I am reading Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) by the American writer Willa Cather (b. 1873- d. 1947). What has struck me about the book is the remarkably clear Catholic sensus fidelium that Cather presents to the reader, so much so, that I assumed Cather was a Catholic until a quick perusal of the internet revealed that she was not, she was an Episcopalian. The quick look at the internet also revealed that many Catholics have loved her books through the years, and have enjoyed her inspiring images of early American Catholic life on the western frontiers. Michele Chronister wrote about Cather on Catholic Exchange in 2013, here is an excerpt:
“Although the history of the United States is not free of anti-Catholic sentiment, what is remarkable about Cather’s novels is how authentic and beautifully they present our faith. The main characters of her famous ‘Prairie trilogy’ (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia) are not Catholic, but there are Catholics in their lives. Although there are very overt references to Catholicism in some of Cather’s books (namely, Death Comes for the Archbishop), I’d like to focus on the ‘Prairie Trilogy,’ in particular O Pioneers!, because it makes the life of the average Catholic laity look so attractive.”
“O Pioneers! tells the story of a pioneer town in rural Nebraska, viewed through the lens of the life story of Alexandra. Alexandra is everything one could hope for from a pioneer woman – enterprising, hard-working, and dedicated to her family and neighbors. She and her brother, Emil, befriend some of the French settlers. It is through these men and women that Alexandra encounters Catholicism.”
“I’ve often wondered what it would must have been like for those early settlers, surrounded by such poverty and simplicity, to attend Mass and to weekly encounter intense beauty. Even the beauty of the physical edifice of the church leaves an impression on Alexandra and her neighbors. Cather describes, ‘The French church, properly the Church of Sainte-Agnes, stood upon a hill. The high, narrow, red-brick building, with its tall steeple and steep roof, could be seen for miles across the wheatfields…The church looked powerful and triumphant there on its eminence, so high above the rest of the landscape…’ ( from the beginning of O Pioneers! part IV, chapter 1). How striking this building must have been, surrounded by fields for miles around, and visible to all settlers, regardless of their faith tradition!”
“It is not just the building itself that is impressive, though. Alexandra encounters, firsthand, the ability of Catholics to hold in tension the reality of this life as well as the life that is to come. Cather writes, ‘The Church has always held that life is for the living….while half the village was mourning for Amédée and preparing the funeral black for his burial on Monday, the other half was busy with white dresses and white veils for the great confirmation service…’ (from the beginning of O Pioneers! part IV, chapter 6). Death and life make sense in the sacramental economy, and even those outside the Church can see this. This particular chapter is especially poignant, in that it shows intense grief and intense joy co-existing. The community is simultaneously deep in mourning over the death of a young man, and filled with intense joy and celebration in anticipation of the Sacrament of Confirmation being given to their children. Both experiences are thoroughly described, and are thoroughly embraced by the characters. Both experiences are lived out within the context of the Catholic Church.”
“There is a degree in which the Catholics in Cather’s books seem to be fully living, fully embracing the realities they face. The Catholic characters show what it means to be fully alive – to sin, to repent, to mourn, to rejoice. Christ says in the Gospels, ‘…I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.’ (John 10:10) What is the Church if not the place where one may come to learn how to truly live? Life cannot be fully, richly lived if it denies the reality of both death and resurrection. The counter-cultural nature of this message is no less startling today than it was then.” (From: catholicexchange.com/willa-cather)
Chronister sums up Cather’s characters when she writes that her characters “seem to be fully living, fully embracing the realities they face. The Catholic characters show what it means to be fully alive- to sin, to repent, to mourn, to rejoice.”
Another article speaking of Cather in relation to her positive treatment of Catholic characters is from Crisis Magazine. It was written in 2014 by Mitchell A. Kalpakgian, and is titled Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop: crisismagazine.com/2014/willa-cathers-death-comes-to-the-archbishop.
In conclusion, if you are looking for some good old fashioned Catholic(!) fiction, pick up Cather, and enjoy!
Picture: Willa Cather, 1912. Isn’t the hat gorgeous?!