A Model of Ministry From an Unlikely Place

Through the various readings in the Pastoral Theology course (amongst others), Westminster students become acquainted with many great preachers, counselors, and pastors throughout the church’s history. There are plenty of additional figures to be found throughout works of classic literature for those with limitless curiosity and interest.

       One such figure is Bishop Myriel from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Inspired by the real Bishop of Digne, this kindly old priest is well known in his community for his generosity, which earns him the nickname “Monseigneur Bienvenu,” which means “Mr. Welcome.” As a priest, the bishop lives out Jesus’ command to care for the poor (Matt. 25:34-40; Lk 6:30-38). He lives only on a small fraction of his income, giving most of it to the poor. When the small-town hospital becomes overcrowded, Bishop Myriel allows the episcopal palace to be turned into a new hospital while he moves into an adjacent smaller building. Though the countryside is full of dangerous bandits, he risks his life to minister to the sick and needy in the hinterland. In every situation, he places the needs of others before his own. In short, he is someone who cares for “the Miserables” expressed by the novel’s title. The narrator characterizes the bishop in this way:

"The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine."

       This declaration manifests in the bishop’s act of mercy toward Jean Valjean that turns the embittered convict into a good and upright man. For the price of two silver candlesticks, Bishop Myriel redeems Jean Valjean from the hatred and anger that possessed him:

“Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I am withdrawing it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I am giving it to God!”

“Though the countryside is full of dangerous bandits, he risks his life to minister to the sick and needy in the hinterland.”

       After this first encounter, Jean Valjean’s life is radically altered as he strives to be an honest man. Bishop Myriel is never seen again, but his shadow looms large over the rest of the story. Through all the years and trials, Jean Valjean never rids himself of the two silver candlesticks, and they serve as a continual reminder of the kindness that the bishop once showed to him. When Jean Valjean is tempted to remain silent and let another man suffer in his place, the candlesticks remind him of his duty to do what is right. On his deathbed, the light of the candlesticks comforts Jean Valjean as he imagines the bishop watching over him once more.

       In this way, Bishop Myriel is not only the soul of the novel but an inspiring model for pastoral ministry. As a pastor, Myriel lives to be the hands and feet of Jesus, moved by love to care for the poor and desperate. He serves and sacrifices, never expecting anything in return. He is always cheerful, responding wittily to the scoldings he received from his sister and maid, who are concerned that he gives too much away. Once upon a time, pastors were very much the heart of a community. Bishop Myriel models this as well: the mayor comes to him for advice, political outcasts welcome him into their homes, and convicted felons knock on his door for meals.

       What makes the character of Bishop Myriel all the more compelling is that Victor Hugo was not a Christian. Hugo’s lifelong opposition to the Catholic church and organized religion, in general, is well-known, and he often wrote critically of Christianity. A man of his time, Hugo maintained an interest in spiritism for a time before eventually settling into a sort of rational deism.

       Given his anti-clerical tendencies, Hugo’s portrayal of a kindly bishop is unusual. When his son asked why he had not created a character of a more liberal profession, like a doctor, Hugo replied:

“I cannot put the future into the past. My novel takes place in 1815. For the rest, this Catholic priest, this pure and lofty figure of true priesthood, offers the most savage satire on the priesthood today.” 

       As someone training to be a pastor, I hope that the character of Bishop Myriel would be an inspiration, not satire, of my ministry. Like Jesus, I want to take the life-giving message of the gospel to all “the miserables” of this world. And if that costs me a few silver candlesticks or everything I own, so be it.

[i] This anecdote is from Vargas Llosa, Mario (2007). The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables. Princeton University Press. pp. 63-64.

Jacob Bier (MDiv, 2021) is Youth Director at the church where he grew up, ministering to 7th–12th grade students. You can read more from Jake at his person blog: bierjake.wordpress.com.

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