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Pope Francis would want bishops to seek inspiration from Les Misérables

The musical’s Bishop Myriel is the best example of a Pope Francis-style bishop. Cardinal Wolsey, or Cardinal Richelieu, on the other hand…

By on Monday, 3 March 2014

Colm Wilkinson as Bishop Myriel in Les Misérables

Colm Wilkinson as Bishop Myriel in Les Misérables

The Pope returned to one of his favourite themes recently in an address to the Congregation for Bishops, the Curial dicastery charged with appointing new bishops, telling them that bishops should not be like CEOs, but rather pastors. The report of his speech can be read here.

This is not the first time that the Holy Father has spoken of his desire to see bishops get out from behind their desks and among the people, and to avoid the pitfalls of becoming “airport bishops”. In his desire to have bishops that smell of their sheep, I wonder just of which bishops in history would the Holy Father approve?

He would certainly approve of St John of Rochester (John Fisher), a scholar and a gentleman, one who was deeply committed to education, and utterly orthodox, indeed prepared to die for the faith. And he would certainly disapprove of St John’s contemporary, Cardinal Wolsey, a man who hardly ever visited his diocese, and who at the end of his life admitted that he had not served God as well as he had served the King. In fact, Wolsey, who was loathed for his arrogance and the way he collected profitable benefices, would probably sum up the Pope’s idea of a bad bishop.

Likewise we can be sure that the Holy Father would have nothing but admiration for the great bishop of the Counter-Reformation, St Charles Borromeo, who was tireless in visiting parishes and in trying to improve the quality of the priests in his diocese. St Charles died an early death, thanks to the unremitting nature of his pastoral labours.

What about bishops in fiction?

The best example, that I can think of, of a Pope Francis-style bishop is the bishop in the opening chapters of Les Misérables. Bishop Myriel incarnates the virtues of Christian charity and humility, and in so doing enables Jean Valjean to be redeemed. His kindness and generosity to the man who has known neither initiate the great change that overtakes the hero; in a sense the entire book is about redemption, and the bishop is the agent of this redemption. It is to be noted too that the bishop is known for his simple lifestyle and his accessibility.

I cannot think of any other good bishops in fiction. Most of the bishops one has read about in books and seen on stage are hardly admirable from the Catholic point of view: think of the fictionalised Cardinal Richelieu from The Three Musketeers, played with villainous relish by the great Peter Capaldi in the BBC’s latest adaptation. Perhaps Mr Capaldi, a Catholic, has been taking the Pope’s words to heart and channelling into his portrayal of Richelieu all those characteristics of a bishop that the Pope decries.

  • cjkeeffe

    I think bishops should draw from saintly bishops rather than a musical charecter. I agree St John Fisher is a good example, as is St Hugh of Lincoln.

  • Gus

    Christianity is back in Rome. I love this Pope and I am returning to Catholicism!

  • Alan40

    No other good bishop in fiction? Try Archbishop Latour in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.

  • Alan40

    The bishop in Les Miserables long predates the musical version!

  • Curious George

    Where was it before? Christianity, that is.

  • AlanP

    He is young. Don’t patronise him.

  • Sly Wornington

    Good one! But the best must be “Bishop” in the sci-fi masterpiece “Aliens” starring Lance Henriksen.

  • kentgeordie

    The famous Russian novelist Dostoievsky was no friend of western Christianity.

  • kentgeordie

    But is still fictional.

  • smartypants

    Better yet, Archbishop LaTour was inspired by Jean-Baptiste Lamy and his vicar so we have a fictional and a historical character all in one.

  • Mustang

    Lovely article. A lovely idea this lent would be that during your daily rosary, you offer a decade for your local bishop. But why stop there! Fast for him, pray for him, send him a letter thanking him for his ministry, speak highly of him, don’t gossip about him on obscure online forums. Bishops are sinful weak people like us and in this age of rabid unrelenting secularisation, they need our support more than ever.

