An age-old story rooted in Catholicism
By Christian R. González
Catholic Spirit Staff
I’ve been a fan of “Les Miserables” for a long time. I’m a fan of the musical, the novel, the movie and the story itself.
I first saw the show around New Year’s Day 1991 in London’s West End. I have an ad that says in 1992 the musical would be made into a movie. There was a 20-year wait for that, but I finally got to see it on Christmas night 2012.
Over the years, I’ve seen the show numerous times and collected cast recordings in English, French, Japanese, German and Spanish. I estimate that I’ve listened to Les Mis at least a thousand times.
What has drawn me to the story time and time again is that it is a story of love (true charity), forgiveness, redemption, salvation and most of all hope. As miserable and wretched as life is there is still hope.
The book, musical and movie of the musical all have a tremendous amount of Catholicism in them, including a pro-life component, which is saying a lot because author Victor Hugo didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with the Catholic Church.
Spoiler alert: I’ll discuss the plot in some detail, but being that musical is called the “world’s favorite” and the book is said to be the second-most read after the Bible, I don’t think I’m ruining the story for anyone.
In the musical the Bishop of Digne is the minor character who sets the story in motion. In the novel, Hugo takes 100 pages to tell us of the good bishop who is so pro-life he twists his ankle to avoid killing a bug. The bishop spends a night counseling a condemned man, accompanies him to the guillotine and then says, “Death belongs to God alone. By what right do men touch that unknown thing?” I’ve yet to find a more succinct argument against the death penalty.
The story is impossible to sum up here, but Jean Valjean is paroled from prison after serving 19 years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s son. (He got five for theft and the rest because he kept escaping.) After his parole, he can’t get work or charity. He ends up at the bishop’s house who invites him with “There is wine here to revive you. There is bread to make you strong,” in an obvious reference to the Eucharist. And isn’t it true that the Eucharist does that for us?
Valjean repays the kindness by stealing the bishop’s silver. He’s caught by police, claiming the silver was gift and is returned to the bishop who confirms the lie saying, “But my friend you left so early, surely something slipped your mind. You forgot I gave these also. Would you leave the best behind?” as he hands Valjean two silver candlesticks. Watch the movie carefully and you’ll see the candlesticks are never far from Valjean. For the rest of his life, the bishop’s candlesticks continue to pull Valjean out of the darkness. The bishop could have told the truth sending Valjean back to prison. Instead he gives him a second chance, “buying his soul” for God.
I often think of the bishop’s actions when I see the candlesticks next to the altar at Mass. It’s a reminder to me of being in the light and that Jesus purchased the reward of eternal salvation.
The bishop leads Valjean to conversion. We never know what our own act of kindness may inspire.
Valjean breaks parole. He reinvents himself and runs a factory that makes glass beads. In the movie, workers assemble those beads into rosaries. It was nice to see a rosary in a movie that didn’t involve an exorcism.
There are many heart-wrenching moments in the musical such as “I Dreamed a Dream,” Fantine’s and Eponine’s death, but the one that always gets me is when Valjean forgives Javert, the policeman who paroled him. Javert, with his eye-for-an-eye theology, wants to send Valjean back to prison. During an insurrection, Javert is taken prisoner. Valjean, who arrives later, is given the chance to kill him.
Instead Valjean sings, “You are wrong and always have been wrong. I’m a man no worse than any man. You are free and there are no conditions. No bargains or petitions. There’s nothing that I blame you for. You’ve done your duty, nothing more.” This reminds me of Christ forgiving his executioners.
Would I, could I offer that kind of forgiveness? Shouldn’t I be that kind of Christian, too? Javert can’t live in a world with “New Testament” forgiveness. He loses it and goes out in a big way. For more on their respective beliefs, listen carefully to their two big solos: Javert’s “Stars” and Valjean’s “Bring Him Home.” Both of these are actually prayers.
Prayer is central to the glorious finale of the show. I hope that everyone I love will pass as peacefully and blessed as Valjean. He prays for his newlywed daughter, “Take these children my Lord to thy embrace and show them grace.” And then he prays for himself, “God on high. Hear my prayer. Take me now. To thy care. Where you are, let me be.” And with his last breath he prays, “Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory.” Who wouldn’t want to pass in such a prayerful state?
The ending of the movie was changed slightly from the musical in that Eponine does not appear to Valjean as he makes his way to heaven; however, someone else does and again, I too, hope to be welcomed into heaven by the “angels and saints.”
Initially printed in the February 2013 Catholic Spirit. Reprinted with permission.
Thanks, Christian Christian R. González
Director of Communications
Diocese of Austin(512) 949-2456 O(512) 949-2523
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