The Miraculous Medal and the story of Saint Catherine Labouré
There are some things which are always associated with being a Catholic. Perhaps the most well-known is the Rosary; another is the Medal of the Immaculate Conception, which for a long time has been called the ‘Miraculous Medal’. Do you know the story of this Medal, or why it got it’s name?
Zöe 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.
When she was 18, Zöe 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 Zöe 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”.
Zöe had told her father she wished to enter the religious life but he was set against the idea; he had lready given one daughter, Marie Louise, to religion. Zöe’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, Zöe 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.
Zöe 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. In religion, she took the name Catherine.
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.
On the evening of 18 July 1830, Catherine was awakened by a young child whom she believed to be her Guardian Angel. He told her to come to the Chapel, where the Blessed Virgin was awaiting her. Catherine would later write this account of what happened next –
“I hurriedly dressed and went to the side of this child. I followed him wherever he went. The lights were lit everywhere. When I entered the Chapel, the door swung open; the child had barely touched it with his fingertips. The candelabras burned brightly, as for Midnight Mass. However, I did not see the Blessed Virgin. The child led me to the sanctuary and there, I knelt down.
Near midnight, the child said to me ‘Look, here is the Blessed Virgin’. I heard a noise like the rustling of a silk dress. A very beautiful Lady sat in the Father Director’s chair. The the child repeated in a strong voice, ‘Here is the Blessed Virgin’.
Then, I sprang toward Her, falling on my knees at Her feet, at the steps of the Altar, and putting my hands on Her knees. I remained there I don’t know how long; time passed, the sweetest moments of my life. The Holy Virgin told me how I should act toward my Director and confided several things to me”.
In a further account written later, in 1876, Catherine gave more information on what the Blessed Virgin told her –
“The good God, my child, wishes to entrust you with a mission. It will be the cause of much suffering to you but you will overcome this, knowing that you do it for the glory of God. You will be contradicted, but you will have the grace to bear it; do not fear. You will see certain things; given an account of them. You will be inspired in your prayer. The times are evil; misfortunes will fall upon France. The throne will be overthrown, the entire world will be overcome by evils of all kinds, but come to the foot of this Altar; there, graces will be poured out on all those who ask for them with confidence and fervour. They will be poured out on the great and the humble”.
And then, the Blessed Virgin was gone, “like a light which fades away”, as Catherine described it.
Catherine again spoke to Father Aladel, but although he recognised Catherine’s fervour and prayerfulness, he could not believe the truth of what she was saying. She had to be mistaken, surely. And yet she was so practical, so honest …
Here is how she described it –
“It was the Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent. It was half past five in the evening. In the silence, just after the point of meditation had been read, I seemed to hear some noise on the side of the tribune; looking toward that side, I saw the Blessed Virgin.
She was standing, dressed in a white silk robe, the colour of the dawn. Her feet were resting on a ‘ball’, of which I could see only half.
In Her hands, raised to the level of Her breast, She held a globe in a very relaxed way, Her eyes raised heavenwards. Her face was totally beautiful – I could not describe it.
And then, all of a sudden, I noticed rings on Her fingers, rings with precious stones, some larger and some smaller, which gave out rays of light, some more beautiful than others. At that moment, as I contemplated Her, the Blessed Virgin lowered Her eyes to look at me and an interior voice said –
‘This globe which you see represents the entire world, particularly France, and each person in particular’.
Here, I don’t know how to explain what I found and what I saw, the beauty and the glitter from the rays of light were so magnificent! The voice said to me again –
‘This is the symbol of the graces which will be poured out upon the persons who ask them of Me’.
At this moment, whether I was or whether I was not, I did not know. There formed around the Blessed Virgin a sort of oval and on it there were these words, written in golden letters –
‘O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee’.
Then a voice was heard –
‘Have a Medal struck on this model; the persons who wear it will receive great graces; graces will be in abundance for those who have confidence. Those stones which remained in the shadows represent the graces which people forget to ask of Me’.
Suddenly, the picture seemed to turn. I saw the reverse of the Medal; the letter M surmounted by a Cross and below it, two Hearts, one encircled with a crown of thorns, the other pierced with a sword. I seemed to hear a voice which said to me –
‘The M and the two Hearts say enough’.
Mary, Jesus.. the sufferings of both joined together for our redemption.”
