I went to high school at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington.
Languages were an important part of our curriculum. We studied French, Latin, and Greek. I had a rough time getting through these courses since languages are not one of my gifts. Although I did not make good grades in these subjects, I appreciated these courses and the advantages they gave me.
One pearl of wisdom I received from my French classes was that I was exposed to Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables. We translated the first part of Victor Hugo’s magnificent work from the French and that story left a deep impression on me that affected my whole life.
For those who are not familiar with the story, Jean Valjean was sent to jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his family. He ended up serving 19 years on a chain gang. When they released him, people mistreated the former convict as he tried to return to civilian life.
He was refused food and board at the local inns and eventually found himself at the house of the local Bishop. The kind old man gladly fed him and gave him a bed for the night. However, in the middle of the night Jean Valjean fled with the Bishop’s silver plates.
Loud noises and the knocking at his door awakened the Bishop in the early morning. When he opened his door, he saw the wretched figure of a man held by three strong police officers. They had arrested the man for stealing the silver plates from the Bishop. The silver plates and two silver candlesticks were the only items of value that the Bishop owned.
As he stood before the Bishop, Jean Valjean not only saw the madness of his act but also the inevitability of life again as a prisoner. The Bishop smiled, looked straight at him and said, “But you forgot the candlesticks I also gave you.” The police were shocked and Jean Valjean was dumbfounded.
Going to the mantelpiece, the Bishop got the candlesticks and handed them to the unbelieving man. He dismissed the police and Jean Valjean was alone with the Bishop. The Bishop spoke to him, “Today I have bought your soul for God; use this treasure to become an honest man.”
Jean Valjean did change and became an honest man. He learned to love unconditionally as Jesus taught us in the gospels – “Love one another as I have loved you.” Without going into the rest of the story that has many other important lessons for life, the Bishop represents the very tenderness and compassion of God.
This saintly man was not preoccupied with the trappings of power or wealth. His focus was on the needy and the poor and his energy was consumed in serving them. His life exhibited the characteristics of the compassion that Jesus calls us all to live out in our daily lives. “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”
The story of that saintly bishop has inspired me in my priesthood to take up for those who are rejected, those who are out of the mainstream, for the victim of abuse, for the underdogs in our society. The saintly bishop in Les Miserables followed Jesus’ way of living by returning good for evil. Jesus calls each of us to follow that same way of life.
Jesus wants to stop the cycle of hate. His point is: We get back what we give. What goes around, comes around – back to us. To counter hate, we need to try love and generosity. When we are tempted to judge someone or withhold forgiveness, as Jesus’ disciples we need to remember that all of us are in need some favorable judgments and some genuine forgiveness. If we return good in the face of evil, then good will come back to us in abundance.