Death Comes For The Archbishop, published in 1927, is a kind of Western, describing life on the American frontier in the later 1800s. The heroes in this book are not a couple of cowboys, but a Catholic bishop and a priest who are attempting to establish a diocese in New Mexico, recently ceded to the United States by the Mexican Republic.
In a normal Western, the frontier is a lawless wilderness, where outlaw gangs roam, and sheriffs attempt to impose rough justice. In Death Comes For The Archbishop, two missionaries – a couple of religious sheriffs – arrive at a frontier, which is not nearly as new and wild as it seems. There are native peoples here with ancient settlements and indigenous religious traditions much older than the Catholic Church itself. In some ways the Church is a new influence imposed on an ancient land.
The new sheriffs approach their mission in different ways. The priest, Father Vaillant is straight forward in his attempts to spread the word. His friend, Bishop Latour, is more complex and thoughtful. He values the presence in New Mexico of traditions much older than the one he represents, and has a general sympathy with many views that might seem different to his own. For some of his followers, “there was one Church, and the rest of the world was infidel”. But for Father Latour, the most senior Church official in the territory, things are not like that. As just one example, he takes an interest in the wooden saint figures displayed in many local houses, and notes never seeing two alike. Some of his flock “will not accept two ideas at once”, whilst their wooden religious images indicate as many different ideas as there are individuals to hold them. This is the sort of fundamental contradiction that Latour appreciates, allowing him to gain the friendship and respect of all kinds of people.
Given the book’s title, I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the bishop dies in the end. But when he does so, he is remembered as a good man rather than a good Church leader. He is open, tolerant, wam and thoughtful. His priest friend, Father Vaillant, so much more straightforward in furthering the interests of Catholicism, is by no means depicted as an unsympathetic character, but it is Latour who becomes the archbishop, the leader of the Church. He becomes leader not by setting his organisation’s interests above all else, but by seeing those interests in the context of the wider world.
This is a humane book, from which we could learn much in our polarised times.