A priest who escaped from Nazi Germany, Father John accepts an assignment to travel to Santa Fe around the time of his grandmother's death, which symbolizes the loss of everything he knows and loves.
However, tragedy is not the focus of Gil Sanchez' Viva Cristo Rey, and neither is history. Instead, the book offers a sentimental view of the conception of the Cristo Rey Church, the largest adobe structure in the northern hemisphere.
The year is 1937. Picasso completes Guernica, Howard Hughes sets a record by flying from Los Angeles to New York in under eight hours, and 17 Communist leaders go on trial.
Such historical context seems necessary for the book, because it contains very little otherwise, except for a two-page summary of New Mexico's history told by a priest who is admittedly "taking liberty."
Instead, the book is a personal spiritual journey, and by personal, we mean private, as in keep it to yourself. Father John takes as a guide his grandmother, who takes the form of an angel. He calls upon his guardian angels to help him on everything from travel advice to feline troubles.
A cedar box and sawdust provided by a freed slave are attributed to divine intervention. All providing and protecting guardian angels act as a deus ex machina that defuses the dangers of an unknown land.
The relationship between Father John and his grandmother's cat, Prince, whom he swore to protect, stands in for the drama.
On page eight, the father was "suddenly in a panic as to what to do with the cat's deposits on the train. He asked his angel to help him again—to come to the rescue." Later, panic ensues again when Father John finds out that cats aren't allowed in the rectory.
Referenced on almost every page, Prince is arguably Viva Cristo Rey's main character. As a symbol for family heritage, the cat adds a kind of down-home Catholicism, which the book promotes without proselytizing.
Sanchez refers to the Cristo Rey Church as Santa Fe's crown jewel and compares it to Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." These sentiments may originate in the author's experience of designing and building his own home. The book contains more building metaphors and amateur illustrations of the church and its construction than it does historical references.
Moreover, understatements like "a European way of life had its consequences for the Native population" give the book a sort of deluded romanticism, not through deceit but through omission.
And the historical summary ends with a happily-ever-after statement that could easily be substituted for the book's own conclusion: "the Spanish people came back in, the pueblos were protected again, the Navajos, the Apaches and the Utes began to behave again, and so began the multicultural world of the southwest as it exists today."
Speaking of behaving, on a recent SFR visit to Collected Works Bookstore, where Sanchez speaks on Saturday, a staff member says she can't speak for his writing ability, but that Sanchez is a captivating storyteller in person.
When Sanchez came by the Galisteo Street shop to pitch a reading, a small boy who had been impatiently running around the store stopped in his tracks to listen—a feat worthy of Father John's prayers.
2 pm Saturday,
Collected Works Bookstore
202 Galisteo Street