Death Comes For the Archbishop

One of the more recent memories of attending mass I have is a couple Christmases old at this point.  I was attending Christmas Eve mass with S.’s family in upstate New York. The time came for communion and, as he does every Christmas we spend together, my father-in-law encouraged me to take communion despite the fact I’m not Catholic and, as I do every Christmas we spend together, I desperately shook my head and instead knelt to pray, memories of the time when I was nine or ten and attending mass with my next-door neighbor and the priest refused to give me communion when I lined up behind my friend, even though her parents had assured me it wouldn’t be a problem. I had been mortified, and have no intention, even as a woman in her mid-thirties, of allowing that sort of thing to happen again. This particular Christmas I watched as the rest of my in-laws lined up for communion, taking the wafer placed in their cupped hands but surpassing, as the whole rest of the church seemed to as well, the wine chalice. When S. came back to his seat I leaned into him.

“Why is no one drinking the wine?” I asked.

“No one wants to get the flu,” S. responded. I watched as member after member of the church swallowed the body but rejected the blood, walking back to their seats.  It felt so sad – so incomplete.

“Why don’t they just put the wine in individual plastic cups?” I asked, familiar with Presbyterian communion – grape juice in little cups, and the leftover communion bread making its way to the potluck tables after service.

“We just don’t,” S. said – often his family’s explanation for the workings of their church.

I’ve long been alternately repelled by and attracted to the Catholic Church. I grew up in a rather anti-Catholic family. My parents believed all the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic church was a direct violation of serving Christ, that the Pope used and abused his position, firstly, and that his robes and gold jewelry was obscene, secondly, but perhaps what really stuck under their craw, what just drove them crazy about Catholicism, was the active encouragement of people, rich or poor, to forgo any sort of birth control. Environmentalists first and foremost, my parents believe vehemently in the zero population theory of reproduction and very little drives them crazier than the idea that there are families having baby after baby simply because the church says to.

But all that anti-Catholic rigor from my parents couldn’t compete with the fact the majority of my friends growing up were Catholic and I felt, from their first communion straight through their confirmations, that something was being kept from me. The first communion dresses and parties! The taking of a saint’s name! And don’t even get me started on confession – I’ve been intrigued by the idea of confession since the first time I heard about it. All of this wasn’t enough for me to pursue Catholicism as an actual faith, but S.’s religion felt like an extra-added bonus to his extraordinary person – maybe I would never commit to practicing Catholicism but marrying a Catholic could only feed my fascination with the church.

The last few weeks, though, my fascination has soured as more and more heinous news pours forth from the church. At one point, so entirely incensed on the subject, I told S. I highly doubted I would ever step foot in a Catholic church again, Christmas or not and he, equally angered and quite saddened, said he understood.  I’m not sure if I will actually hold to that resolution or not – a lot will depend on the next several months – but even as I made the declaration to S. my heart softened the tiniest bit as I thought about the book I was reading  – Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather, part of the From the Stacks reading challenge.

This book is stunning from start to finish. It follows the (fictional) life of Father Jean Marie Latour, the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico in the second half of the 19th Century, as he attempts to spread his faith to Indians, Mexicans and a host of others in between.  Cather created the character of Father Latour with care and compassion, and from his struggles with priests refusing to practice celibacy to his relationship to the land – “the vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos” – Father Latour is at once a compelling and calming vessel for Cather’s various stories.

This is a quiet book, but a lovely one, a book that served as both an anecdote for the rather joyless books I began the year with and as a reminder, as news started brewing about the child molestation charges against the church, that despite all the ugliness and horror we are hearing about, there is an equal amount of beauty and mystery the church provides, even, and perhaps especially, for those of us who aren’t a part of it.

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6 Responses to Death Comes For the Archbishop

  1. Stefanie says:

    Death Comes for the Archbishop is such a good book. I find religion in general to be a fascinating thing. I agree with you on how alluring yet horrifying Catholicism is. My Grandma is a devout Lutheran and I didn’t find out my Grandpa was Catholic until I was 10 because it was one of those embarrassing things that just wasn’t spoken of. Growing up my best friend was Catholic and it seemed so exotic. Now I work at a Catholic university with a social justice mission but at the same time I am appalled at some of the things I see, hear and read which makes me rather conflicted about working here.

  2. Amanda says:

    I grew up extremely Catholic- being of Irish Catholic descent it was a big part of my identity as well as an integral part of my childhood. I get the appeal of the pageantry and the ritual. In my 20s, even as an atheist, I still used to go to Mass from time to time as I found it somehow soothing. But the souring process for me was underway even then with the church’s various stances on being opposed to condoms despite Aids and being anti abortion even in cases of incest and rape of children. Despite the fact I know many, many good people are Catholic and that culturally in some sense I will always be one if I were to start going to church again I’d go to an Anglican church. The Catholic church just isn’t something I want any part of anymore.

