Death Comes for the Archbishop Themes
by Willa Cather

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Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

At the heart of the Christian religion is the virtue of faith. The archbishop reflects this quality not only in the integrity of his own life but also in the extent to which he preserves, revives, and expands it among his clergy and laity. Numerous characters, such as Father Gallegos, Martinez, and Lucero, are examples of those who have lost faith because of corrupting vices. Others, such as Father Vaillant, Magdalena, and numerous others, reflect those who humbly continue in their faith.

Integral to faith is perseverance. The long arduous pastoral journeys of Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant demonstrate this devoted application of their labor in the spread of the faith. Perseverance requires courage, the ability to continuously confront and deal with hostilities and hardships.

Faith, however, sustains hope, the virtue of confidence in redemption. Through the faith that the bishop and his vicar spread, they mean to give hope to the varied and conflicted peoples among them, the numerous Indian groups, the settled Mexican cultures, and the advancing American ones.

However, within Christian moral theology, the most important virtue is love. In general, the archbishop’s life of devotion and labor reflects his love for his flock. Most important, his love is reflected in his personal relationships. Father Vaillant is his lifelong friend, someone whom he knows very well, admires, respects, and cares for. The bishop is especially alert to and respectful of the religious sensitivities of the indigenous populations, even curious and admiring of how they have synthesized both Catholic and native tradition. He is attentive to the most humble of his parishioners. His love is also “tough.” He knows how to patiently, diplomatically, and effectively remove clerics whose vices have become the antithesis of virtue.

Themes

(Novels for Students)

Faith
Because the novel relates the stories of Latour’s missionary journeys throughout New Mexico, the theme of faith is significant. Without the motivation of his personal faith, Latour would lack the drive to endure the physical difficulties and rejection he must overcome to fulfill his mission. Latour is deeply devoted to his faith, making certain to pray, read, and reflect every day. When his thoughts have wandered from religious matters for too long, he feels urgency to pray or meditate. Never does the reader find that Latour wavers from his “calling” to the priesthood. He does not wonder what it would be like to have any other life, and he does not discuss his life prior to joining the priesthood. He gladly sacrifices comfort, family, wealth, and social opportunities for his vocation.

As a counterpoint to Latour’s faith is that of the Native Americans in the area. Their beliefs vary from pueblo to pueblo, but they are marked by superstition and the worship of animals and deities. Their faith in their belief systems is at times as strong as Latour’s is to his Catholicism. Zeb Orchard, a trader well acquainted with the natives and their beliefs, tells Latour that he “might make good Catholics among the Indians, but he would never separate them from their own beliefs.” Still, what Latour and the Indians have in common is a strong tradition and solid faith.

Trust
In order for Latour to be a meaningful Catholic presence in New Mexico, he must not only earn the trust of the Mexicans, Americans, and Indians living there, but he must also earn the trust of the existing church leaders. He soon finds that earning this trust, especially that of the native people, will not be easy. They have endured a brutal and unjust past with Europeans, and their distrust is as firm as it is well grounded. Latour regards this challenge as a matter of showing himself to be a man of integrity and sincerity. He ministers to the people and remains humble in public and private. He does not develop elaborate social or political strategies to win them over, but instead relies on his faith and his own character. Although...

(The entire section is 1,016 words.)