"Helping these people," Father Stanley Rother, an American priest in Guatemala, wrote to a friend, "could very easily be considered subversive by the local government."

That was last January, and the priest did help those who needed him: the widows and children of men in his parish mission who were systematically being murdered by Guatemalan security forces. The slain men had worked peacefully for more justice and less fear in their villages.

Rother says he was told by his catechist: "I have never stolen, have never hurt anyone, have never eaten someone else's food. Why then do they want to hurt me and kill me?" Shortly after, the assistant was kidnapped and murdered.

Rother, a priest of the archdiocese of Oklahoma City who served the destitute in rural Guatemala for 13 years, knew that he was also a marked man. He left the country for three months early this year. In April, he returned. On the night of July 28, three men entered the bedroom of his mission. They killed him with two bullets to the head.

Why has so little been heard about this brave man? Is this one of the results of quiet diplomacy? Are the deaths of American citizens like Stanley Rother -- the son of an Oklahoma farmer, mourned as a good and caring priest by the poor he served--of so little consequence that the Reagan policy of quietness takes precedence over national indignation?

It seems so. Sen. David Boren (D- Okla.) keeps asking the State Department for details of the crime. "There's nothing new on the case," his office reports. Two days ago, Archbishop Charles Salatka of Oklahoma City met with Thomas O. Enders, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. "Nothing substantial came out of the meeting," the archbishop said. "But we want to let the government know that we aren't going to let this pass."

The family of Rother, like the families of the slain religious women in El Salvador, is being forced to learn patience. In Guatemala, these are times when lone unsolved murders-- even large public massacres--are routine.

No amount of dismissing the bloodshed as the inevitable result of a friendly government's efforts to beat back guerrillas erases what impartial observers report about the dictatorship of President Romeo Lucas Garcia. He runs "a government program of political murder," Amnesty International said in its latest report on Guatemala. In 1980 alone, Amnesty reports, "some 3,000 people described by government representatives as 'subversives' and 'criminals' were either shot on the spot in political assassinations or seized and murdered later."

A year ago in Time magazine, an eight- page advertising spread portrayed the country as a "peaceful republic."

The Reagan administration appears to prefer this bright-side view rather than Amnesty's factual one. Through retired Gen. Vernon Walters, an ambassador-at- large, it argues that American ideas on human rights can't be imposed on Guatemala. He acknowledges that some turmoil exists. But because the Guatemalan government is friendly to the United States, we have a better chance to advance human rights by a soft approach.

Walters counsels against impatience. His comment of last May, after he visited Guatemala, is well-remembered: "There will be human rights problems in the year 3000 with the governments of Mars and the moon. There are some problems that are never resolved. . . . "

While the futuristic Walters mulls over pending planetary instability, the earthbound reality was astutely assessed by Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass). Referring to the recent $3.2 million in military aid to Guatemala's terrorist government, Studds says that "the Reagan administration wants to build a military relationship with Guatemala. At the moment, it's just jeeps and trucks we're sending. What has kept the administration from going as far as it would like is that it's frustrated: first, by public opinion, and second, by the Guatemalan government itself. It has been utterly unresponsive to our quiet diplomacy. Our generals talk to their generals, and the Guatemalan government is worse than it ever was."

While this general-to-general dialogue goes on, Guatemala remains on the margin of public interest in the United States. We don't think much about Central America to begin with, but when we do, El Salvador and Nicaragua capture attention. The Reagan-Haig policies are at risk there. Drama unfolds.

In Guatemala, it's the same dull story: greed and gore. Besides, only one American priest has been killed. In El Salvador, it was four religious workers, plus several other Americans, who were slain. Among friendly governments, first things first.