The path from the Île de la Cité to the Église Saint-Sulpice had never felt longer. Javert compelled himself to walk at his usual pace. He now knew that God would meet him on the other side, regardless of how quickly or how slowly he travelled.
He was acutely aware, also, that this was a journey that he had been deliberately putting off. At its heart, it was because he had not wished to mislead a man of God under God’s own roof. He knew he was also reluctant to confront what might in fact be a clear denunciation from the Church: a sentence of judgment for wrongs he could now no longer put right, or would not wish to put right.
And on some fundamental level, he felt that it was not proper to seek a plenary indulgence and to be truly shriven from his past sins, until he had done all he could to put right the one mortal wrong of his life — the wrong he had done to Jean Valjean.
It was afternoon when Javert reached the church. He knew Fr. Michel-Marie would be in his small office at that time, and he was fortunate to arrive as a parishioner was just leaving.
"Monsieur, of course I will take your confession," the young priest said, and ushered him into the room.
Javert remembered first encountering Fr. Michel-Marie at the seminary two years ago. At the time he, Javert, had been a fledgling penitent, whose world of law and authority had been knocked off its hinges by Jean Valjean — and he had been attempting, tooth and claw, to find his way in his new world and come to understand his new superior. This good man had done his level best to deal with Javert’s notebook of doctrinal concerns and to answer questions on Scripture of a manner better suited for the interrogation of criminals. It had been Fr. Michel-Marie who had first told him of the remission of sins that he needed to obtain from God in order to safeguard his immortal soul.
It seemed fitting that Javert was here again two years later, having remade his world anew with God at its centre and God’s instrument at its bright heart, and now seeking that remission on his knees at last.
"Bless me, Father. I am an inveterate sinner. I have not made confession in thirteen weeks, and the confessions I have made to you over the months have been incomplete. I had failed to explain in full how my past life was characterised by instances of cruelty and failures of mercy.”
Fr. Michel-Marie did not look particularly surprised, and Javert continued grimly: “I was consumed with pride in myself. I participated in acts of cruelty, first to prisoners under my charge and then to persons who had committed crimes under extenuating circumstances. This included a sick woman whom I pursued and then condemned to death. There is also a man which I pursued for as many as seventeen years, and I would also have condemned him to death had he not been protected by God.”
He looked down — he had never spoken of this next matter before, not since Valjean had rescued him from the river and put him into his bed.
“Also, when my sins and my pride were finally revealed to me, and it seemed as if the world as I knew it had been destroyed, I also sought to destroy myself. God Himself rescued me from that sin, and I have not shown sufficient gratitude to Him and to all His instruments. "
Fr. Michel-Marie said, thoughtfully, "Those are indeed sins, my s— Monsieur. Have you sought to make restitution for them?”
“Yes,” Javert said. “I belatedly placed a formal complaint regarding the injustices at the prisons. I also left my former employment; I believe you know of my work at the Bureau of Judicial Assistance. I have confessed my sins to the daughter of the woman I wronged, as well as the man I wronged. It has taken some time to realise what I needed to do to make restitution, but I have since sought to do what I could to do right by him.”
He swallowed: this last matter was, finally, true. Now he had done all he could for Valjean, he did feel as if he might at last truly receive absolution for the multitude of wrongs he had inflicted on that good man.
“As for my mortal sin at the river … I regret that heartily, and have sought to use the new lease on life provided to me by God for His purposes and for that of the man who saved me.”
Fr. Michel-Marie leaned forward. “Well, then, it would appear that you are truly contrite, and have since sought to mend your ways and make reparation as best you could. As such you may approach the throne of God's grace to seek forgiveness and absolution."
"There is more," Javert said, with difficulty. "We spoke of Jacques Nouvel. I failed to help him and condemned him to his life of crime and imprisonment. He said he forgave me at the end, but I do not know whether he meant it. He died without making his last confession, and I am afraid his soul may be lost."
Fr Michel-Marie was silent. "You are certain he died whilst unconfessed?" he asked finally, hesitantly.
Javert felt sick to his stomach. "Yes. I tried to pray with him, and to have him repent in the ordinary way, but I am no priest, nor is my friend who was also with him at the last."
Fr. Michel-Marie said, a look of growing concern on his face, “Was he in fact Catholic? I did not actually ask M. Fauchelevent, I just assumed... ”
Javert said, “I am told by his sister that he was baptised, and that he attended church regularly. And we prayed together at the end, M. Fauchelevent prayed, just before he passed.”
Fr Michel-Marie's furled brow cleared rapidly, and he clasped Javert's hand. "Then all is well, my s— I mean, Monsieur. Of course it would be preferable were a priest to have taken the man's last confession. But if a priest cannot be present, as, for instance on a battlefield, Holy Mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis, at the approach of death, provided they did confess and pray regularly in some way during their lifetime. It has been so since the time of Pius V — at the hour of death an indulgence may be obtained by any contrite member of the church who confesses and invokes the holy name of Jesus with his heart if he cannot with his lips."
Fr. Michel-Marie looked at Javert's face and added, nervously, "In case you would like to look this up, this indulgence is referenced inter alia in Pope Pius V's Papal bull Consueverunt Romani Pontifices in the 16th century."
It was a great deal to digest. Valjean had told him God's grace was infinite, but he had not dared to believe it until this moment, when he heard a priest tell him that Nouvel's immortal soul may have been saved after all.
"Father, you cannot believe how much of a comfort it is to me to hear that," Javert said. "Thank you."
He paused. The remaining issue of his lack of chastity stood before him, the last stumbling block to confession and full remission before God. He was certain that the strict dictates of the Church would not encompass the interpretation ascribed to the issue by Jean Valjean. Still, there was nothing else for Javert than to now cast himself into the abyss and trust that God would preserve him.
"Father, I feel, also, that I should strictly be required to confess to you various instances of unchasteness with my companion."
Fr. Michel-Marie looked truly uncomfortable. "Ah, chastity...! It is a human failing which inflicts many men. The Church understands this suffering, and, seeing as you are truly penitent, God will forgive. Of course, you may wish to consider the covenant bond of wedlock — for a cord of three strands, that is two bound together in love with God as the centre of that bond, is not easily broken."
Javert must have looked even more askance at this reference to entering into a state of matrimony, because Fr. Michel-Marie paused for a long moment, looking down.
He then added with even more difficulty, "After the Council of Trent, the doctrine of Mother Church is that believers must be wedded by a priest, of course, but it was not always so. Indeed before that time, medieval church law did not require that the exchange of consent to marry be made in the presence of a priest or witnesses. And now the Revolution has brought us the civil marriage contracted by the modern state, and… well. It is not a straight-forward thing, what it means to be wedded in the eyes of God.”
The young priest fidgeted with his robe and did not meet Javert’s eyes. “Tell me, my son, do you both have love?"
"Yes, I believe that we do," Javert said, wonderingly.
"Well, then." Fr. Michel-Marie held out his hand; Javert knelt and murmured the words of contrition.
"Will you attend our Holy Communion service later?"
"I do believe that you have made sufficient restitution, my son, and may receive a remission for your sins: for your past sins, for your attempted sin against God, and for your part in the death of that poor man." Fr. Michel-Marie hesitated, as if he ought not perhaps give voice to a view that was not entirely orthodox. "But you may not need to receive forgiveness for love, which is the greatest of God's gifts. …Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti."
"Amen," Javert said, his heart full.