Les Misérables Chapter-a-Day Read-along: The Bishop

The Bishop of Digne in his garden

Sometimes he dug the soil in his garden, sometimes he read or wrote. For both these kinds of work he had just one word: he called this ‘gardening’. ‘The mind is a garden,’ he used to say.

Welcome to week two of the Les Misérables Chapter-a-Day Read-along. We’re now seven chapters into the book, and the story so far has been dominated by one man: the Bishop of Digne. Dominated is probably too strong a word for someone with his humility and charity, but he certainly makes an impression, and for all the right reasons. To my mind, the Bishop of Digne is one of the most memorable saintly characters in all of literature.

But he almost wasn’t.

Get Rid of That Bishop

In the mid 1800’s, anticlerical sentiment ran high in French society. According to Doris Donnelly in “The Cleric Behind Les Mis,” when Hugo was writing Les Misérables his own son Charles was outraged at such a positive portrayal of a bishop and argued that the character should be a lawyer or doctor, or some other secular professional. “He argued to his father that the portrayal gave undeserved respect to a corrupt clergy, bestowing credibility on a Roman Catholic Church opposed to the democratic ideals that he and his father held.” But, as Donnelly continues,

The pushback didn’t work. Not only did Hugo hold his ground, but he amplified the importance of Charles-Franćois Bienvenue Myriel, affectionately known in the novel as Monseigneur Bienvenue (Bishop Welcome)….Thirty years earlier, Hugo had solidified his anticlerical credentials by crafting the repulsive, licentious Archdeacon Claude Frollo in “Notre Dame de Paris.” It was time to try a new approach in “Les Misérables,” so he rendered an ideal priest against whom clergy could measure their fidelity to tenderness and mercy. His expectation — as we know from the contemporaneous diary of his wife, Adele — was that corrupt priests would be shamed and indicted by comparison with a good one.

Donnelly’s entire article is well worth reading, but beware of spoilers. If you don’t want to know what’s coming, bookmark the article and come back to it in a month or so.

The Bishop of Digne and Pope Francis

I find it interesting that Hugo wanted to use Les Misérables to reform the clergy of his time. Last week I read a book called Pope Francis and the Joy of the Gospel by Edward Sri and it was fresh in my mind as I was reading the first seven chapters of Les Misérables about Monseigneur Bienvenu. In The Joy of the GospelPope Francis wishes “to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”

I couldn’t help but see in the Bishop of Digne a perfect illustration of the path Pope Francis points out in The Joy of the Gospel. For instance, when Pope Francis writes about how to be a missionary disciple he writes,

Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice…Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way.

When Hugo describes the Bishop of Digne as he travels around his diocese meeting his flock he says,

On his visits he was kind and indulgent, and did not so much preach as chat.

Pope Francis also writes about the need for the Church to have an open heart:

One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door.

What better example of this than the Bishop of Digne’s nickname, Monseigneur Welcome (Bienvenu). At his home the door is always open:

The house had not a single door that could be locked. The door of the dining room which, as we have said, opened directly on to the cathedral square had formerly been fitted with locks and bolts like a prison door. The bishop had all these iron fittings removed, and day or night this door was always left on the latch. No matter what time it was, anyone that called had only to push it open….As for the bishop, an explanation of his thinking, or at least a clue to it, can be found in a few lines he wrote in the margin of a bible. ‘There is a subtle distinction to be made: the doctor’s door should never be shut, the priest’s door should always be open.’

In The Joy of the Gospel, as in all of his writings, Pope Francis continues to emphasize the importance of mercy in dealing with others:

The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.

Hugo recounts a notation written in the margin of a book by the Bishop of Digne that could just as well have been written by Pope Francis:

‘Ecclesiastes names you Almighty, the Maccabees name you Creator, the Epistle to the Ephesians names you Freedom, Baruch names you Immensity, the Psalms name you Wisdom and Truth, John names you Light, the Book of Kings names you Lord, Exodus names you Providence. Leviticus, Sanctity. Esdras, Justice. Creation names you God. Mankind names you Father. But Solomon names you Mercy, and of all your names this is the most beautiful.’

And finally, in The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis envisions a Church that goes out to the people unafraid of being uncomfortable or hurt:

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.

And here is the Bishop, explaining to the mayor of a neighboring village why he must go into a dangerous territory under the control of the criminal Cravatte and his “pack of wolves”:

‘Monsieur le maire, it may be that this very pack of wolves is the flock Jesus is placing in my pastoral care. Who understands the ways of providence?…I’m not in this world to protect my life but to protect souls.’

