The novel tells the story of the local Catholic Priest (Don Manuel) in fictional Valverde de Lucerna, Spain as told through the eyes of Angela, one of the townspeople. Throughout the course of the story Manuel is adored by the people of the town. He is constantly in the service of the townspeople. He refrains from condemning anyone and goes out of his way to help those whom the people have marginalized. Instead of refusing to allow the holy burial of someone who committed suicide, Don Manuel explains that he is sure that in the last moment, the person would have repented for their sin. Also, instead of excommunicating a woman who had an illegitimate child, as the Catholic Church would have done, Don Manuel arranges a marriage between the woman and her ex-boyfriend, so that order will return to the town, and the child will have a father figure. The people of the town consider him their "Saint" because of all of the good deeds he does.
Angela, after a brief stint away for education, returns to the town to live with her mother where she continues to be amazed at Manuel's devotion.
Later, Lazarus, Angela's brother returns from the New World, disgusted with the mental and physical poverty he finds in the town. He too is amazed at Manuel's devotion but believes that "He is too intelligent to believe everything he teaches." It is clear that Lazarus does not have a sense of faith. Angela's and Lazarus's mother passes away. On her death bed she makes Lazarus promise to pray for her—he swears he will. Her dying wish is that Manuel can convert him. Lazarus begins following Don Manuel "to the lake" where Manuel is known to walk and think. Time passes and Lazarus takes Communion—to the townspeople, he appears to be converted. In reality, Lazarus is only praying for his mother's sake because it was her wish, not because he has faith.
Immediately following the Communion, Lazarus sits down with Angela and tells her that he has something he must tell her: Both Manuel and Lazarus have no faith in God, specifically no belief in an after-life. Angela is upset and incredulous but confronts Manuel about what Lazarus has said. In their conversation it becomes obvious that what Lazarus has said is accurate. Manuel believes that religion and the preaching of religion is the only way for the people to live contentedly—Lazarus through their talks had come to admire Manuel's determination to do what he thought was right despite his lack of belief in the veracity of what he taught. To that end, Lazarus felt it best to continue in the same way by returning to the fold. Although Angela questions the goodness of such a deed, Lazarus insists that Don Manuel is a saint for the things he has done all his life for the town.
Manuel grows increasingly weak. He is unable to bear the weight of teaching the resurrection when he does not believe it is real. He falls further and further into a depression, which the townspeople see this as a reflection of Christ in their local priest. When Manuel dies he chooses to do so in public in the center of the town, and the people see him as their "second Christ." Lazarus takes on Manuel's role until his own death. Angela moves out of town. However, she finishes her narration by positing that perhaps it was God's will all along that both Manuel and Lazarus believe themselves to be non-believers, since it helped them to do good in the world. Angela expresses the belief that right before Manuel and Lazarus died, "the blindfold might have fallen from their eyes." The final chapter explains that Manuel is being considered for beatification and that he is being held up as the ideal and exemplar priest.