  • anon

    Thankyou, so much nicer than thinking of the Bishopric as a time-serving repatriation scheme.

  • saintlymark

    Les Miserables is one of the great fictional tales, from a catholic point of view. All of the great features of the faith are in there. Javert is a great personification of a world without faith.

  • Charles Klamut

    Nice piece! Bishop Myriel actually inspired my vocation. Here is the story:

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I have never read the book, sadly, though it has been much recommended to me.

  • James M

    Bad bishops are probably more promising for dramatic purposes than the good ones. Maybe the Pope should look to a certain Society for models…. Or to his canonised predecessors, like St Pius V & St Pius X. Talking of which:

    “In a stunning and breathtaking letter, the Most Rev. Michael Olson, the newly-ordained bishop of the Fort Worth Diocese and the second-youngest bishop in the United States, has fully and totally banned the offering of the Traditional Latin Mass in the chapel of Fisher More College, where it has been offered for the last three years on a daily basis by chaplains all approved by his predecessor bishop according to the college. This blow comes after the students of the college raised $300,000 in about a week to keep the school open for the spring semester (see here) [see article for link]…

    …NB: The only option Bishop Olson offers to the students to assist at the Traditional Latin Mass is in a parish where it is offered only on Sundays, at 5:30 p.m. This parish in turn is the only place in the whole diocese where the TLM is now available under diocesan authority.

    Nothing in the morning on Sunday, nothing on Saturday, nothing during the week. Students who have traveled across the country to attend this school, surely due in part to its daily Traditional Mass and sacraments, should now simply have next to nothing, according to the bishop….


    — As is typical, certain bloggers who don’t like to do their homework, are suggesting the chaplains at Fisher More could have been SSPX or independent priests. A nominal amount of fact checking would have informed them that the first two chaplains were FSSP, and the third who just left was a Fathers of Mercy priest. And all were personally approved by the previous bishop (or diocesan authority)….

    ## Mass as it (apparently) should be:

  • chiaramonti

    Don’t be too hard on Wolsey. After his fall from grace he did visit his diocese and its suffragan see at Southwell. He also gave much of the limited wealth he retained to the poor. Forgiveness being a major theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate, I do not think he would do other than give the Cardinal absolution.

  • Atilla The Possum

    How about Archbishop Fulton John Sheen?

  • Hans Coessens

    Les Miserables was in the Index Librorum Prohibitum. Food for thought…

  • dominic

    The story gets better! Victor Hugo based Bishop Myriel on a real bishop known for his saintliness and charity, Bishop de Miollis, who like Bishop Myriel was Bishop of Digne and nicknamed “Bienvenu” (Welcome).

  • kag1982

    That doesn’t mean that the Grand Inquisitor isn’t truthful and wonderfully written. It is one of my favorite passages in literature.

  • kag1982

    Actually, Bishop Muriel is based on a real bishop in France.

  • kag1982

    Because the Church didn’t like its themes of Christian redemption and forgiveness?

  • kentgeordie

    And the Brothers K must be about the greatest novel ever. But Henry is and perhaps you are taking the Grand Inquisitor as Dostoievsky intended him: an attack on the Church of Rome. Unfair!

  • kag1982

    If the Catholic Church chooses to act as the Grand Inquisitor, then it deserves the criticism.

  • kentgeordie

    I suggest that you and the great Fyodor are mistakenly confusing the particular with the general.
    The Catholic Church sometimes behaves like the Grand Inquisitor. And sometimes like St Francis of Assisi. And sometimes like GK Chesterton or Mother Teresa.
    Don’t judge a vast organisation by the behaviour one one of its members.

  • kag1982

    The Church in general has too often acted like the Grand Inquisitor.

  • kentgeordie

    You are right. Once is too often.

  • James M

    There’s a rather good b/w version of Les Mis IIRC.

  • James M

    “After his fall from grace he did visit his diocese and its suffragan see at Southwell.”