Anyone wanting to see a living example of what Pope Francis is urging the Church to become would do well to read the story of the Bishop of Digne in Les Misérables.

Final Thoughts

As week two of the read-along begins, I’ll end with few lines from the first seven chapters that spoke to me. I’d love to hear your favorite lines from the book so far and/or any thoughts about how the read-along is going for you up to this point. You can leave your feedback in the comment box at the end of this post.

And now, some passages that struck me from the first seven chapters:

Her whole life, which had been simply a succession of good deeds, had ultimately conferred on her a sort of paleness and brightness, and with advancing years she had gained what might be called the beauty of goodness.

This is the way he talked, seriously and like a father, inventing parables in the absence of examples, going directly to the point with few fine words and many illustrations, which was Jesus Christ’s eloquence exactly, assured and persuasive.

Society is to blame for not giving free education. It’s responsible for the darkness it produces.

It is possible to feel a certain indifference about the death penalty, not to declare yourself, to say yes and no, so long as you have not seen a guillotine with your own eyes. But if you do come across one, it has a violent impact. You are forced to make a decision, to take sides, for or against.

What struck you? How is the read-along going?

Deacon Nick

Nick Senger is a husband, a father of four, a Roman Catholic deacon and a Catholic school teacher, vice principal and technology coordinator. He taught junior high literature and writing for over 25 years, and has been a Catholic school educator since 1990. In 2001 he was named a Distinguished Teacher of the Year by the National Catholic Education Association.

14 Responses

  1. N@ncy says:

    If I can make a comparison between L’evèque de Digne and his Holiness Pope Francis I it is this:
    Both men show us the quality or state of being humble; modest opinion of one’s own importance or rank. They are sending us signals.
    Pope Francis I is no “Prada Pope” ! Francis is keeping his black shoes, foregoing the red cape popes usually wear. He prefers a simple white cassock.
    L’évèque de Digne, chapter I shows that Myriel prefers to be know as “M. Myriel” (simple monsieur) . He appears to shun the title “Monseigneur” (“Your Excellency”).
    Also we read that M. Myriel keeps mending his cassocks (they last so long) that he would rather wear a quilted long coat to cover them…even in the summer! No need to waste money on clothes…that could be given to the poor.

    • Deacon Nick says:

      Yes, I agree. I remember just after Pope Francis was elected, he checked out of the place all the cardinals were staying carrying his own luggage and paying the bill himself!

  2. I am loving the readalong, keeping to a much slower pace than I usually read and getting to know these characters (mainly the Bishop at this point) so thoroughly. What a marvellous portrait he is of a true spiritual master, whose greatest quality will always be humility.

  3. eclecticalli says:

    Oh man! I wish I’d heard about this before – a Chapter A Day of Les Mis I might be able to do — it’s been on my re-read list for a few years now! Maybe I’ll try to play catch-up 🙂

  4. I’m on track with the read-along so far, and I haven’t expected to love the bishop.

    Not that it is truly related, the bishop almost not being written as saintly reminds me of Queen Elsa of Arendelle almost being a villain if not for “Let It Go” being written. It’s peculiar and interesting for how the character was written and transformed the story. I don’t know yet how Monseigneur Bienvenue impacts the story (maybe he helps Jean Valjean?), but I imagine that this left a major impact on the novel. Since it starts with him, I think he has a great impact, like the death and description of Marley in A Christmas Carol.

  5. Brona says:

    Thanks for helping me to understand Hugo’s intentions with the Bishop. I was curious to know why he was painting such an impossibly saintly character in a time not known for such characters within the church.
    I had read somewhere too, that Hugo was anti-Church and very Republican by the time he wrote this, so I was a little confused.

    • Brona says:

      PS – I was struck by the guillotine quote – as well as this one – “The beautiful is as useful as the useful.’ Then after a pause, he added: ‘More so perhaps.’ “

  6. Ruthiella says:

    Let me chime in and also thank you for Hugo’s motivations for characterizing Monseigneur Bienvenue as he does. I felt that by portraying such a saintly priest, Hugo was also indirectly criticizing those clergy who are not so pious and devout.

    I am only vaguely familiar with the story, having never seen a film version or the musical, so I really have no idea how he will play in to the larger story!

    Also, like Lory I am really enjoying the slower pace of reading in this fashion. I don’t know how it will be as we get deeper in the book…will I remember the first chapters better this way 6 months from now? But for now it is very satisfying!

    • Deacon Nick says:

      I’m glad you’re liking the slow pace. I am, too. I usually read the chapter once for the plot and then go back again looking for those special sentences or paragraphs.

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