Summary: Latour spends some time during his last days of life dictating the ancient history of the Church in the New World, that it might not be completely forgotten. He recalls how, throughout his missionary career, he has always venerated the pioneers who went before him: he believes that his life and work, challenging though it has been, was as nothing compared to the ordeals of the friars and preachers who went before, who were often called upon to give their very lives for their faith. Theirs was an age of great deeds—and also, it appears, of great miracles. Latour particularly remembers the tale of how one Father Junipero Serra and Father Andrea, his companion, were shown hospitality by an isolated family in the desert: a father, his wife, and their child, who cared for a small lamb. When Junipero and Andrea related this encounter to their fellow monastics, they were met with disbelief: the brothers knew the spot, and no settlers lived there. All returned to the place and, indeed, found no one there. Junipero and the rest believed that the family had been no other than the Holy Family itself.
Analysis: Again, in this chapter, Cather further plays with the dynamic of one’s proper relationship with the past. While, as we read in the previous chapter, Europe has “too much past,” the New World (despite that European nomenclature!) has a rich past, as well; and Latour is determined that it be preserved, not only its facts but also, perhaps, its fancies. “Those truths and fancies relating to a bygone time would probably be lost; the old legends and customs and superstitions were already dying out” (p. 274). Were these to be lost, the region in which Latour has long labored would lose much of its liminal character, established early on in the book. It would lose its character as a place in which the physical and spiritual worlds freely intermingled (as seen in the tale of Father Junipero’s Holy Family), where humanity could enjoy close converse with the divine.
Latour’s allusion to Romans 8:38-39—“Surely [his predecessors] endured Hunger, Thirst, Cold, Nakedness, of a kind beyond any conception St. Paul and his brethren could have had” (p. 276)—serves to underscore Latour’s humility. As hard as he has worked, he knows he has not risked as much as those who first opened this wild frontier to the Catholic faith. Yet even as Latour reflects upon the many “scenes of martyrdom” in the area (p. 276), readers cannot help but be reminded of Father Ferrand’s prediction in the novel’s prologue: the new bishop “will be called upon for every sacrifice, quite possibly for martyrdom” (p. 10). Now, as the novel is drawing to a close, we begin to see more clearly the contours of Latour’s “martyrdom”—literally, his witness. While he has not been called upon to give his life in a sudden, violent end, as many of his predecessors did, he has, in fact, given his life freely and willingly to the service of his flock. He has made great sacrifices—notably, of course, his reluctant break with Father Vailland (who, we learned in the previous chapter, was eventually made bishop in his own right). He has been a faithful witness; and even now, as he is dying, he is witnessing, not to himself, but to the work his Lord has done through the saints of ages past, in a time when “the wilderness had blossomed with little miracles” (p. 277).
The “little miracles” recounted in the balance of the chapter at first glance seem to stand at odds with the everyday miracles of love which Latour told Vaillant, so long ago, that he valued. They are stories of supernatural intervention in the mundane world. The hospitality of the family of settlers toward Father Junipero especially seems miraculous: “that They [i.e., the Holy Family], after so many centuries of history and glory, should return to play Their first parts, in the persons of a humble Mexican family, the lowliest of the lowly, the poorest of the poor…” (p. 280-281). And yet, upon further reflection, perhaps this miracle is no different than the miracles of love for which Latour has always looked. Junipero and his monks, no less than Latour and the new priests he is training, would likely think of Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment, in which he declares, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). Jesus thus promises to be with “the lowliest of the lowly, the poorest of the poor.” Significantly, in this instance, the poor and lowly family is serving Father Junipero, not vice versa. We may think of similar instances in which the poor and lowly served Fathers Latour and Vaillant—for instance, Latour’s late-night meeting with Sada in VII.2, in which he was ministered to by her faith. The presence of Christ, then, in the poor and lowly would be an ongoing miracle for Latour—why should it not occasionally manifest itself in a remarkable way?