The real bishop behind Les Misérables is on the path to sainthood

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Bishop Miollis
Bishop Myriel is a fictional character in Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Misérables. A real figure behind the character is Bishop Bienvenu de Miollis of Digne -- and the French bishops have just agreed to opening the diocesan process for his beatification. Bishop Miollis is pictured in an undated painting. (OSV News photo/Public Domain)

PARIS (OSV News) — If classical literature characters could become saints, France has a perfect example. The real bishop behind Victor Hugo’s famous Les Misérables character will likely be beatified. The French bishops, gathered in Lourdes Nov. 3-8 for their plenary assembly, voted in favor of opening the diocesan process for his beatification.

Bishop Bienvenu de Miollis (1753-1843) was the Bishop of Digne from 1805 to 1838 and an inspiration for Victor Hugo’s character Bishop Myriel in the novel Les Misérables, published in 1862.

Bishop Myriel was close to the poor and lived a sober life. He took in the main character, Jean Valjean, who had just been released from the penal colony. The next day, Valjean was recaptured by the police for stealing Bishop Myriel’s silverware. But the prelate pretended it was a gift, and in doing so, he saved Valjean from re-arrest. This gesture of mercy marked the beginning of a profound transformation of Valjean, which continued throughout the book. He remained attached to the memory of the bishop all his life.

Msgr. Emmanuel Gobillard became the bishop of Digne 217 years after Bishop de Miollis. His diocese lies in picturesque southern France, not far from Marseille and the border with Italy. “Many elements of the novel are based on real events,” he told OSV News. “The true story of Msgr. Miollis is quite similar to what Victor Hugo recounted.”

A story that inspired Victor Hugo

Ordained a priest in 1777, he was bishop of Digne for 33 years, in the troubled times that followed the French Revolution and in the era of Emperor Napoleon. He was particularly concerned about catechizing in rural areas and with educating the poorest.

“He was poor, wrote nothing, had no mystical experience, but he spent his time on the road, visiting the parishes of his diocese,” Bishop Gobilliard said. “The faithful of the diocese said he was a saint already at that time.”

Renowned for his kindness, Bishop de Miollis was very attentive to the poor and beggars, whom he gathered together at the Hospice of Charity, and lived very modestly himself. In 1806, Bishop de Miollis took in a freed convict by the name of Pierre Maurin, whom no one wanted to shelter, and looked for ways to help him regain his dignity — a story that inspired the author of Les Misérables.

After retiring for health reasons, the bishop moved to his sister’s home. The sister of the fictional Bishop Myriel also appeared as a character in Hugo’s novel.

When Bishop de Miollis died in 1843, aged 90, a “crowd of common people came to his funeral,” Bishop Gobillard said. He was buried in the Cathedral of Saint Jérôme in Digne-les-Bains. “There was real popular jubilation for him,” Bishop Gobillard said.

Following the saintly bishop’s example

The current bishop of Digne told OSV News that in the mission statement accompanying his appointment in 2022, Pope Francis encouraged him to “follow the example of Msgr. de Miollis,” particularly by making pastoral visits to his diocese.

“That is what I am trying to do,” he said. “I am on the road all year round, visiting parishes.”

He prefers not to use his car for his pastoral visits. Whenever possible, he uses the French online car-sharing for people wishing to travel together and share the cost of the journey.

“It is an opportunity to meet people, especially young people,” Bishop Gobilliard said. “Most of them have never heard of Christ. But when I read them a page of the Gospel — I witness real interest and wonder!”

Caroline de Sury

Caroline de Sury writes for OSV News from Paris.