By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

OKLAHOMA CITY — In the final step before sainthood, a missionary from Oklahoma slain during Guatemala’s civil war has been beatified — the first U.S.-born priest and martyr to receive such recognition by the Catholic Church.

An estimated 20,000 Catholics waited in long lines to attend the special Mass on Saturday (Sept. 23) celebrating the Rev. Stanley Francis Rother, who was shot to death by three masked assassins who entered his rectory in 1981.

“In a period of grave social and political turbulence in Guatemala, Father Rother lived as a perfect disciple of Christ, doing good and spreading peace and reconciliation among the people,” said Cardinal Angelo Amato, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints and gave the beatification homily.

“His martyrdom, if it fills us with sadness, also gives us the joy of admiring the kindness, generosity and courage of a great man of faith,” Amato told the crowd that filled the Cox Convention Center arena and several overflow rooms.

Declared by Pope Francis, Rother’s beatification means that the priest — who was 46 years old when he died — lived a holy life, is now in heaven and may be publicly venerated.

At Saturday’s ceremony, the church declared that the slain priest lives in heaven and intercedes with God on behalf of people on Earth. As a result of the beatification, Catholics now will refer to him as “Blessed Stanley Rother.”

In an apostolic letter read in Latin by Amato and English by Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, Francis praised Rother as a priest and martyr “who was driven by a deeply rooted faith and a profound union with God, and by the arduous duty to spread the Word of God in missionary lands.”

For Rother to become a saint, a miracle involving his intercession must be verified, Coakley said.

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Religion News Service is a national wire service with more than 100 secular and religious media subscribers, including USA Today, the Washington Post and NPR.

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