I matured as a Catholic in the years following the Second Vatican Council and listed among my formative heroes many American bishops and their peers in France, Belgium, Germany, Brazil, and, yes, even Italy. Towering above these forward-looking prelates was my all-time papal hero, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, Pope John XXIII.
Fast-forwarding to the present, I am challenged to identify more than a handful of bishops at home or abroad as models of Spirit-filled, gospel-driven leadership. I and others who share my Catholic history grieve the lacuna.
The recent Year of the Priest turned a spotlight in America on an aging and embattled clergy. These men, especially parish priests, are the remnant in the trenches of a no-longer flourishing clerical caste. With their breakfast they have had to swallow a bitter chronicle of abuse accusations and episcopal cover-ups, each one creeping higher up the ladder of ecclesiastical responsibility. One thing 21st century priests still have going for them is a model of exemplary ministry in St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney (1786-1859), the Curé of Ars. One of their own, he served his parishioners with selfless love and inspiring dedication to the Body of Christ on earth.
It is hard to imagine who might serve as living models and heroes for today’s bishops. As a lay minister in a vibrant parish community, I pray and listen with aching hope for voices of gospel-inspired sanity and humanity among the American and world hierarchies. Instead, there is faith-deadening silence. In this wasteland, the only voices belong to the few whose righteous pronouncements serve as fodder for nightly sound bites and morning stomach turners. There have to be bishops and cardinals alive who cringe along with the rest of us. The few bishops I personally know who might be capable of sparking a Spirit-led revival cower in silence.
Let me propose an international, time-tested model for today’s bishops: Charles Francois Bienvenu Myriel, Bishop of Digne, France. Myriel is, of course, the fictional prelate who serves as the catalyst character of Victor Hugo’s classic and eminently Catholic novel, Les Miserables. What could a non-historical, backwater bishop possibly have to say to today’s real-world hierarchy? Plenty!
Every bishop would do well to reflect on the true meaning of episcopal servanthood as found in the book’s opening one-hundred pages. Bishop Myriel provides a spiritual and moral compass for bishops whose ministry has devolved into fending off abuse victims (and their attorneys), while presiding over shrinking human and financial assets.
Hugo was no saint himself, but he knew what one should look like. We can speculate about the possibility of the author’s admiration of his contemporary and fellow countryman, the Curé of Ars. In his protagonist Jean Valjean, Hugo created the ideal Christian man—a lay saint. It might not be farfetched to call Valjean the principled, virtuous man that Hugo wished he could be. In Bishop Myriel, he brought to life the kind of post-Revolution bishop France needed, but rarely found. Portraying Myriel’s character and the quality of his ministry, the author revealed a deep understanding of true episcopal ministry and priestly spirituality.
Bishop Myriel is a man of prayer, whose holiness is rooted in Sacred Scripture. He takes seriously the call of St. Paul to be like Christ in every possible way: “As most beloved children of God, strive to imitate him. Follow the way of love, the example of Christ who loved you” (Ephesians 5:1-2). His hands-on ministerial style epitomizes the radical option for the poor. The pastoral “buck” stops at this bishop's door, as demonstrated when a priest of his diocese refuses to accompany a condemned man to his death. Myriel claims it as his solemn episcopal duty to spend the night in prayer with the poor man and accompany him along the dreaded final steps to the guillotine.
This is a wise bishop who sees possibilities that others do not in fallible human beings. On a night when no other citizen of Digne will offer shelter to specter-like parolee Jean Valjean, Myriel welcomes the stranger to his table and lodging (only to be robbed of heirloom silver by his ungrateful guest).
Having no further contact with Valjean after forgiving the man’s misdeed, Myriel never learns that his generosity has produced a Damascus-like effect, setting in motion a lifetime of virtue and good works.
I studied philosophy and theology in the 1950s with many seminarians who went on to become bishops and cardinals, both in the United States and the Vatican. How I wish one of them were writing this post, instead of me! Today’s Catholics crave the kind of bishop that Victor Hugo presented as a model of the sacrament of Holy Orders. We, the lay baptized priests of the Church, pray that our Myriels-in-hiding will soon step forward with courage to catalyze the Spirit-led renewal destined to occur in this century.
Alfred J. Garrotto is the author of the suspense novel,