Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 892
“Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr” is narrated by Angela Carballino. In a private memoir, Angela describes her changing perceptions of Don Emmanuel, the parish priest of a small mountain village in Spain, where she grew up and lived throughout most of her life. Angela explains that the bishop of the diocese of Renada is initiating the process of beatification of Don Emmanuel, now that he is dead. Over the course of the story, Angela describes how she came to learn the secret of Don Emmanuel’s soul.
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Angela explains that Don Emmanuel was her “spiritual father.” Her mother, like everyone in the village, worships and loves Don Emmanuel. Angela’s brother Lazarus lives and works in America, and sends money to support Angela and her mother. When she is ten years old, Angela is sent to a convent school.
Angela leaves the convent school at the age of sixteen and returns to her village. She notes that the whole life of the village by this time revolves around Don Emmanuel. Don Emmanuel is a very active participant in the daily life of the community, sometimes working in the fields alongside the peasants, sometimes accompanying the doctor on his rounds, sometimes helping to teach at the village school. He counsels troubled families, comforts the sick, aids the poor, cares for the children, and attends to the dying. Blasillo, a man in the village who is mentally retarded, becomes especially attached to Don Emmanuel.
As a young woman, Angela helps Don Emmanuel with his various tasks and duties in the church and the community. When she is almost twentyfour, her brother Lazarus returns from America. Lazarus has been influenced by his experiences away from the village and is disdainful of the religious faith of the peasants and their reliance on Don Emmanuel. Lazarus openly expresses atheistic, anti-religious sentiments. But after he goes to hear one of Don Emmanuel’s sermons, and learns of his role in the community, Lazarus comes to respect the priest.
Simona, the mother of Angela and Lazarus, becomes mortally ill. As she is on her deathbed, she asks Lazarus to promise that he will pray for her after she is gone. Lazarus is at first resistant, because he is a non-believer, but Don Emmanuel convinces him to make this promise to his mother. After his mother’s death, Lazarus begins spending more and more time with Don Emmanuel, taking walks with him along the lake and discussing questions of religious faith and doubt. Before long, Lazarus starts to attend mass on a regular basis.
Lazarus eventually takes holy communion from Don Emmanuel, which the villagers happily interpret as a sign that his atheism has been converted to faith. After the communion, however, Lazarus confesses in private to Angela the true nature of Don Emmanuel’s attitudes about religion. He explains that Don Emmanuel convinced him to pretend to believe in God for the sake of the villagers and to keep his religious doubts to himself. When Lazarus asked Don Emmanuel if he truly believes in God, the priest indicated that he does not. Angela describes this revelation of Don Emmanuel’s lack of faith as the “tragic secret” of his soul. She is deeply saddened to learn that Don Emmanuel only pretends to believe in God and prays that he and Lazarus will experience a true conversion to genuine faith.
Lazarus further explains to Angela what Don Emmanuel has told him regarding his true attitudes about religion. Don Emmanuel asserted that, although he himself does not have faith, it is important to maintain the faith of the community because without their faith they would be lost. He regards religion as an illusion held by the villagers that gives them comfort in life. He thus encourages Lazarus to do everything he can to maintain the illusion of faith in the community for the sake of their happiness.
After revealing Don Emmanuel’s secret to Angela, Lazarus becomes more and more active in helping the priest with his various tasks and duties, both in the church and in the community. He continues to spend much of his time alone with Don Emmanuel, walking along the lake and pursuing his line of questioning, in order to learn the true nature of the priest’s attitudes about religion.
The years go by, and Don Emmanuel becomes ill. Knowing that he will soon die, the priest has himself carried to the church, where he gives his final sermon to the people of the village. After the death of Don Emmanuel, Lazarus begins to write down conversations he had with the priest over questions of faith and doubt. Angela later refers to these recorded conversations in the process of writing her memoir. In the absence of Don Emmanuel, Lazarus seems to lose his will to live. Eventually, he grows ill and dies.
Angela, now in her fifties, explains that the story she relates is her private memoir of her life with Saint Emmanuel the Good. She explains that the bishop who has initiated the process of naming Don Emmanuel a saint is writing a biography of the priest. This bishop has asked Angela for information about Don Emmanuel’s life. While she has given him plenty of factual information about the priest, she does not reveal the “tragic secret” of Don Emmanuel’s lack of faith.