In “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” religion is a hollow set of habits, rather than a genuine moral framework. When the angel falls to earth, he finds himself among Christians who should be delighted by the heavenly miracle of his existence. However, since the angel does not match their preconceptions of what an angel should look like or do, nobody treats him with either reverence or kindness. Instead of taking care of him or even having sympathy for his wretched condition, the townspeople either want something from him or see him as a curiosity. Even Father Gonzaga, the priest, fails to help the angel or recognize that he is sacred; instead, the priest gets distracted by sending letters to church authorities. In this way, Márquez suggests that genuine faith is easily perverted. While these characters are superficially religious, they lack actual faith, hope, or charity.
The angel is obviously a religious figure; though his wings are not in their best condition, he is still a supernatural creature that should amaze the townspeople and earn their respect. However, even though the townspeople understand that he is an angel, his pitiful appearance and odd behavior put off everyone who meets him. While the angel embodies the very wretchedness and destitution that Jesus says should be met with kindness and charity, the townspeople are so out of touch with their religion that they fail to carry out its basic principles. Furthermore, the angel’s presence also clearly evokes Hebrews 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” That is, practice the virtues of charity and kindness to everyone you encounter, because some of those people may be angels. The townspeople are in a situation in which they know that they are entertaining an angel—he’s not even in disguise—and they still fail to display any generosity of spirit. This shows how ineffective and shallow religion has become in this town. People consider themselves faithful, while behaving selfishly and even cruelly towards an angel.
Márquez suggests that the townspeople’s lack of genuine faith might be due to the Catholic church setting a poor example, as he satirizes the Church’s greed and pettiness. The exploitation of the angel is a clear comment on the money-making side of organized religion, as charging admission to see an angel is like charging to witness a holy relic or the discredited practice of selling indulgences (false promises to spare the purchaser time in purgatory in exchange for financial contributions to the Church). Furthermore, Márquez depicts Church officials as being too concerned with petty technical issues to understand that the angel is a genuine divine miracle who needs protection. Rather than helping (or even sympathizing with) the angel, the local priest, Father Gonzaga, examines the angel and determines (bizarrely, considering that this is a winged man) that the angel couldn’t possibly be divine. His criteria for this determination are strange: the angel’s failure to speak Latin or know how to properly greet a minister raise Gonzaga’s suspicions, and the angel’s “much too human” appearance confirms that he does not “measure up to the proud dignity of angels.” In light of the verse from Hebrews, which suggests that angels might often hide among humans, these do not seem like Biblically-coherent reasons to discredit the angel. Furthermore, Gonzaga suggests that the angel might actually be a “carnival trick” that the devil was using to “confuse the unwary,” and he notes that the wings are meaningless in determining the angel’s nature, since both hawks and airplanes have wings. Considering that this is a man with huge wings—one widely accepted to be an angel—these arguments seem like sophistry.
Father Gonzaga’s failure to understand the angel or treat him kindly does not make him a rogue representative of a Church that is respectable and faithful overall; when he writes to Church officials for a second opinion, their reaction is equally flummoxing. While Father Gonzaga hopes that the Vatican will tell them once and for all whether this is really an angel, the letters he receives from Rome “showed no sense of urgency. They spent their time finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn’t just a Norwegian with wings.” Clearly, Church officials are missing the forest for the trees: instead of delighting in the appearance of an angel, they have found themselves mired in arcane scholarly and taxonomical questions that have no relation to genuine faith. No wonder the townspeople have no sense of charity or empathy—their religious leaders are petty and insular, unable to recognize clear miracles or condemn the cruel treatment of the angel.
The Vatican’s inability to act in the face of the townspeople’s injustice towards the angel parallels the Church’s frequently slow response to social change in the real world: on issues of gender equality, for example, the Catholic church has remained more traditional than many other religious institutions that opened leadership positions to women. Márquez, therefore, depicts the Catholic church as being out of touch with the problems of its followers and indifferent to the morality it ostensibly espouses, while the story’s Catholics—without role models in their religious leaders—are shown to be cruel and selfish, despite their professed faith.
Faith, Religion, and Morality ThemeTracker
Faith, Religion, and Morality Quotes in A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings
Father Gonzaga went into the chicken coop and said good morning to him in Latin. The parish priest had his first suspicion of an imposter when he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers. Then he noticed that seen close up he was much too human: he had an unbearable smell of the outdoors, the back side of his wings was strewn with parasites and his main feathers had been mistreated by terrestrial winds, and nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels.
He remained motionless for several days in the farthest corner of the courtyard, where no one would see him, and at the beginning of December some large, stiff feathers began to grow on his wings, the feathers of a scarecrow, which looked more like another misfortune of decrepitude. But he must have known the reason for those changes, for he was quite careful that no one should notice them, that no one should hear the sea chanteys that he sometimes sang under the stars.