Surrounding all of this was a ‘crown’ of twelve stars. The stars represented the twelve Apostles, upon whom the Church is founded, as well as referring to the passage in the Book of Revelation which refers to the Virgin –
“And behold, a great sign appeared in Heaven; a Woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath Her feet, and upon Her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation, Chapter 12).
This same vision was repeated on five further occasions, with the Virgin appearing above the main Altar to ask why Her requests had not been complied with. Father Aladel still could not believe what Catherine was telling him. Not knowing what to do, he eventually approached the Archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur de Quelen, who – although not convinced of the supernatural character of the apparition – agreed to have the Medal made, since it did not contravene faith or morals.
The first Medals were struck in May 1832 and were distributed throughout Paris and then France; within a very short time, numerous miracles and wonders were being attributed to its use.
The most famous miracle of the time was the conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne, a Jewish merchant with a virulent hatred for Catholicism. In a vision in Rome, he saw the Virgin as She had appeared on the Medal and he was instantly converted to Catholicism; also at that instant, he was infused with a perfect and complete knowledge of all the truths of the Catholic Faith. He later became a Jesuit priest and spent his life working for the conversion of Jews. This vision occurred in the Roman Church of Sant’ Andrea della Fratte, where an Altar reminds visitors of this marvellous event.
Because of many similar events, the Medal came to be known as ‘The Miraculous Medal’.
Within a few years, more than one million medals were in circulation throughout the world.
A long Church investigation finally agreed that the Medal was supernatural in origin and that Catherine’s visions were indeed genuine. However, throughout all this Catherine spoke about these events only to Father Aladel – no-one else knew that she was the sister who had seen Our Lady. She even declined to attend the Church investigation as this would have compromised her anonymity – instead she would answer questions only through Father Aladel.
She maintained her silence until she was aware that she had only a short time left to live, and then told only her Mother Superior. On several occasions she told her fellow sisters that she would not live to see the year 1877; on 31 December 1876 she died peacefully. After her death, she was finally named openly as the Sister of the visions of the Miraculous Medal and she became the most talked about woman in all of France. She was buried in the Hospice for the elderly in Enghien, a Parisian suburb, where she had worked for more than forty years in obscurity and humility, keeping her secret from the eyes of the world.
Years later, as part of the Canonisation process, her body was exhumed and then re-interred in the Chapel of the Apparitions, in the Rue du Bac. Her body was found to be completely incorrupt, as it remains to this day.
This Chapel is situated in the very heart of Paris, and is open to all. Catherine’s body lies in a crystal reliquary beneath the statue of the Virgin of the Globe, the very spot on which Catherine saw the Vision of the Medal. Her bright blue eyes look up to the statue above her.
Visitors to the Chapel can see Saint Catherine’s incorrupt body to this day, as well as the heart of Saint Vincent de Paul in a silver reliquary to the right of the Altar, and the relics of Saint Louise de Marillac (co-foundress of the Order) to the left of the Altar.
In the sanctuary is the chair upon which the Blessed Virgin sat during the first apparition.
Covering the walls of the Chapel are marble plaques, which people have donated to record favours received through their fervent prayers to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. There is very little empty space on these walls.
Scholars and historians believe that the Miraculous Medal Apparitions paved the way for the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and that the Lourdes Apparitions (in 1858) gave the Blessed Virgin’s own seal of approval to this dogma. Throughout the visions at Lourdes, Saint Bernadette Soubirous wore a Miraculous Medal. Later, Bernadette noted that at the moment when the Lady of Lourdes gave Her name, saying “I am the Immaculate Conception”, She opened Her hands in a way very similar to the way She appears on the Medal.
Even now, in this modern and sophisticated world, many people wear this little Medal with confidence in She whose image it bears, and receive streams of grace through Her hands. The Legion of Mary have, for many years, distributed millions of these Medals, each on a little blue cord.
And the little Chapel on the Rue du Bac in Paris is constantly filled with pilgrims from every corner of the world, kneeling at the foot of that Altar and asking the Queen of Heaven for graces, then kneeling at the shrine of Saint Catherine and asking her heavenly intercession.
The courtyard leading to the Chapel has large relief sculptures depicting the story of the Visions, some of which are reproduced here.
To wear the Medal is to accept the power of Jesus, the Son of Mary, and to accept Her Mediation before Him and Her role as the Mediatrix of all His graces. To wear the medal is to accept the power of His Cross, and of the Mother who stood beneath it, who is our Mother and Queen, Conceived Without Sin.
And the miracles of grace continue.