what are your goals, how can we help you get there with a little bit of help every month. We don’t just parachute in western aid workers, we’re developing an ear and listening to the community,” he said.
Chico Chavajay is a Guatemalan who works as the coordinator of Unbound’s largest project, based in the region around Lake Atitlan where Rother worked.
Chavajay grew up speaking the same native language that Rother learned to speak. While he was only one year old when the priest died, Chavajay told CNA that the impact of Rother is still strongly felt by everyone in the region.
“Everyone knows him, if you just mention his name, people respond, because he rescued people and people knew they were rescued by him,” Chavajay said.
And it doesn’t matter if someone is Catholic or not. “Padre A’plas is Padre A’plas,” Chavajay noted, using Rother’s other name.
“Stanley” was such a foreign name that the people of Guatemala took to calling the priest ‘Father Francisco’, after his baptismal name of Francis, which in Tzutuhil translates to A’plas.
“There’s lots of connections of spirituality of Father Stanley and the spirit of Unbound,” Chavajay added. “Our program prioritizes education and health, just like Father Stanley.”
Rother had helped to establish the first hospital in the area, which was free and open to anyone, Chavajay said. That hospital saved his sister’s life when he was just 8 years old.
Chavajay noted that Unbound has also, in a way, adopted the signature phrase of Rother: “The shepherd cannot abandon his sheep at the first sign of danger.”
This was something the priest wrote in a letter home, explaining why he would not abandon his missionary post, even as the threats of the Guatemalan civil war escalated.
“We have the same belief that we’re not going to abandon the people that we serve,” he said.
The connection that Chavajay feels to Rother is strong, particularly because they spoke the same language, he said.
“I feel that I have a real blood connection with the community in Santiago and Padre A’plas because our language is the same,” he said.
Furthermore, his younger brother also became a priest and served at the same parish where Rother had been a priest.
An increase in vocations is something that the whole region has seen since Rother’s death, Goggin added. Five or six priests have come from Rother’s own parish, and several more have come from the local diocese.
“My own feeling is that Father Stan is making some of this happen,” Goggin said.
On the morning of Rother’s beatification, Unbound sponsored a walking pilgrimage from their hotel to the beatification Mass, with Goggin, Chavajay, and Kling in attendance. Goggin also got to take part in the procession of Rother’s relics up to the altar at the beatification Mass.
They each said it was a privilege to be at the Mass to honor someone who had and continues to have such a strong impact on their mission.
“His same spirit really permeates what we do,” Kling said, “and we hope an event like this could really highlight the importance of walking in solidarity with people.
“You don’t have to be a martyr to change the world. Father Stanley’s example shows that love is a choice, and that if you make that choice you can change the world. Love requires sacrifice, it requires vulnerability, it requires dedication, and sometimes it requires everything. But the fact that 36 years later it lives on in such a profound way is a powerful testament,” he added.
“My hope is that we will have many more people (who loved) like him, because if you look at the news today, we desperately need it.”