By DORIS DONNELLY
Fans of "Les Misérables" on film or stage may be surprised to know that not everyone in France was of good cheer when Victor Hugo published the book in 1862. The anticlerical set was especially offended by the pivotal role of the Bishop of Digne, who helped determine the course of the novel by resuscitating the soul of Jean Valjean.
As Hugo worked on the novel, his son Charles, then in his 20s, objected to the reverential treatment of the bishop. He argued to his father that the portrayal gave undeserved respect to a corrupt clergy, bestowing credibility on a Roman Catholic Church opposed to the democratic ideals that he and his father held. Charles instead proposed that the catalyst for Jean Valjean's transformation be a lawyer or doctor or anyone else from a secular profession.
The pushback didn't work. Not only did Hugo hold his ground, but he amplified the importance of Charles-François Bienvenue Myriel, affectionately known in the novel as Monseigneur Bienvenue (Bishop Welcome). The book's first hundred pages or so are a detailed chronicle of Myriel's exemplary life, showing that his intervention on behalf of Jean Valjean was part of a long track record and not a singular aberration. Apparently Hugo recognized no contradiction between his anticlericalism and the possibility—or certainty—that grace could be mediated by a just priest who was transparent to the divine and never betrayed the human.
Thirty years earlier, Hugo had solidified his anticlerical credentials by crafting the repulsive, licentious Archdeacon Claude Frollo in "Notre Dame de Paris." It was time to try a new approach in "Les Misérables," so he rendered an ideal priest against whom clergy could measure their fidelity to tenderness and mercy. His expectation—as we know from the contemporaneous diary of his wife, Adele—was that corrupt priests would be shamed and indicted by comparison with a good one.
With Bienvenue, Hugo created a no-frills bishop who lived in a modest cottage, having surrendered his episcopal palace to the hospital next door. There were no locks on the doors; a simple push of the latch allowed entry.
The bishop subsisted on less than one-tenth of his state entitlements, with the remaining funds dispensed to provide for the release of fathers in debtors' prisons, meat for the soup of people in the hospital, and other unpopular charities. He had a sliding scale to officiate at marriages and preside at funerals. From the rich he exacted more, from the poor nothing at all.
Fearless, Bienvenue rode into territories overrun by bandits to visit his people. Without complaint, he assumed responsibilities that lazy curates chose not to. He agonized over the guillotine, and having accompanied a prisoner to his execution he was certain—as was Hugo himself—that anyone witnessing the death penalty would declare it a barbaric act unworthy of a civilized society.
The cleric in Hugo's novel was without the entourage nurtured by other bishops. There were no opportunistic seminarians eager to latch onto his coattails and ride into the corridors of power. It was clear to everyone that his star wasn't in ascendance. Bienvenue mused about seminaries that bred sycophants, where ambition was mistaken for vocation and upward mobility—from a modest biretta to a bishop's mitre to a pope's tiara—was the prized trajectory.
The greatest fear of young priest recruits, Hugo explains, was that merely associating with the virtuous Bienvenue could unwittingly cause one to convert to his lifestyle. It was widely known that virtue was contagious and no inoculation against it existed.
The trade-off for Bienvenue was that he was loved by his people. They had a bishop whose center of gravity was a compassionate God attuned to the sound of suffering, never repelled by deformities of body or soul, who occupied himself by dispensing balm and dressing wounds wherever he found them.
He found them in a town called Digne, a name conveniently derived from the Latin dignus, the root of the word we know in English as "dignity." Bishop Bienvenue conferred dignity with abandon on those whose dignity was robbed by others. He had an endless supply of his own to share and a lot of practice when Jean Valjean knocked on his door.
During the night he spent at the bishop's home, mere days after his release from serving 19 years as galley prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean stole six silver place settings, was apprehended, and returned the next morning under police guard to face the consequences of his crime. Unruffled, the bishop brushed off the police, added valuable silver candlesticks to the bundle, "bought" Jean Valjean's soul from evil and claimed it for God. He redirected the life of a man chained to hatred, mistrust and anger, and he enabled Jean Valjean to emerge as one of the noblest characters in literature.
Ms. Donnelly is professor of theology and director of the Cardinal Suenens Center at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
A version of this article appeared January 4, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Cleric Behind 'Les Mis'.