A Catholic Perspective on Life and Faith
Our Lady and the Miraculous Medal
They call Paris the ‘City of Lights’. A vast city, comprised of twenty arrondisements, it is filled with the most stunning architecture – much of which was built to give glory to God. There are great Cathedrals and multiple Churches, all so beautiful and many of them very ancient, such as the great Cathedral of Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité, which has stood there for the best part of a thousand years. And it was to this city that a very special visitor would come – but not to any of these marvellous Gothic structures whose spires towered heaven-ward.
The Rue du Bac sits on the seventh arrondisement. A long street, it’s name comes from the bac or ferry, which originally ran there to take quarried stone to the Palais des Tuileries. The street had several variations of it’s name over the years, originally being called the Grande Chemin du Bac before finally settling with the diminutive form by which it is still known. At 140 Rue du Bac, there is the Maison des Filles de la Charité de Saint-Vincent-de-Paul – the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity, established by Saint Vincent de Paul. The mortal remains of this great French Saint, known fondly as Monsieur Vincent, are just round the corner, in a glass catafalque high above the main altar in the great Church named in his honour on the Rue des Sevres. But his heart is in a crystal reliquary in the Chapel of this convent on the Rue du Bac. And it was there in that Chapel, on 18 July 1830, that the Mother of God descended to the earth to pay a visit to a young novice called Catherine Labouré.
Catherine Labouré was born in May 1806, in the Burgundy region of France, in a hamlet called Fain-les-Moutiers. A pious and hard-working child, she was deeply loved by her family. Her birth name was actually Zoe ‘ she took the name ‘Catherine’ upon entering the religious life.
When she was 18, Catherine had a strange dream in which she saw herself praying at the Altar of her parish Church. There, an old Priest was celebrating Mass. At the end of Mass, the Priest turned and beckoned to her but not recognising him, she fled. As the dream progressed, she now found herself at the bedside of a sick person and there, too, was the same old Priest. Now, he spoke to her –
“My daughter, it is good to take care of the sick. You run away from me now, but one day you will be glad to come to me. God has designs on you. Do not forget it”.
Catherine had told her father she wished to enter the religious life but he was set against the idea; he had already given one daughter, Marie Louise, to religion. Catherine’s father sent her to stay with her elder brother, Charles, who owned a restaurant – she would work for him. She spent a year there before going to Châtillon-sur-Seine, where her sister in law ran a school. Also in the town, there was a convent of the Sisters of Charity. Still feeling the call to enter religious life, Catherine went to speak with the superior of the convent. Ushered into the parlour, her eyes fell on a portrait hanging on the wall – it was the old Priest from her dream. Asking who this Priest was, she was told it was Saint Vincent de Paul, the founder of the Sisters of Charity.
Catherine felt she had arrived at the place where she was meant to be and in 1830, she began her postulancy in the convent. Three months later, on 21st April 1830, she entered the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity, on the Rue du Bac in the heart of a bustling Paris.
Four days after her arrival at the convent, the relics of Saint Vincent had been transferred from the Cathedral of Notre Dâme to the Church on the Rue des Sèvres, just round the corner from the Sister’s convent. Shortly after this, Catherine was shown a series of three visions of the heart of Saint Vincent, appearing a different colour each time – she understood that these visions to foretell the political problems about to befall France, beginning three months later with the overthrowing of King Charles X.
She told her Spiritual Director, Father Aladel, about this and then – being a very practical young woman – continued with her everyday life. Father Aladel paid little attention to what Catherine had told him – perhaps it was simply the overactive imagination of an enthusiastic young nun.
But the favours did not end here – more remarkable occurrences were to follow soon afterwards; and Catherine was about to meet the Queen of Heaven.
The heavenly visit took place at midnight. Half an hour beforehand, Catherine had been awoken by her Guardian Angel, appearing to her in the form of a young child; he told her to dress quickly, announcing she was to meet the Blessed Virgin. Doing as she was told, Catherine followed the child downstairs and toward the Chapel. Each door they passed, although all securely locked, opened effortlessly at his touch. Arriving at the Chapel, all of the candles were lit and shining brightly – “as on Christmas morning”, as Catherine would later describe it. Kneeling in front of the sanctuary, the Angel close by, Catherine waited impatiently, her heart racing at the thought of what was to take place. Finally, the Angel said “here is the Blessed Virgin”.
Catherine heard a rustle like the sound of a silk dress, then an exceptionally beautiful young Woman came from the left side of the sanctuary, descended the steps in front of the altar and then sat Herself in the Father Director’s chair which was placed at the front of the sanctuary, on the left side. The Angel then announced solemnly “this is the Blessed Virgin”.
