Welcoming The Stranger – Part 1

Source: saintjohnwellesley.org


Many of us have read the novel “Les Misérables” by the French author Victor Hugo.  Jean Valjean, the main character, is an extraordinary person.  He is filled with compassion for the poor and works tirelessly on their behalf.

But Jean Valjean would not have become the man that he is if it were not for a chance meeting with a Bishop named Monseigneur Bienvenu.

You see, Jean Valjean, when he was a young man, stole a piece of bread to feed his widowed sister and her 7 children.  He was condemned to 5 years in prison which was prolonged to 19 years in total because of his escapes and recapture.

Upon his eventual release, he was a bitter middle-aged man with few prospects because of his identity papers that showed he was an ex-convict.  After a few days of not being able to find employment or housing and being looked down upon by everybody because of his status as an ex-con, he is welcomed to stay the night at Monseigneur Bienvenu’s place.

Even though Monseigneur Bienvenu acts charitably towards Jean by offering him something to eat and a place to stay, Jean succumbs to his rancour towards society as a whole by stealing Monseigneur Bienvenu’s silverware and leaving during the middle of the night.

Later the same day, the police pick up Jean and bring him back to Monseigneur Bienvenu’s place.  They ask Monseigneur Bienvenu if the silverware belongs to him.  He answers yes but he had given it to Jean.  He also adds, speaking to Jean and looking directly in his eyes, “You forgot the silver candlesticks that I had also given you.”

Jean is confounded by Monseigneur Bienvenu’s actions and words.  For the first time in his life, he has encountered somebody who truly showed him compassion, who truly loved him.  That key moment became the turning point in his life.  He then became the man who showed love and compassion towards the poor.

How do we, each one of us, welcome the Jean Valjeans of this world, the ex-cons, the prostitutes, the migrants?  When we see them, do we look the other way?  Do we help them but then condemn them if they return our kindness with misdeeds?  Or do we show unconditional love and compassion towards them as Monseigneur Bienvenu showed Jean Valjean?

Very few of us are at the level of love and compassion that a Monseigneur Bienvenu has.  That is probably why we have so many problems in this world.  But I would invite you to pray, pray for that grace to love the stranger and have compassion for him/her as a Monseigneur Bienvenu.  You may be surprised by the gifts you receive.


Fear.  Fear is a very powerful emotion.  Many have stated that hate is not the opposite of love; fear is.  Why do we fear?  More to the point, why do we fear the stranger?

We often hear that the stranger is feared because he will take the job of the local; he is feared because he might be a terrorist; he is feared because the housing prices might go down.  In essence, we fear the unknown.  We don’t know this newcomer.

What will she do?  Could he rape our women?  Could she abduct our children?  Could he plant bombs or run over people with a truck?  And because we don’t know this person, we fear her; we fear what he might do.  And because of this fear, we build walls (psychological ones and real ones).

Imagine what would happen if we actually welcomed the stranger like Monseigneur Bienvenu did to Jean Valjean.  Jean Valjean was a hardened criminal after serving 19 years for having stolen some bread.  Life had dealt him a horrible hand.  He was filled with rancour and was out for vengeance.

But we know his life before his theft:  He was a seasonal worker, a pruner.  During the off-season, he couldn’t find steady work.  His income was meagre.  His sister’s husband had died.  He had to look after her and her seven children.  And so, he stole some bread to feed them.  And paid dearly for this minor incident.

Knowing Jean Valjean’s story, do you feel compassion for him?  I would say that most people would probably feel compassion for him or at least sympathy.  Why?  Because you know him.  Monseigneur Bienvenu did not have that luxury.  He knew Jean Valjean was an ex-con but did not know his story.

Notwithstanding any of that, he welcomed him, a stranger, in his house.  Monseigneur Bienvenu had understood a long time ago that the real sinners are not the ones like Jean Valjean; the real sinners are the ones who create the circumstances that produce a Jean Valjean.

And so, what will we do?  Will we welcome the stranger?  Will we risk?  Will we make ourselves vulnerable as Monseigneur Bienvenu did?  And if we are hurt, as Monseigneur Bienvenu was, will we respond with love and compassion as he did?

Norbert Piché is the Directeur national Service jésuite des réfugiés - Country Director Jesuit Refugee Service – Canada

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 10:51h, 14 July Reply

    Thank you Norbert!

  • Maria Skarzynski
    Posted at 11:10h, 14 July Reply

    Super article which hits the heart, as does the ‘Les Miserables’ – so good!! Thank you !!

  • Robert Czerny
    Posted at 11:47h, 14 July Reply

    Very profound and perceptive! Thank you for the reminder about Monseigneur Bienvenu – Monseigneur Bien-venu, Wel-Come: the issue is to welcome the stranger with faith that the outcome will enrich all sides.

  • Paul Baker
    Posted at 14:22h, 14 July Reply

    Thanks so very much for this unforgettable story/parable. I am reminded of the words of the well known author, spiritual director Anthony (Tony) DeMello, SJ, “The shortest distance between an idea and the truth is a story.” I heard these words at a retreat he gave to Jesuits in the early 90s. This blog is certainly one of those stories!

  • Esther Buckley
    Posted at 19:28h, 14 July Reply

    Excellent blog . I always welcome the stranger to my home and like helping immigrants adjusting to a new life in NL.

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