“Come to the foot of this Altar – there graces will be shed on all who ask for them with confidence and fervour, the great and the humble”
The Miraculous Medal
and the story of Saint Catherine Laboure
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 its name?
In 1830, a young French woman named Catherine (Zoe) Laboure entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity of St.Vincent de Paul, in their Motherhouse in the Rue du Bac,in the very heart of a bustling Paris. Before entering the Order, she had seen Saint Vincent in a dream, although she had not known who he was; he had told her that although she was running away from him just now, one day she would follow him – when she entered the religious life, she saw his portrait on the wall and recognised the kind, smiling face. Soon after her arrival at the convent, she was shown a vision of the heart of Saint Vincent. 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 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 (she believed he was her Guardian Angel) – he told her to come to the Chapel, where the Blessed Virgin was awaiting her. He then led her to the Chapel, to the foot of the Altar; shortly afterwards she heard a sound “like the rustle of silk” and a very beautiful Woman walked towards her from the direction of the Altar and sat in the Spiritual Directors’ chair. The child told Catherine this was Mary, the Mother of Jesus. For two hours, Catherine knelt at Mary’s feet, with her hands resting on Mary’s lap, and confided to Her all the secrets of her soul, listening carefully to the advice she was given. The Blessed Virgin told Catherine God had a mission for her, which would be revealed later, and She spoke also of the dreadful fate awaiting France and the monarchy. The Blessed Virgin also promised at this time that She would be a channel of grace for all who sought Her help; pointing toward the sanctuary She said –
“Come to the foot of this Altar – there graces will be shed on all who ask for them with confidence and fervour, the great and the humble”.
Catherine again spoke to Father Aladel, who although he recognised Catherine’s fervour and prayerfulness, could not believe the truth of what she was saying. She had to be mistaken. And yet she was so practical, so honest …
On 27th November 1830, at around 5pm, Catherine was again in the Chapel, listening to the evening meditation in the company of all the Sisters. Again the Blessed Virgin appeared to her, this time to the right of the Tabernacle.
Catherine saw the Queen of Heaven and Earth standing upon a globe, around which was coiled a serpent. The Virgins’ hands were holding a golden ball, which She seemed to be raising to Heaven in an act of offering. She was dressed in a white gown and veil – Catherine described the shade as “being of the colour of the dawn” – white, with numerous hints of very subtle colour.
The attitude of the Virgin then changed – the ball disappeared and Mary’s arms were opened wide, like a Mother welcoming Her children; upon Her fingers were jewelled rings, and from these rays of light were streaming. These rays represented the graces She would bestow upon souls from Her Sons treasury of grace, of which She is the Mediatrix. Around this vision there appeared an oval frame – inscribed in letters of gold within this frame were the words –
“O Mary Conceived Without Sin, Pray For Us Who Have Recourse To Thee”
The vision then reversed – Catherine saw a large letter M surmounted by a Cross; beneath this were the Hearts of Jesus and of Mary His Mother – the one crowned with thorns, the other pierced by the sword of sorrows. Surrounding all of this was a ‘crown’ of twelve stars. This seemed to indicate the relationship between Mary and the Cross of Christ, between His Heart and Hers. 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” (Chapter 12).
Catherine heard a voice telling her to have a medal made after this model, and promising that all who wore such a medal (after it had been blessed by a priest) would receive great graces. This 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 medal was distributed throughout Paris and then France; within a very short time, numerous miracles and wonders were being attributed to its use. The most famous 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 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 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, where Catherine saw the Vision of the Medal. Her bright blue eyes look up to the statue above her. 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 Virgins’ own seal of approval to this dogma.
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.
Even now, in this modern and sophisticated world, many people wear this little Medal with confidence in Her whose image it bears, and receive streams of grace through Her hands. 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 continue …