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Two news items leaped off the page on March 13, both involving heroic priests. I was blessed to know one though a letter correspondence (see my Q&A interview with him below); the other, I admired from afar.
First, the one I knew. Monsignor Vincent Foy, who died in Toronto that day, was the longest serving priest in Canadian history, ordained an astonishing 77 years and nine months. He came into the world in the middle of the Great War (in 1915), got ordained on the eve of the even “greater” War (in 1939), and served as a priest under the reigns of nine popes.
The (durably long) life of this holy man testifies to the Greatest Generation writ priestly. The Second Vatican Council was followed by a series of painful disruptions, as new regulations and pastoral practices (known infamously as the “spirit of Vatican II”) were imposed that often bore no resemblance to the letter of Vatican II. Monsignor Foy, a trained canon lawyer, had already been a priest for 20 years when the Council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1959, and he (Foy) accepted the many pastoral disruptions wrought by the Council with a simple m.o.: the pastor loved Jesus and His Mother, and trusted in the authority of the Magisterium – which he defended his whole life through, often in the face of serious resistance.
Monsignor Foy crossed my radar because of his outspoken defense of Humanae Vitae and his efforts to get the Canadian bishops to recant the misleading (if technically non-authoritative) “Winnipeg Statement” of September 1968, a document that opened wide the door of dissent. I give some important background to that story in my book Sex Au Naturel.
Like most Catholics of my generation, I was weaned on a low-expectations model of what Bishop Robert Barron has aptly called “beige Catholicism.” We were schooled in the class struggles of El Salvador, exposed to the music of those famous liturgists Simon and Garfunkel, and mastered the art of felt and burlap banner making. Forget the Pope – we had an infallible, magical thing called “conscience.”
It’s as if the robust Catholicism of the mid twentieth century skipped a generation. In the world of literature, the post-Conciliar era produced no Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, J. R. R. Tolkien, no Flannery O’Connor, no J.F.
Powers. We heard about Thomas Merton but he made his mark in my circles mostly because of his later Sixties-tinged enthusiasms.
So encountering Monsignor Foy’s often trenchant observations about the state of the Church and his warnings against lukewarmness were a tonic to people like me who were trying to find their way to the bosom of the Church. This Monsignor Foy guy had something to say and he said it well. In addition to scores of articles on moral theology and Catholic principles, he also wrote three respected books on close-up magic technique.
This lively online interview from two years ago shows a vivacious, witty 100-year-old man of God:
Monsignor Foy happened to be in Rome in 1978, the year of the three popes. From his account: “I had my rosary blessed by Pope Paul VI and served as eucharistic minister at his funeral. Just before the coffin was closed, I touched my rosary to his hand. I had my rosary blessed by Pope John Paul I and again touched it to his hand when I served as eucharistic minister at his funeral. I served at the first Mass of Pope John Paul II and my rosary was blessed by him. I hope to be buried with that rosary.”
You can bet that wish was fulfilled.
Monsignor Vincent Foy lived his life madly in love with the good Lord. He stood up for the uncomfortable truths of the Faith after the manner of Servant of God John Hardon, SJ (whom Monsignor greatly admired). You might say, by his own uncompromising attitude toward sin and his tender attitude toward sinners, Foy made the hard sayings of Christ easy. Santo subito.
The other priest is an American, and, if you’ve never heard of him, you soon will. His name is Father Stanley Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. If Vincent Foy spoke and read Latin with ease, the farm boy from Okarche, OK, stumbled repeatedly with his Latin courses in seminary. After almost six years of trying, he was asked to leave – a terrible blow.
But Stanley never gave up. Bishop Victor Reed gave him a second chance, and, after studying at Mt. Saint Mary’s in Maryland, was finally ordained in 1963. After five years of parish life, he received permission to join the staff at the Archdiocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.
It didn’t take long for him to hit his sacerdotal stride. Amazingly, in light of his losing battle against his arch-nemesis Latin, Father Stan became intensely focused on learning both Spanish and the Tz’utujil tongue (which had no written form prior to the arrival of the mission team) so as to better serve God’s indigenous people. He mastered both.
The Cakchiquel Indians, descendants of the Mayans, took to their practical-minded “Papa Francisco” (there’s no analogue to Stanley in Tz’utujil) and he took to them. Tapping into his farming background, he brought in new crops, designed a DIY irrigation system, began a farmer’s co-op, and even tended to simple medical problems. Above all, Stan Rother wanted to be a shepherd like Jesus, to offer the Sacraments and to be a sacrament to his simple, voiceless, powerless flock.
During the early 1980s, Guatemala was still entangled in a long civil war between a militarist government and radical leftist guerillas. The violence remained an essentially urban phenomenon, but the mayhem eventually spread into the mountains and remote villages. In Santiago Atitlan, catechists and other Catholic leaders became “disappeared” to be tortured, killed, or both.
The Catholic radio station Father Rother supported on the mission grounds was trashed, its director murdered. Lists of names appeared on posters. When Rother’s name showed up on the list, he was brought back to Oklahoma for his, and his associate’s, safety.
By that time, however, the mission had become his true home, its people his true family. Against wise counsel, he insisted on returning to Atitlan, saying, “A shepherd does not run.” Within weeks, on a humid summer night, July 28, 2918, his rectory was stormed by three masked men. They had crammed a gun against the gardener’s head and forced him to lead them to “the red bearded Oklahoma-born missionary.”
They found him, and a violent scuffle ensued. And what may have started as a kidnapping ended as an execution as two rounds struck Rother’s head at close range.
We’ll never know the full story unless, that is, the killers confess after all these years as news of the beatification spreads. Something worth praying for. Providence deals in both the strange and the unlikely.
Historically, the Catholic Church in Central America has been caught between the rock of the militarized juntas and the hard place of the opposing armed guerillas. Catholic missionaries have done what good they can do amidst the tit-for-tat violence that left victims on both sides.
The question of whether Father Rother was killed because he was perceived as a pro-government stooge or a pro-revolutionary agent was made officially moot by Pope Francis, who decreed on December 2016 that the heroic priest died in odium fide, in “hatred of the Faith.” Rother was not killed because he was a social worker, a community activist, or a spy, but because he was a priest who sided with the poor. A bona fide martyr.
On March 13, the same day Foy entered eternity, Oklahoma Archbishop Paul Coakley received word from Rome that Rother will be beatified on September 25, 2017, in Oklahoma City. This will make Servant of God Stanley Rother not only America’s first officially recognized martyr, but the first American-born male to be beatified, jumping him one step ahead of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen and Venerable Solanus Casey on the road to canonization.
Father Stanley Rother and Monsignor Vincent Foy, red and white martyrs respectively, ora pro nobis.