  3. gumbomum says:

    I really struggle with this, as I am not Catholic and am opposed to so many of their stances and policies (and horrified by the molestation scandals). However… my son will be heading to a Jesuit high school next year (for a variety of reasons). Hard to reconcile. The best I can think of is to donate an amount equal to his tuition to Planned Parenthood and other causes that are diametrically opposed to Catholic policy, to sort of balance things out?

  4. litlove says:

    I would love to read that book by Cather. As for Catholicism, I guess it was given to me as a child as the defining example of what ‘dogmatic’ meant. And that refusal to think otherwise or openly seems to me to be at the heart of the latest scandals where the blind eye was turned and responsibility evaded in a way that is very disturbing. I have no criticism of anyone who is Catholic – often it’s a question of family tradition or local culture, and who am I to say to people what they should or shouldn’t believe? But the underlying certainties of the religious theory make me feel cold.

  5. Emily Barton says:

    I read Death Comes for the Archbishop while visiting Santa Fe for the first time, which just added to the wonderful experience of that book. As you know, I am not Catholic, but I went to a Catholic high school and learned a lot about inconsistency, as well as consistency. For instance, the anti-abortion stance was strong and heavy-handed, but when students became pregnant (as some did), no one was more loving and caring to the unwed mothers-to-be and mothers and their babies, once the babies were born, than those nuns were. It confused me, because they also told us that premarital sex was wrong, but they never shunned these girls. Also, they were staunch advocates against the death penalty, attending rallies in my home state. That’s actually more consistent than those of us who are pro-choice and anti-death penalty — they believed in life, period (or, rather, the sanctity of life). It was through attending such a school that I was able to form my own opinions, for instance, that I can be pro-choice without necessarily thinking that abortion would ever be a choice for me or that I was “pro-abortion” as many “pro-lifers” would have us believe, and I’m grateful for the experience (even if my teachers didn’t know they were teaching me what I ultimately ended up learning). The contemporary Catholic church in America is very, very involved in a lot of social justice issues, and has always been a leader in such things as teaching evolution, so I can support them, even if I disagree with other aspects of their theology. Sometimes, I think all the news (not that any of the abuses that have gone on/are going on are the least bit acceptable or excusable) comes from an anti-Catholic sentiment that still runs deep in this country. My guess is that if we scratched the surface of many other denominations, we’d find overwhelming numbers of stories of abuse, and secrecy there, too. Unfortunately, it’s just what happens when the wrong sorts of people get into power and find those who are weaker than they are and who are easy prey. We just find it more shocking from religious leaders than other sorts of leaders, I guess, despite the fact that we have so much evidence that so many atrocities are committed in the name of religion.

  6. shoreacres says:

    I was raised as a Methodist, but by the time I reached college age, I found myself attracted to the Catholic Church. I’m so old and creaky there still was a Latin Mass – John XXIII and his reforms were yet to be felt.

    I was drawn to the liturgy, but had great difficulty with some of the teaching – particularly what I viewed even then as a second-class status for women. Eventually, I became a Lutheran, because I found Luther’s theology immensely freeing, practical and enlightening. I’m actually a theological convert – Luther first, Lutheranism second.

    The great irony is that years later I discovered my family had BEEN Lutheran when they came to this country from Sweden. In Iowa in the 1920s, the KKK was virulently anti-Catholic. They also couldn’t tell the difference between Catholics and Lutherans! So, to protect the family, the whole lot of them became Methodist.

    All of this is to provide a little context for what I consider one of the greatest insights of Luther – that the world is not divided into saints over here, and them danged-old-sinners over there. All of us are both saint and sinner, in varying proportions that always are subject to change.

    It’s a pretty practical view that doesn’t allow for much smugness, self-righteousness, defeatism or self-flagellation. Even the worst have a spark of redeeming grace, and even the best are only a step away from slipping on the next moral-ethical banana peel.

    Now, this doesn’t mean that when horrendous behavior, bad judgement and moral failing are discovered in the church it should be overlooked. It needs to be dealt with, honestly and straightforwardly, and if the hierarchy gets blown apart, so be it.

    But it does mean that even if I’m scandalized by what transpires in the church, I’m not much surprised. It’s a human institution, and beneath all those robes and funny hats there are human beings who are – yep. Saints and sinners. The trick is to get them to recognize it.

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