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In Salta, his first visit was to the Jesuit college, where he laid his case before the Jesuit fathers, and showed them several letters, one from the Cardinal Antonio Barberini dated in 1638, and another from the King without a date, naming him Bishop of Asuncion. On the strength of these two letters he asked the Jesuits if he could get himself consecrated without the Papal Bulls. Charlevoix alleges that they dared not refuse to answer in the way he wished. Why this was so is not so easy to make out, as, even with his green hat and wooden cross, he could not at that time have been a formidable personage. Their written opinion he sent at once to the rector of the Jesuit college at Cordova, asking for his opinion and that of the doctors of the university. The answer reached him in Santiago del Estero, and was unfavourable. On reading the letter, Cardenas fell into a most unsaint-like fury, and tore it up without communicating it to anyone, not even to the Bishop of Tucuman, Don Melchior Maldonado. This was not strange, as he had counted on this Bishop to consecrate him.
Notwithstanding what was at stake, he went on in the diocese of Tucuman just as he had done in that of Charcas, preaching, confessing, and celebrating Mass. Don Melchior Maldonado, a quiet man of no pretensions, wrote him a letter in which he said: `You came into my diocese like a St. Bernard; such is the reputation you have for holiness and preaching that my people pay me no respect, and only look on me as a man of common virtue and mediocre talents. Although I hope I am not jealous, still, I must remind you that you act as if you were St. Paul.'
A Bishop of common virtue and of mediocre talents is, of course, a Bishop lost, and one can well conceive that poor Don Melchior Maldonado was placed in an unpleasant position during the stay of Cardenas in his diocese. Such were Don Bernardino's powers of persuasion that at last the Bishop consecrated him. The ceremony was hardly over, when a letter arrived from the Rector of the University of Cordova advising Bishop Maldonado against the consecration. Unluckily for Paraguay, it was too late to undo the action, and Cardenas was now in a position to take possession of his see. Poor Melchior Maldonado, Bishop of Tucuman, had, as it happened, laid hands a little hastily upon the candidate. The Council of Trent pronounced upon the case, and found `that the consecration of the Bishop of Paraguay had been a valid one as touching the sacrament (ordination), and the impression of the character, but that it had been void as regards the power of discharging the functions attaching to the dignity, and that the Bishop and his consecrator had need of absolution, which the same holy congregation thinks ought to be accorded with the good pleasure of the Pope.' As the same holy congregation had previously declared the taking possession of the diocese by Cardenas had been illegal, it is difficult for ordinary minds to grasp their real opinion of the case.
Finding that he had failed with the University of Cordova, Don Bernardino took his way to Santa Fe, from whence he wrote an insulting letter to the poor rector. The letter was conceived in such outrageous terms that the Bishop of Tucuman wrote in expostulation, saying he expected to see something extraordinary happen in Paraguay if he gave way to such excess of passion.
Don Bernardino's usual luck attended him in Santa Fe. This town then formed part of the diocese of Buenos Ayres, though situated about four hundred miles from the metropolis. It happened that the see of Buenos Ayres was vacant, and the chapter of the cathedral invited Cardenas to visit that portion of the diocese through which he had to pass. Cardenas was, of course, delighted to show his talents for preaching, as he had done before in Charcas and in Potosi. When he arrived at Corrientes the enthusiasm for his holiness and talents was extraordinary. In Corrientes, Don Bernardino seems to have felt, for the first time, his calling and election really sure. At the time he landed (1642) the land was sunk in ignorance and superstition. Even to-day in Corrientes (the city of the seven currents), situated just at the junction of the rivers Parana and Paraguay, close to the celebrated missions of the Jesuits, the inhabitants, living in a country almost tropical, are half Indians in type.
What Corrientes looked like in Don Bernardino's time is matter of conjecture. Perhaps it was not greatly different from some remote Spanish-American frontier towns some five-and-twenty years ago, save for the groups of Spanish soldiery, with their steel morions, trunk hose and heavy arquebuses lounging about, and in the matter of the scarcity of horses in the streets. No doubt the self-same listless air hung over everything, and in the place of the modern blue and white barred flags with a rising sun or cap of liberty stuck like a trade-mark in the corner, the blood and orange Spanish colours with the quarterings of castles and of lions flapped heavily against the flagstaff of the fort. The Indian women dressed all in white, their hair cut square across the forehead and hanging down their backs, sat with their baskets of fruit and flowers in the market-place. The town, as now, built chiefly of adobes, with a few wooden huts dotted about, was semi-oriental in design. On every church were cupolas after the eastern fashion, flat roofs on every house, and everything shone dazzling white against the dark, metallic-looking foliage of the trees. The streets, as now, were sandy water-courses, crossed here and there with traverses of rough-hewn stone to break the force of the water in the season of the rains.
At night the fireflies glistened amongst the heavy leaves of the mamayes and the orange-trees, whilst from the Chaco rose the mysterious voices of the desert night, and from the outskirts of the town the wailing Indian Jarabis and Cielitos sung in a high falsetto key to the tinkling of a cracked guitar, but broken now and then by the sharp warning cry `Alerta centinela!' of the soldiers on the walls. Could one have landed there, one would have felt much as a sailor feels, dropped on the beach of Eromango or on some yet unbemissionaried island of the Paumotus Group.
Embarking from Corrientes up the river Paraguay, the Bishop met two vessels sent from Asuncion to do him honour. When night approached he put in practice one of the manoeuvres which in Peru had stood him in good stead. On every side a swarm of launches and canoes accompanied the ship to see the Bishop, whom already many believed a saint. He asked them all to retire a little from his ship. All did so but the guard of honour sent from Asuncion. Towards the middle of the night the sound of scourging wakened them. It was their Bishop trying to prepare himself for the duties that awaited him. Every succeeding night the same thing happened. During the day he celebrated Mass pontifically upon the deck. Voyages upon the river Paraguay before the days of steamers took a considerable time, especially as every night the custom was to anchor or to make fast the vessel to a tree. Soon the rumour reached Asuncion that a second St. Thomas was on his way to visit them. St. Thomas, as is said, once visited Paraguay, and a cave in the vicinity of a town called Paraguari, where he once lived, exists to-day to prove the passage of the saint.
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