Theology Professor Sheds Light on ‘Les Mis’ Bishop

Despite Victor Hugo’s long-standing anti-clericalism, the French novelist endowed his character of Bishop Bienvenue with a noble and spiritually transformative spirit.

CLEVELAND — In a recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Doris Donnelly drew attention to the clerical hero of Les Miserables — a character she says has been significantly “pared down” in the musical and film versions.

Although the pious Bishop Bienvenue is central to the plot of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables — which has recently been adapted into an Academy-Award nominated musical — his role is minimized outside the 19th-century novel.

Donnelly, a theology professor and head of the Cardinal Suenens Center at John Carroll University in Cleveland, said she decided to write the piece for The Wall Street Journal because “obviously, there would be no story without the bishop.”

“It’s just so beautiful, no matter who reads it; you don’t have to be a Catholic to read it. It’s stunning,” she told Catholic News Agency Jan. 8.

In her article, she described how, even though Hugo was anti-clerical, he chose to use the character of the bishop as a “catalyst” for Jean Valjean’s epic conversion story. At the same time, he expected corrupt priests of his day “to be shamed and indicted by comparison with a good one.”

Valjean, or Prisoner 24601, as he was known during his nearly 20 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving relatives, emerges in Hugo’s novel as “a very mean, angry, dejected, depressed man.”

Unable to find work because of his mark as an ex-convict, Valjean struggles to survive until he is directed to seek refuge from Bishop Bienvenue, who was known by his flock to be a particularly benevolent and holy man.

The bishop heartily welcomes Valjean as an honored guest in his home. Valjean is touched, but still desperate, and steals the silver place settings from his host’s house.

When he is soon brought back by the police, the bishop denies that the pieces were stolen, saying that they were, in fact, a gift.

In addition to letting Valjean keep the silver and protecting him from the police, Bishop Bienvenue “buys” the ex-convict's soul for God with two silver candlesticks, telling him to use the treasure to begin a virtuous new life.

Although the event “is a tiny part of the movie,” Donnelly said, it shows Bishop Bienvenue’s “intimate connection with Christ.”

As a theologian, Donnelly said she found this scene interesting, since God is the only one who can ransom souls. This act shows that in his role as bishop the cleric is “so confident and so comfortable” acting as a mediator of Christ for Valjean.

“Once you know the story, you can connect it with the movie,” she said.

Due to this confidence in Christ, she said the bishop and Sister Simplice — a character who is not clearly defined in the recent musical — are able to lie in order to spare Valjean’s life.

Similar to how the bishop tells the police that Valjean did not steal the silver, Sister Simplice tells antagonist Javert, who is tracking Valjean for violating his parole, that she does not know where he is, even thought he is hiding in her convent.

This event illustrates God’s mercy because, technically, the cleric and the nun tell lies, but they do so for the purpose of saving a human life, Donnelly said — something that Javert could never understand.

“He has no flexibility whatsoever, and that’s what drives him mad,” she said. “He’s just a law-and-order person and doesn’t get it.”

Because of the depth of the novel, many details are unable to be included in the modern musical adaptation, which is why Donnelly said that the original, unabridged version of Les Miserables is “worth reading.”