Book 3 Chapter 1
Book III: The Mass at Ácoma
1. The Wooden Parrot
Summary: Bishop Latour sets out from Santa Fe with his Indian guide, Jacinto, on a journey to Ácoma. Along the way he stops at Albuquerque and meets the local priest, Father Gallegos, who enjoys a life of dancing, fine dining, and visits with a wealthy female parishioner. Latour also visits Isleta, where he meets a quite different local priest, Father Jesus de Baca. This priest lives in simple poverty and has the best interests of his parishioners at heart, exemplified in the fact that he keeps as his “treasure” a wooden parrot, a symbol of a bird revered by the local population. He tells Latour of a portrait of Saint Joseph at Ácoma that is said to work miracles, most especially the bringing of rain in a dry season.
Analysis: This chapter is a study in contrasts. With Latour, we meet two priests who could not differ more from each other. Gallegos is, as Latour instinctively realizes, “underhanded” (p. 84). He is more concerned with his own wealth, pleasure and privilege than he is with the good of those he is supposedly serving. He does not visit the far-flung reaches of his parish because he “had no liking for scanty food and a bed on the rocks” (p. 83). He even goes so far as to feign injury when he meets Latour so that he will not have to accompany the Bishop on pastoral rounds! He does not actively practice what clergy often refer to as “the care of souls”: his local practice of performing confirmation on infants—the sacrament in which Roman Catholics, after intensive instruction, are given the Holy Spirit “in order to make them strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ” (Catholic Encyclopedia)—at the same time as their baptism highlights the casual way in which Gallegos approaches his duties: “We know they will receive religious instruction as they grow up, so we make good Catholics of them in the beginning. Why not?” (p. 83). He is equally dismissive of those who are not technically under his care, but who could be, if he cared to evangelize them: “the Ácoma Indians,” he claims, “were unreclaimed heathen at heart, and had no wish to be bothered with the Mass” (p. 83). Ironically, of course, it is Gallegos who appears to be an “unreclaimed heathen at heart,” given that “he could never have enough” of dancing (p. 82) and keeps a well-stocked wine cellar. Latour himself is not overly judgmental of Gallegos—as we are told, “there was something very engaging about Gallegos as a man” (p. 82), and he does seem to have the genuine Christian virtue of hospitality—but Latour does recognize that Gallegos is “too self-satisfied and popular ever to change his ways” in order to become an effective priest in the New Mexican context (p. 83). Gallegos is not a priest well suited to the task of nourishing and rebuilding true faith in this wilderness, and so Latour suspends the man from his religious duties.
Padre Jesus de Baca, then, emerges from this chapter in a very positive light, for he is much more a priest like Latour. He lives in simplicity and poverty, as do those whom he serves: for example, “The priest’s house was white within and without, like all the Isleta houses, and was almost as bare as an Indian dwelling” (p. 85). Unlike Gallegos, who is living off accumulated wealth, de Baca is too “soft-hearted to press the pueblo people for pesos” (p. 85). And unlike Gallegos’ dismissal of the native population, “Father Jesus gave a good report of the Indians at Laguna and Ácoma” (p. 87). Padre de Baca puts his community’s interests and well-being ahead of his own. This fact is perhaps seen in the priest’s practice of raising parrots. It also is perhaps what the wooden parrot symbolizes. Padre de Baca calls the carving his “treasure” (p. 86). Why should it be so? First, in keeping with a theme Cather has already established, the wooden parrot is to be treasured because it is old, even ancient; it represents that continuity with the past that Cather has already emphasized as important: “That, your Grace, is probably the oldest thing in the pueblo—older than the pueblo itself” (p. 86). And, second, the wooden parrot is to be treasured because it represents what the people de Baca serves treasure: “The parrot… had always been the bird of wonder and desire to the pueblo Indians” (p. 86). The Indians even kept and revered parrot bones the way Roman Catholicism can include the keeping and veneration of saints’ bones as relics. Given the rarity of live parrots, this wooden parrot is a way of bringing such a bird to de Baca’s people: “Father Jesus had had his eye upon the bird for years” (p. 87), precisely because he knew it would please his people, no less than his live parrots do. Father de Baca has become one with the people he serves—as Latour does, and as both men do following their Master. (It is likely not for nothing that Cather refers to the priest at Isleta by his given name, “Father Jesus”—even though the name is prevalent in Spanish-speaking populations, for English readers it also solidifies the connection between Christ and this, his humble representative in Isleta.)