Pope Francis and ‘Les Mis’: Fiction Meets Fact

How our new Pope resembles Victor Hugo’s saintly bishop.

I saw the cinematic adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables recently (months after the rest of the world, I know.) I wasn’t looking forward to it, since I am in love with the book, the unabridged version, and I just knew that a two-hour movie-musical could not do it justice.

It was an entertaining film, but two hours cannot get close to fleshing out the characters of Hugo’s masterpiece. And the one that gets shortchanged the most is Monseigneur Myriel, in the novel the bishop of the unnamed diocese (which Hugo calls simply “D----.”)

In the pivotal scene when the bishop agrees with Jean Valjean’s story that he had not stolen but had been given the purloined candlesticks, thus converting the lie into a truth and the criminal into a just man, the abridged book and the musical make the episode seem to be a surprise. It was certainly a surprise to Valjean, but to the reader of the unabridged version, the bishop’s behavior is not a surprise, since one has had 14 chapters of previously surprising episcopal behavior.

I once quipped that those first 14 chapters should be given to any man ordained a bishop, as spiritual reading and as a lesson in how to be a bishop. I was being facetious, but something tells me that someone gave them to Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known to the world as Pope Francis.

Hugo’s epic novel begins: “In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D---- He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of D---- since 1806.”

In 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope. He was an old man of 76 years of age; he had been a cardinal since 2001. The numbers more or less match up.

But my purpose is not to illustrate external similarities between Hugo’s “Msgr. Welcome” and our new Pontiff, but internal ones, similarities in pastoral style, in preaching style, in how he is received and his focus on compassion.


Pastoral style

Les Miserables’ third chapter is entitled “A Hard Bishopric for a Good Bishop.” Such could be said of Buenos Aires; such could be said of Rome. Such too could be said of our present world! And yet Bishop Myriel was determined to visit it all.

You will soon see Pope Francis begin his visits throughout Rome. His first Sunday Mass was at the parish of Sant’ Anna in the Vatican, where he received the faithful afterwards like a humble parish priest, to the surprise and chagrin of Vatican security staff.

“‘Do not go, Monseigneur. In the name of Heaven! You are risking your life!’

“‘Monsieur Le Maire,’ said the Bishop, ‘is that really all? I am not in the world to guard my own life, but to guard souls.’”

Msgr. Myriel gave away his bishop’s palace for a hospital and lived humbly, with his elderly sister and a cook, whom he did not wish to put out of work. Cardinal Bergoglio gave up his bishop’s residence in Buenos Aires for a small apartment and lived with an elderly retired bishop. He himself was the cook.

Hugo’s bishop sells his carriage and travels on a mule, the conveyance of the poor. In Buenos Aires, our new Pope preferred the modern conveyance of the poor: He rode the bus.

In the budget and in his pastoral plan of the diocese of D---, the poor came first. Our Pope, named for the Poverello of Assisi, has indicated that the poor and the marginalized will be a top priority. His Holy Thursday Mass will take place in a juvenile prison.

Pope Francis will not occupy all of the papal apartments. His dwellings will be simple and austere. The Vatican halls make it hard for his austerity to rival Myriel’s, but the same simplicity will reign.

I could multiply examples, but I would not wrench from you the joyful homework of re-reading Hugo’s description yourself.


Preaching Style

Much has already been written about how Pope Francis likes to speak off the cuff. I have written about how he preaches directly, quoting the Gospel and the Fathers of the Church, but also using simple, familiar examples, as a father speaks to his children.

Hugo’s Bishop Myriel visits his whole diocese and, “In the course of these trips he was kind and indulgent, and talked rather than preached. He never went far in search of his arguments and his examples. He quoted to the inhabitants of one district the example of a neighboring district.”

Talked rather than preached. That suits our new Pontiff well.

There is a subtle power in simplicity. Men like St. Francis preach always, and when necessary, use words. But their words themselves are simple, direct and powerful.

“Thus he discoursed gravely and paternally; in default of examples, he invented parables, going directly to the point, with few phrases and many images, which characteristic formed the real eloquence of Jesus Christ. And being convinced himself, he was persuasive.”

Pope Francis’ persuasiveness, too, brims forth from the conviction of his own heart. And he used to sign his pastoral messages paternalmente (paternally). He preaching is serious, which I think is what Hugo was driving at, since Myriel is serious, but not grave in the gloomy sense. In fact, one can imagine this same line written of His Holiness: “When he laughed, it was the laugh of a schoolboy.”

Pope Francis’ Italian betrays a Spanish accent, and his Spanish betrays an Argentinean accent, which is pure porteño, from Buenos Aires.  

Myriel spoke with a Provençal accent and was at home in the mountains. “This pleased the people extremely, and contributed not a little to win him access to all spirits. He was perfectly at home in the thatched cottage and in the mountains. He understood how to say the grandest things in the most vulgar of idioms. As he spoke all tongues, he entered into all hearts.

“Moreover, he was the same towards people of the world and towards the lower classes. He condemned nothing in haste and without taking circumstances into account. He said, ‘Examine the road over which the fault has passed.’”

If Pope Francis’ linguistic simplicity and accent hasn’t been much commented on yet, it soon will. What has been noticed is his constant theme of mercy. And he does speak the same to the faithful in general as to the power brokers of the world. If anything, he is tougher on the powerful, since he makes them aware of their immense responsibility.

