Pope Francis would want bishops to seek inspiration from Les Misérables

Colm Wilkinson as Bishop Myriel in Les Misérables

The Pope returned to one of his favourite themes recently in an address to the Congregation for Bishops, the Curial dicastery charged with appointing new bishops, telling them that bishops should not be like CEOs, but rather pastors. The report of his speech can be read here.

This is not the first time that the Holy Father has spoken of his desire to see bishops get out from behind their desks and among the people, and to avoid the pitfalls of becoming “airport bishops”. In his desire to have bishops that smell of their sheep, I wonder just of which bishops in history would the Holy Father approve?

He would certainly approve of St John of Rochester (John Fisher), a scholar and a gentleman, one who was deeply committed to education, and utterly orthodox, indeed prepared to die for the faith. And he would certainly disapprove of St John’s contemporary, Cardinal Wolsey, a man who hardly ever visited his diocese, and who at the end of his life admitted that he had not served God as well as he had served the King. In fact, Wolsey, who was loathed for his arrogance and the way he collected profitable benefices, would probably sum up the Pope’s idea of a bad bishop.

Likewise we can be sure that the Holy Father would have nothing but admiration for the great bishop of the Counter-Reformation, St Charles Borromeo, who was tireless in visiting parishes and in trying to improve the quality of the priests in his diocese. St Charles died an early death, thanks to the unremitting nature of his pastoral labours.

What about bishops in fiction?

The best example, that I can think of, of a Pope Francis-style bishop is the bishop in the opening chapters of Les Misérables. Bishop Myriel incarnates the virtues of Christian charity and humility, and in so doing enables Jean Valjean to be redeemed. His kindness and generosity to the man who has known neither initiate the great change that overtakes the hero; in a sense the entire book is about redemption, and the bishop is the agent of this redemption. It is to be noted too that the bishop is known for his simple lifestyle and his accessibility.

I cannot think of any other good bishops in fiction. Most of the bishops one has read about in books and seen on stage are hardly admirable from the Catholic point of view: think of the fictionalised Cardinal Richelieu from The Three Musketeers, played with villainous relish by the great Peter Capaldi in the BBC’s latest adaptation. Perhaps Mr Capaldi, a Catholic, has been taking the Pope’s words to heart and channelling into his portrayal of Richelieu all those characteristics of a bishop that the Pope decries.