    ## Only b/c he had nothing better to do. Men should be measured by what they are when all is fine with them, in that, although adversity is a test of their character, so in a different way is prosperity. Had his heart been that of a pastor of souls, he would have resided in his diocese, or at least have visited it every year while he was free not to. To do good only when one has no power to do otherwise is not praiseworthy. A man who farms out his responsibilities as a pastor – as he did, on a massive scale, for the sake of the revenues his different titles bought him – is a plunderer of the Church, a wolf and not a shepherd. The account of Wolsey in Mgr Hughes’ “History of the Reformation in England”, vol.1 (1954) is beyond shocking. He emerges as a thoroughly bad man, completely self-seeking, & concerned only to become Pope. Anyone less like St John Fisher, St Pius V, or St Charles Borromeo is hard to imagine. They were gold; he was dross.

  • James M

    That’s one of the scenes almost no-one has read, but every one knows.

  • kag1982

    Oh.. I’ve read the scene and the Grand Inquisitor of course rejects Christ and accepts Satan. Ivan is an atheist himself and approves of a Church that provides obedience and certainty rather than free will. Of course, both Aloysha and Jesus get the upper hand of that scene with a kiss.

  • James M

    As an OP said: Dostoyevsky was not very Catholic-affirming.

  • kag1982

    Because he criticized the hierarchy? The hierarchy generally fails to act Catholic.

  • gabriel_syme

    Cardinal Richelieu gets a bad press.

    Why do we need to look to “Les Miserables” anyway?

    Surely “Sesame Street” would be more apt for the Conciliar Church?

  • Teresa

    I read you article and I thank you sincerely for its inspiration. It is wonderful and uplifting.

  • NomoreNO

    I believe in “Charity” and “Humility” too!

    When they are directed at GOD they are rewarded by His granting us the supreme Grace of inner Sanctity.

    Less saccharine, “Charity” towards people committing acts that He has termed “sinful, evil and wicked” is likely also to please Him hugely.

    Applauded by His Supreme Majesty also, apparently, is when we have the “Humility” to take Him seriously when He has stated that certain immoral acts are deeply distressing and offensive to Him, and that He is likely to take away our right to eternal life if we don’t accept that to be the case. We are to preach out accordingly to others who fall short of His ideals otherwise HIS OWN CHARITY towards US is likely to fall short of OUR Ideal!.

  • Ancilla Indigna

    Les Miserables hails the French Revolution, does it not? Did the Holy Father forget his history? Thousands about thousands of priests and religious were murdered, as well as faithful laity attempting to assist in protecting them and attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We need not look to “Les Miserables”. We ought to look to real life martyrs who said “No!” to apostasies and heresies no matter from whom they came, and gave their lives up for Christ and His holy bride. These are TRUE STORIES of TRUE HEROICISM animated by the supernatural grace of God.

  • fredx2

    I just watched the movie tonight. It is true, it treats a revolution of 1832 with some degree of sympathy. However, it does not treat the French revolution of 1789 (the one you are referring to) at all. The revolution of 1832 (called the June revolution sputtered out after two days. Apparently Victor Hugo (the author) was caught in the crossfire of the short 1832 revolution, (during which no priests died).. I thought the movie was fair in its treatment of revolutionaries – after all, if people are truly starving for bread, what will you do? Which side would yo be on? Would you just let your kid die? The movie poses it more as a moral question, which I did not know how to answer.
    Overall, I thought the movie was perhaps the most Catholic movie I have ever seen – its themes of radical forgiveness and the worth of all human beings, no matter what, were uplifting.

  • fredx2

    “Les Misérables was added to the Index in 1864, where it remained until 1959 because it was considered to be critical of the clergy and the papacy.”
    I guess you had to read the entire 1200 page book to pick up on that. I certainly did not get that from the movie.

    I am with you on this one, Kag, I found the movie tremendously uplifiting.

  • fredx2

    And.. this seems to be resolved. The school was getting weird, and the bishop, who is no enemy of the EF, had to step in.