How he is received by them, however, is another matter.


How He Is Received

Both Pope Francis and our fictional bishop are received with joy and openness by the poor and the simple of heart, but with suspicion and judgment by the prideful and powerful.

“It was a perfect festival wherever he appeared. One would have said that his presence had something warming and luminous about it. The children and the old people came out to the doorsteps for the Bishop as for the sun. He bestowed his blessing, and they blessed him. They pointed out his house to anyone who was in need of anything.

“Here and there he halted, accosted the little boys and girls, and smiled upon the mothers. He visited the poor so long as he had any money; when he no longer had any, he visited the rich.”

“He bestowed his blessing, and they prayed for him.” You saw him on the loggia. The rain had just stopped, and when the new Pope came out, you’d think the sun had risen again at 8pm.

There is a touching episode in Chapter IV where the Bishop helps convert a hardened criminal before his execution for murder and accompanies him to the scaffold itself.

“Since the most sublime things are often those which are the least understood, there were people in the town who said, when commenting on this conduct of the Bishop, ‘It is affectation.’

“This, however, was a remark which was confined to the drawing-rooms. The populace, which perceives no jest in holy deeds, was touched, and admired him.”

Nowadays, such remarks are not confined to drawing rooms, but end up in newsrooms and in blog posts and in remarks made by people who cannot understand the Church since they have no regard for holiness and by others in the Church who have no regard for humanity.

Pope Francis’ background has been criticized. Some have tried to drag him into scandals that he never entered, from his position on “gay marriage” and adoption by same-sex couples (which he shares with his 250-plus predecessors and two millennia of Catholic teaching) to alleging his behavior during the Dirty War was inappropriate (which reporters did allege after googling what that conflict was even about).

Secularists will complain that he doesn’t sell all the paintings in the Vatican. Traditionalists will complain that his wearing black instead of red shoes breaks with protocol and is a harbinger of heresy. But a simple man respects the intentions of the artists who donated their work to the Church, and a poor man doesn’t get new shoes until the ones he has are good and worn.

Thank God that there are still people who “perceive no jest in holy deeds.” They are the ones who understand Francis best of all.


His Focus on Compassion

And yet Pope Francis’ flock is above all the marginalized, the poor and those spiritually poor through what Pope Benedict defined “the dictatorship of relativism.” His attitude to both is one of deep compassion.

Chapter X in Les Miserables tells the amazing story of the bishop’s visit to dying man who is only described as a “member of the Convention G---,” presumably a leader during the French Revolution. They have a lively debate about the revolution, its ideas and its tragedies.

Oh, how I would love to be a fly on the wall when Pope Francis visits with heads of state and hear what words he uses to evangelize them!

The amazing thing about this episode is that, when the man’s death draws near and when a 1950s movie would have the man repent and confess his sins, he says,

“‘I have succored the oppressed, I have comforted the suffering. I tore the cloth from the altar, it is true; but it was to bind up the wounds of my country. I have always upheld the march forward of the human race, forward towards the light, and I have sometimes resisted progress without pity. I have, when the occasion offered, protected my own adversaries, men of your profession. (…) I have done my duty according to my powers, and all the good that I was able. After which, I was hunted down, pursued, persecuted, blackened, jeered at, scorned, cursed, proscribed. For many years past, I with my white hair have been conscious that many people think they have the right to despise me; to the poor ignorant masses I present the visage of one damned. And I accept this isolation of hatred, without hating any one myself. Now I am eighty-six years old; I am on the point of death. What is it that you have come to ask of me?’

“‘Your blessing,’ said the Bishop.

“And he knelt down.

“When the Bishop raised his head again, the face of the conventionary had become august. He had just expired.

“The Bishop returned home, deeply absorbed in thoughts which cannot be known to us. He passed the whole night in prayer. On the following morning some bold and curious persons attempted to speak to him about member of the Convention G----; he contented himself with pointing heavenward.”

The time will come during this pontificate when Pope Francis confronts a leader of this age, one who has struggled, yes, but on the other side and against the Church. The type of person we can easily call a sinner. And many in the Church will rend their garments because the Pope may bow and ask for this man’s blessing, honoring his dignity as a human being and as a soul for whom Christ died.

May such mercy not be a scandal to us. Let us not be the elder son in the parable.

Victor Hugo’s Bishop Myriel would take notes on his books, when reading would propel him into meditation. One such note was:

“Ecclesiastes calls you the All-powerful; the Maccabees call you the Creator; the Epistle to the Ephesians calls you liberty; Baruch calls you Immensity; the Psalms call you Wisdom and Truth; John calls you Light; the Books of Kings call you Lord; Exodus calls you Providence; Leviticus, Sanctity; Esdras, Justice; the creation calls you God; man calls you Father; but Solomon calls you Compassion, and that is the most beautiful of all your names.”

Pope Francis is such an embodiment of Les Miserables’ imagined bishop because both, one in fact and one in fiction, center their heart on a God who is mercy and compassion.

As this pontificate goes forward, be attentive to the deep heart’s core of this exemplary man, and be challenged — but neither worried nor surprised — if he gives away the candlesticks.