SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS
Note: Page numbers in this guide refer to the text as found in the 1990 Vintage Classics edition.
Prologue: “At Rome”
Summary: In the summer of 1848, Bishop Ferrand, a Roman Catholic missionary from the recently annexed territory of New Mexico, makes his appeal over dinner in Rome to thee Cardinals for the appointment of a new Bishop, someone who will bring ecclesiastical order to the American Southwest. Instead of the promotion of a native priest, Ferrand recommends that the French Jesuit priest Jean Marie Latour be given the post. Ferrand has seen Latour’s work in the region of Lake Ontario, and is convinced the young priest is the right choice. One of the Cardinals, María de Allande, relates the story of an El Greco portrait of Saint Francis that his grandfather gave to a missionary for a church in “New Spain”—a family treasure that has never been recovered. Asking, half in jest, that Latour be instructed to keep an eye out for the El Greco, he indicates to Ferrand that the appointment will be carried out.
Analysis: The Prologue offers readers a glimpse “behind the scenes” of ecclesiastical politics as Bishop Ferrand makes his case for the appointment of Jean Marie Latour—the novel’s titular character—to the new episcopal seat in New Mexico. The cultivated and calculating scene will stand in sharp contrast to the rough-hewn, less domesticated circumstances in which we see Latour and his companion, Father Vaillant, operating throughout the bulk of the novel. Even the natural landscapes will contrast with each other: in the Prologue, Cather describes the area of the Sabine hills outside Rome as “soft and undulating” (p. 3), whereas the Southwestern landscape in which Latour and Vaillant must operate is harsh and unforgiving at virtually every turn.
Cardinal de Allande and Bishop Ferrand also stand at odds with each other in the Prologue. The latter is presented as a forward thinker and a man facing the future—he stresses, for instance, that the “Vicarate of New Mexico will be in a few years raised to an Episcopal See, with jurisdiction over a country larger than Central and Western Europe, barring Russia” (p. 6; a “see” is the ecclesiastical term for the official office or seat of a Bishop)—while de Allande seems more a man of the past—we learn, for example, that he “believed the reforms of the new Pontiff impractical and dangerous” (p. 5). The “new Pontiff” in 1848, succeeding Gregory XVI, was Pius IX. That de Allande would consider Pius IX a danger is somewhat ironic, since history suggests the Pontiff was quite traditional. He did institute a series of clerical reforms, but he also convened the First Vatican Council, which promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility (i.e., that the Pope is free from error when he speaks ex cathedra); and he defined on his own authority the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (i.e., that she was conceived without the stain of original sin). Indeed, Pius IX is remembered for rejecting much of modernity (see John Bowker. "Pius IX." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. Encyclopedia.com. 28 Sep. 2009 http:www.encyclopedia.com). In any event, the contrast between the two church officials introduces one of the novel’s key themes: the need for the Church to adapt to changing circumstances—the importance of discerning what is essential and what must be maintained, and what is not and can therefore be shed.
The Prologue contains allusions to Greek mythology. First, Bishop Ferrand is described as “an Odysseus of the Church” (p. 4), referring to his wide travels throughout the New World, just as the mythical warrior Odysseus wandered for years after the Trojan War before returning home. Second, Ferrand refers to the task awaiting Latour as an “Augean stable” awaiting cleansing (p. 6), a reference to one of the twelve legendary labors of Hercules: the comparison thus establishes the difficulty of the work the new bishop faces, striving as he will to solidify the Church’s position in a chaotic religious landscape where native inhabitants retain “pagan” beliefs, Spanish-speaking Catholic settlers practice superstitions, and the clergy lack morality and discipline. Despite the odds, however—and despite Cardinal de Allande’s mirthful remark, “Are you wishing to unmake your new Bishop already?” (p. 14)—readers are given hope that, like Hercules, Latour will complete his labor: “The Bishop of that See will direct the beginning of momentous things” (p. 6). Ferrand’s statement proves prophetic—as does his more ominous declaration that the new bishop “will have no easy life… He will be called upon for every sacrifice, quite possibly for martyrdom” (pp. 9-10).