Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Well-Formed Conscience of Jean Valjean

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 17, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 8: 1-11.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2013]


After you see a movie that’s based on a novel, certain people will say to you, “Oh yes, the movie was good—I saw it, too—but you should definitely read the book, because the book is much better.”

And they’re usually right.

Well, based on what I’ve said in past homilies, you know that I absolutely love Les Miserables, the movie that came out this past Christmas, and which won 3 Oscars a few weeks ago.

I love it almost as much as I love the musical version of the story, which I have been blessed to see several times.

Both the film and the musical, of course, are based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name.

Well, given the fact that in so many cases the book is truly better than the movie, I made the decision recently to get Les Mis for my Kindle, and read it.

And I did.  Well, at least I’ve begun to read it.  I’ve only begun because Les Miserables is not what you would call, “a quick read”!  It’s almost 1,500 pages long, small print!  Victor Hugo was obviously a man who LOVED to write—and write—and write!  What most people would say in 10 words, he says in 110 words—or more! 

All I can say is: Be glad you have me for your pastor and not him!  If he were your priest, you’d be here for 3 hours every Sunday (or Saturday night as the case might be).

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m really enjoying the book so far (I’m about a third of the way through it).  I just wish some of his descriptions of things were shorter and a little less detailed.

With one very notable exception, namely, his account of Jean Valjean’s battle with his conscience—the battle he had at a crucial point after his conversion.  True to form, Hugo goes on describing the details of this battle—this internal struggle of Jean Valjean—for many, many pages.

But in this case I’m glad he did that, because the length of the description makes a very important point.  The point is that sometimes doing the right thing isn’t easy—it’s a big struggle—even if your conscience is guiding you properly and helping you to see what you should do!

Let me now give you a brief synopsis of what Valjean was struggling with . . .

At the beginning of the story (which takes place in early 19th century France) Valjean is paroled, after spending 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  He comes out of prison a bitter man, but he experiences a genuine conversion with the help of a saintly bishop.  He then breaks his parole, assumes a new identity, and begins to live a very holy, charitable life.  He moves to another town where nobody knows him; he starts a business that provides jobs for many needy people there, and is incredibly generous with his money.  In fact, he’s eventually elected mayor because people love him so much.

But then one day he hears that a man called “Jean Valjean”—an ex-convict who broke his parole many years earlier—is set to go on trial in a distant city the following day.  Valjean, of course, knows that this is a case of mistaken identity: he knows that he’s the guy they’re looking for!  This man they have in custody is innocent.

But what should he do?  If he goes to the court and reveals himself as the real Jean Valjean, he’ll probably be arrested immediately and sent back to the prison and the galleys for the rest of his life; but if he doesn’t go, he allows an innocent man to be convicted and to suffer punishment unjustly (life imprisonment and perhaps even death!).  In the musical, his struggle is summed up in one line.  Valjean sings, “If I speak, I am condemned; [but] if I stay silent, I am damned.”

Well, in the novel (as I said a few moments ago), the struggle is recounted over many, many pages—because it was so deep and so intense.  Valjean, for example, paces the floor the whole night before the trial, going back and forth in his thoughts.  Deep down inside knows that he should go and reveal himself to the court, but another voice in his head is giving him all the reasons he should just stay at home and let the other guy get condemned: The people of this town need me; they count on my leadership.  Children look up to me; how can I let them down?  I’m providing for the families of the people who work in my factory; I’m helping poor souls who will probably die without all my charitable gifts.

Even after he decides to go to the courthouse, he struggles; even as he enters the courtroom itself, the battle rages on inside him.

Conscience.  Jean Valjean had formed his well—that’s why he knew the right thing to do.  But a conscience needs to be followed after it’s formed!

And that’s where it can be very difficult.  Just ask Jean Valjean.

I usually don’t give the enemies of Jesus in the gospels credit for much, but I will say something positive today about the scribes and the Pharisees that we hear about in this story of the woman caught in the act of adultery.  These men had not formed their consciences as well as Jean Valjean had formed his, but they had formed them well enough to recognize some of their sins—perhaps because Jesus was writing them in the sand!  Now they could have ignored what their consciences were telling them and gone on to stone the woman anyway!  But, to their credit, they all did listen to their consciences—and to the challenge of Jesus—and they walked away.

I mention this today because many Catholics and other Christians in the modern world use “conscience” as an excuse for doing what they feel like doing or what they want to do, rather than seeing it as a summons to do what they ought to do!

“Well, my conscience tells me that _________ is ok.”  (Fill in that blank with any sin: lying, cheating on my taxes, artificial contraception, abortion, being unfaithful to my spouse, holding a grudge, etc.)

“My conscience tells me it’s okay to do this.”

Well, it’s important for us to remember that our consciences will guide us properly ONLY if they are formed properly!  Jean Valjean’s conscience was telling him, “It’s wrong for you to allow that innocent man to go to jail for the rest of his life!” because Valjean had formed his conscience based on the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.  His conscience was guiding him properly because it was formed properly.

The consciences of the scribes and Pharisees were telling them, “You’d better not throw any stones at this woman,” because their consciences had been formed properly to the point where these men were at least able to recognize some of their own sins.  They were blind, unfortunately, to their hatred of Jesus (which was also a sin—a very big sin!), but they were clear about some other things.

I encourage you to read, in the near future, what the Catechism teaches about conscience, since there’s so much confusion and misinformation out there concerning this subject.  It all begins in paragraph 1776 (which should be easy to remember, since that’s year the Declaration of Independence was signed!).

I’ll quote just a few of the more important lines to you here: 

  • From paragraph 1778: Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.
  • From paragraph 1799: Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.
  • From paragraph 1783: Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful.
  • From paragraph 1785:  In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice.  (That basically means that we are to form our consciences based on objective truth, and not on our personal feelings or ideas!)
  • And, finally, from paragraph 1784: The education of the conscience is a lifelong task.

Let me conclude now with a final word on Jean Valjean, since I left him a few moments ago in the midst of a terrible conscience crisis.

He did the right thing!  That’s the bottom line: He did the right thing.

He went to the courthouse and revealed himself to be the real Jean Valjean.

“But, Fr. Ray, he obviously didn’t stay in jail, because the story continued—for about 1,200 more pages!  So what happened?”

That, I won’t tell you.  To find out, you’ll have to read the book.   

Or, if you don’t have either the time or the desire to read a 1,500 page novel, just go to see the Oscar winning movie starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.  That will only take 2 ½ hours of your time, but, I guarantee you, it will be 2 ½ hours well-spent!