And then Catherine did something which no other Saint has done – dashing forward, she knelt before the Blessed Virgin, and she was permitted to place her joined hands in the lap of the Mother of God, where they remained until the end of this singular visit. Many years later, Catherine would comment that this was the sweetest moment of her entire life.
The Blessed Virgin spoke –
“My child, the good God wishes to charge you with a mission”.
She warned the young sister of many trials which would follow in the undertaking of her mission but She also promised that Catherine would always know with certainty what the will of God was in every moment, despite the obstacles and contradictions which would follow her –
“..Do not fear, you will have grace. Tell with confidence all that passes within you ; tell it with simplicity. Have confidence. Do not be afraid. You will see certain things; give an account of what you see and hear. You will be inspired in your prayers; give an account of what I tell you and of what you will understand in your prayers..”
Our Lady told Catherine many things which were about to occur in France, great sorrows which would include the overturning of the French throne, and a warning that in those evil times, the whole world would be upset by miseries of every kind –
“There will be victims among the clergy of Paris. Monseigneur the Archbishop.. My child, the Cross will be treated with contempt; they will hurl it to the ground. Blood will flow; they will open up again the side of Our Lord. The streets will stream with blood. Monseigneur the Archbishop will be stripped of his garments.. My child, the whole world will be in sadness.”
Catherine understood that these events would take place in forty years time.
And then the Blessed Virgin said –
“Come to the foot of this altar. There, graces will be shed upon all, great and little, who ask for them. Graces will be especially shed upon those who ask for them.”
The Blessed Virgin then described various situations relating specifically to the community of sisters, including a prophecy regarding a new community of Sisters who would join the present community. This prophecy was fulfilled nineteen years later, when Mother (now Saint) Elizabeth Ann Seton’s community was received, leading to the foundation of the Sisters of Charity in the United States.
Speaking again about the terible events to occur soon, the Mother of God reminded Catherine not to be fearful but to trust in God and to have confidence –
“I shall be with you myself, always. I have My eye upon you. I shall grant you many graces”.
All was prepared, then. Catherine knew she was to receive a great mission, a mission for the entire world, even whilst this first visit of the Mother of God had a very deeply personal quality about it.
On 27 November of that same year, the Blessed Virgin would return to the Chapel on the Rue du Bac. It was a Saturday. Catherine was in the Chapel with the community, listening to one of the Sisters readuing the meditation. Suddenly Catherine heard a sound she had heard once before – that rustle of Our Lady’s dress as She walked. Looking up, Catherine saw the Blessed Virgin “in all Her perfect beauty” as she would put it later on. Dressed in a white silk robe “of the colour of the dawn”, a white veil fell down behind to Her feet. She was standing upon a globe suspended above the sanctuary, the space filled with a blazing light. In Her hands, She held a smaller globe and She seemed to be raising this to Heaven, Her eyes looking in that direction, while Her lips moved in prayer.
Catherine noted that the fingers of the Blessed Virgin were covered in jewelled rings, which flashed and glittered, catching the heavenly light. Beneath Her feet, She was crushing the head of a coiled serpent. And then the Blessed Virgin looked directly at Catherine, and the nun heard a voice –
“The ball which you see represents the whole world, especially France, and each person in particular. These rays symbolise the graces I shed upon those who ask for them. The gems from which rays do not fall are the graces for which souls forget to ask.”
Suddenly, the smaller globe disappeared and the arms of the Blessed Virgin opened wide as though She was reaching out to the whole world. Dazzling streams of light fell from the rings upon Her fingers, down toward the larger globe upon which She continued to stand. As this happened, an oval frame appeared around Her and then within it, there appeared letters inscribed in gold, which read –
“O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee.”
Later on, Catherine would note that Our Lady’s hands “were bent down under the weight of the treasures of graces obtained”. And then she heard the voice once again –
“Have a medal struck after this model. All who wear it will receive great graces; they should wear it around the neck. Graces will abound for persons who wear it with confidence.”
The vision then seemed to revolve and Catherine saw the obverse of the design of the medal.
A large letter ‘M’ was surmounted by a cross with a bar beneath it. Under the M there were two Hearts – on the left, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the wound visible, and crowned with thorns; and to the right, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, pierced by a sword. Around all of this, there was an oval frame comprised of twelve glittering stars.
Now, Catherine’s mission had been revealed. She was to have this medal made and then spread throughout the world.
Despite various obstacles and difficulties, Catherine was faithful to the mission given to her. Two years later, the design of the medal was delivered to Monsieur Vachette, an engraver. He expressed that it would be difficult to make a medal – given the technical ability of engravers at that point – to accurately portray the first phase of the vision, with the Virgin holding up the globe, without it appearing ‘flat’. And so a decision was made to represent the Blessed Virgin in the moment when She opened Her arms and the rays of divine grace fell down upon the earth. Seeing the cut medals for the fist time in 1832, Catherine said only – “now, it must be propagated”.
