Les Misérables Chapter-a-Day Read-along: Personal Connections
I’ve been out of town at an event called CSMG18 for several days, and I’m pretty exhausted after the full days we’ve had. But in all the busyness I’ve stayed on track with the Les Misérables Chapter-a-Day Read-along, and in fact I’ve noticed a few areas of synchronicity between the book and the conference. Victor Hugo might even call them moments of Providence. First of all, let me explain where I am and why I’m here. Then I’ll try to make the connection to Les Misérables.
What is CSMG18?
The Catholic Social Ministry Gathering is an annual event organized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. Here’s how the USCCB describes it:
A central annual opportunity for U.S. leaders in Catholic social action to network, advocate for social justice, and form emerging leaders in service to the Church and society. The Gathering builds solidarity, knowledge, and practical skills among attendees who live and share the Church’s social mission for the common good and the evangelization of the world.
This is my first time attending the event, and I have to say it’s been incredibly impressive. We’ve heard from outstanding speakers like Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, WA, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, David Brooks and Mark Shields of PBS Newshour, and a host of other outstanding social ministry leaders.
Session topics have included such current issues as “Solidarity in Our Common Home,” “The Sin of Racism in Our Society,” “Finding God in a Throwaway Culture,” and “Restorative Justice in Parish Life.”
The gathering will culminate on Tuesday when “Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, will accompany us to Capitol Hill to bring issues that affect those who are poor and most vulnerable to members of Congress.”
The Les Misérables Connection
In many ways, I feel like this Catholic social ministry gathering is a living embodiment of what Victor Hugo tried to do with Les Misérables. You might recall this quote from a letter he wrote that I shared in the preparatory article for the read-along:
I want to destroy human inevitability. I condemn slavery, I chase out poverty, I instruct ignorance, I treat illness, I light up the night, I hate hatred. That is what I am and that is why I have written The Wretched [Les Misérables]. As I see it, The Wretched is nothing other than a book having fraternity as its foundation and progress as its summit.
This is the purpose for which Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables, and it could also be said about the purpose of Catholic social ministry. Both have as their goal to affirm the God-given dignity of the marginalized and to lift up the downtrodden.
They both also recognize that les misérables do not get to be that way because they are lazy, but rather because there are systemic societal conditions that perpetuate poverty and injustice. There are still Jean Valjeans and Fantines in today’s world–people who make mistakes and whom some would prefer to cast off as worthless burdens on society.
Fortunately, there are also Monsigneur Bienvenus in today’s world, people who look past a person’s mistake and see a fellow child of God, who do not turn others away because they have made poor choices when they were young or in desperate circumstances. I have seen many of these “Bishops of Digne” at the podium this week at CSMG18, people like the founders of Living Hope Wheelchair Association, a non-profit organization serving people with spinal cord injuries who are not entitled to benefits or who have lost medical insurance.
Not only were there modern-day icons of mercy at the podium, but they also walked the halls of the conference, five hundred attendees here in Washington, D.C., from all walks of life and from multiple cultural backgrounds. Can you imagine it? Five hundred Bishops of Digne learning how to better advocate for the poor and the marginalized, and taking their advocacy skills back home with them to every corner of the country. I am humbled to be here with them.
Victor Hugo never shied away from speaking out against the death penalty or calling for free education for all children, and on Tuesday we take our message to Capitol Hill where we are scheduled to meet with our congresspersons.
I never dreamed when I decided to host this read-along that the novel would come to life so concretely for me.
Are you seeing any connections between Les Misérables and your life? If so, how? If not, I encourage you to keep looking for connections as the read-along continues.
And if you’ve not yet joined us, it’s still not too late! Just ask Laura at ButtonTapper Press. She found us yesterday and realized it doesn’t take too long to catch up. Just download the pdf schedule and catch up when you can. Follow the conversation on Twitter if you want, leave comments here at One Catholic Life, or simply read the book on your own.