One major theme in Death Comes for the Archbishop is, not surprisingly, the nature of ministry—more broadly, service to God and to humanity. Both Fathers Latour and Vaillant are set forth as exemplars of true ministry. With Latour, Cather begins this characterization of him as soon as he is introduced. As a “vicar apostolic” (the title of Book One of the novel), Latour is called by virtue of his office to be a representative of Christ; Latour’s reflections on Jesus’ cry from the Cross “J’ai soif!” (“I thirst!,” John 19:28) invite readers to link Latour with Jesus. The text reinforces this identification: “Empowered by long training, the young priest blotted himself out of his own consciousness and meditated upon the anguish of his Lord” (p. 20). In his sufferings, Latour identifies with the sufferings of Christ; readers are reminded again of the Prologue, in which Ferrand predicted that the new bishop of New Mexico would be called to suffering and even to martyrdom. Since the word “martyrdom” refers not necessarily to physical death but, literally, to “witness,” we are already seeing, early in his ministry, how Latour is witnessing to Christ, how the priest is becoming that living image, that living representation, of Jesus in this harsh setting of the New World. Ultimately, it is this “incarnation” of Jesus—and not any “credentials,” any “parchment and letters” (p. 23), or even any recognition by the old Bishop of Durango—that will grant Latour his authority. It is not for nothing that the young Christian girl in Agua Secreta instinctively welcomes the humble young priest with the salutation of angels, and knows him to be a priest even though he does not look the part (p. 24). Unlike the priests the New Mexican Church has known to this point—the lax scoundrels described by Ferrand in the novel’s Prologue—Latour is able to be known as a priest, not because he looks like his ecclesiastical fellows, but because, in his life, he looks like Christ. Vaillant, likewise, is identified with Christ in the novel, particularly (but not, as will be explained, ironically) because he identifies with the people whom he serves. Like Latour, Vaillant in his own way has become one with the people whom he serves: “I have almost become a Mexican!... I am their man!” (p. 208). What we might call this “dual identification” is rooted in Scripture: in Matthew 25, in his famous parable of the Last Judgment, Christ identifies himself with “the least” members of his family; so, in serving them, Vaillant is serving him. Vaillant exemplifies an incarnational approach to mission that resembles the pattern for mission set by Christ. It is this way of incarnation and acculturation that emerges from Cather’s book as the proper way in which all people (not just missionary priests!) must relate to each other.
Another major theme in the book is the importance of maintaining continuity with the past—not out of slavish devotion to what has gone before; rather, establishing and cultivating a healthy respect for the past as a source of wisdom and inspiration for the present, and a foundation for the future. This continuity is seen, for instance, even in such small details as Father Vaillant’s soup: “a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup” (p. 38). Much the same could be said about Latour and Vaillant’s labors in New Mexico: any success they have will be “not the work of one man,” or even two, but will be—as the apostle Paul described his own, first-century work of church building—built upon a previously laid foundation (1 Cor. 3). Although these two are among the first officially authorized priests to work in New Mexico, they come after many forbears in the faith; likewise, many descendants of faith will follow them. As Vaillant remarks, “Ah well, that is a missionary’s life; to plant where another shall reap” (p. 39). This humble, dutiful, long-term view of history, and their place in it, serves the priests well throughout Cather’s novel.