As well as the various oral accounts which Catherine gave to her spiritual director, Father Aladel, she also wrote full accounts of her visions in 1841, 1856 and 1876. He noted with surprise that there was no prayer on the reverse of the medal and told Catherine to pray about this and to ask Our Lady what should be written there. Catherine did as she was commanded and in her prayers she heard these words –
“the M and the two Hearts express enough”.
Despite giving a full account of all that had taken place, Father Aladel was uncertain what to do. In the midst of this uncertainty, the Medal vision was repeated five more times, each occasion a silent reproval that the work had not been completed.
Finally going to the Archbishop, permission for the Medal was granted and it was propagated as Catherine desired; within a few years, millions of Medals were in circulation. Very quickly, the reports of miracles of grace and of nature began – the most famous being that of the conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne in Rome, which I have related elsewhere. Not surprisingly, it was not very long before the people gave a name to this little Medal. They began to call it ‘the Miraculous Medal’.
In the years which followed, Catherine went about her work as a nun and did all the duties of her state without complaint, with nothing making her stand out from the ordinary. She maintained her anonymity completely, such that even her own community did not know to which particular Sister the Blessed Virgin had appeared in the summer and winter of 1830. Her confessor had revealed only to one living soul – and then, for good reasons – the identity of the nun. It was a further thirty years before her identity would be revealed to one more soul. But throughout those years, there were rumours – never confirmed, needless to say – that Catherine was the sister to whom Our Lady had appeared.
At last, in May 1876, Catherine determined to do the one thing requested of her and which she had not, so far, been able to do.
The Blessed Virgin had asked that a statue be made representing Her at the moment She lifted the small globe to Heaven; despite Catherine’s efforts, this had not been done. By this time, she had an intuition that her time was running out and so she she approached the Superior of the Community, Father Boré, to ask for the statue. However, she could not adequately make the request without first revealing that she was the Sister to whom the Blessed Virgin had appeared. And so, unable to say why she wanted the statue made, the request was refused.
Catherine returned to her own community house and spoke to Sister Dufés, the superior of the house. She said –
“Since I have not much longer to live, I feel that the moment to speak out has come. But, as the Blessed Virgin told me to speak only to my confessor, I shall say nothing to you until I have asked Our Lady’s permission in prayer. If She tells me I may speak to you, I will do so; otherwise, I will remain silent.”
The following morning, Sister Catherine met again with Sister Dufés – Our Lady had granted Her permission. And so, over the next two hours, Catherine told the Superior everything – the first vision, the visions of the Miraculous Medal, the various other visions she had been granted, and the foreknowledge of events that were still to take place. Sister Dufés was so astonished that neither she nor Catherine sat, remaining standing the entire time.
In conclusion, Catherine said very emphatically that the statue of the Virgin holding the globe needed to be made. Sister Dufés asked if, in light of what Catherine had told her regarding the globe, it was necessary to change the design of the Medal. Catherine replied – “Do not touch the Medal. It is only necessary to erect an altar on the spot of the Apparition, as the Blessed Virgin asked, and to place above it Her statue, with a ball in Her hands.”
After confirming, from the original notes made at the time of the Apparitions, that Catherine was indeed the Sister of the visions, Sister Dufés arranged for a sculptor to carve the statue. Catherine’s mission was finally completed in all it’s details.
Over the next months, she began to speak more – and more openly – about her impending death. She even commented that she would not see the New Year. The Sisters were certain that this elderly but quite robust nun had to be mistaken.
Finally, the last day of the year 1876 came, 31 December. Catherine had been unwell for a while by then but on that day, her health deteriorated very suddently. That afternoon, her niece, Marie, had called to visit her and before she left, Catherine had given her the last of the original Miraculous Medals she had kept.
At 7 o’clock that evening, Sister Catherine left this world, very peacefully.
It was a mere ten days after her funeral that the first miracle was reported at her tomb.
In 1895 her cause for canonisation was put before Rome. Catherine Labouré was beatified in Rome on 28 May 1933. Upon opening her tomb in the community house in Reuilly, where she had been buried for fifty seven years, there was astonishment when her body was found to be entirely incorrupt, such that her cornflower-blue eyes were as vibrant as ever and her limbs as supple as though she was merely asleep. Fourteen years after this, on 27 July 1947, Sister Catherine Labouré was declared a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
Today, her still-incorrupt body lies beneath the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding that globe, on the spot where the vision took place, in a convent on a long street in Paris called the Rue du Bac.