St Catherine Laboure and the story of the Miraculous MedalWhen the Virgin Mary and Her Blessed Son were born into the world, the world had almost no knowledge of their coming, nor of the new covenant between God and man that they heralded. It was much the same in 1806 when Catherine Laboure, the visionary of the Miraculous Medal, was born. She was a country farm girl, hidden in a pocket of the Burgundian hills in France. Certainly the brilliant skeptical world of Voltaire and the proud world of Napoleon Bonaparte would have snubbed her. Yet she heralded a new Marian era that begun what many call the Age of Mary.Catherine Laboure was born on May 2, 1806 in the tiny village of Fain-les-moutiers, France, not far from Dijon. Her father, Pierre Laboure, owned the largest farm in the village and was an educated man, having studied for the priesthood in his youth. Her mother, Madeleine Louise Gontard, was a former school mis¬tress, whose family was well respected. Catherine was the ninth of eleven children and during her adolescence her younger sister Marie Antoinette, or “Tonine”, was her close companion.While Tonine was the friend and confidante of her childhood and adolescence, Catherine’s mother was the source of her sanctity and spiritual devotion, for Madame Laboure took pains to instill in her a special love of God and to lead her in the ways of holiness. Sadly her beloved mother died when Catherine was only nine years old. In the midst of her terrible grief at her mother’s passing, Catherine turned to Our Lady. Climbing up on a chair, she reached for a statue of the Blessed Virgin that stood high on a shelf in her mother’s bed¬room, clasped it to her breast, and said aloud:r
“Now, dear Blessed Mother, you will be my mother.”
The fact that Catherine meant what she said is very evident from the deepening of her spiritual life and ever increasing devotion to Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. During the next two years, she and Tonine lived with a kindly aunt, Marguerite Jeanror, her father’s sister, in the nearby village of Saint-Remy. Catherine was pleased to discover that Saint Remy had a resident priest, which is something that her hometown did not have, and for the first time in her life Catherine was given an organized course of instruction in Catholic doctrine and guidance in cultivating the spiritual virtues. It was the only formal education she was ever to receive, a strange and mysterious thing, for she came of educated parents and her brothers and sisters all had more advanced schooling in varying degrees. And so it is hard not to see here design of heaven to keep Catherine ignorant, so that the divine origin of her visions might be the more apparent.
At Saint Remy, Catherine began to prepare for her first Communion and to withdraw more and more from the playful life of childhood into a solemnity beyond her years. “She had no interest in games,” was the way Tonine put it; and again: “From the time of her first Communion, she became entirely mystic.”
Eventually Catherine’s father asked her and Tonine to come home, and he turned over to Catherine the running of his household. It was a tremendous task because in addition to her father, there were three brothers and a sister still at home for Catherine to care for, and one of these, the youngest, was an invalid, who required constant nursing. Also, there were fourteen hired men, whose dinner must be carried to them in the fields. And in addition to the cooking and cleaning there was the laundry and sewing. All of this meant for very long days, going late to bed and early to rise for little Catherine, who was at this time only a young teenager.
Amidst all her housework she made time for her spiritual life. Each morning Catherine walked some six miles in the predawn darkness to Mass. Throughout the day she managed to slip away to the village chapel across the lane from her home; there her favorite devotion was to kneel in prayer before a old painting of the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Her First Known Mystical Experience
“You do well to visit the sick, my child. You flee from me now, but one day you will be glad to come to me. Remember that God has plans for you.”
Catherine was not to know the meaning of this dream until four years later.
Unfortunately Catherine was forced to endure the ridicule of her schoolmates, for her ignorance and lack of education was truly apparent. In spite of private tutoring from her sister-in-law, Catherine learned very slowly, for she really had no interest in the world or its learning. This town of Chatillon, however, was to remain blessed in her memory, for in this ancient town she found her vocation, for it was in the visitor’s parlor of the Hospital de Saint-Sauveur in Chatillon that Catherine recognized the old priest of her dream in a portrait of St. Vincent de Paul and knew then that God meant her to be a Sister of Charity [St Vincent de Paul was the founder of the Sisters of Charity.]
Although Catherine’s calling was now crystal-clear, nevertheless, she had serious obstacles to overcome before she would be free to follow that calling. First, there was her father. By this time, Catherine was twenty-three years old and did not need her father’s permission to enter religion, but obedience was the soul of her spiritual life, and she felt that her obedience would not be perfect, should she not have his blessing. Her sister-in-law, Jeanne Laboure, came to her assistance. Jeanne was a favorite with Catherine’s father and she knew how to bend him to her will.
Soon he gave in and sent Catherine the blessing she so desperately wanted, but, in doing so, he thrust one final arrow into her heart. He refused her the dowry customarily required of those entering the Convent. It was a foolish thing to do, for it only served to humiliate the daughter who had served him so well, and to reveal his own lack of charity. Once again here Catherine showed her virtue by never uttering a word of criticism or complaint–in fact, all her life she spoke of her father in the most glowing terms. Jeanne and her husband, Catherine’s brother Hubert, supplied the dowry and the trousseau Catherine would need for her novitiate.
Now the second obstacle to Catherine’s vocation was even more difficult to surmount. The Sister Superior of the hospital at Chatillon was most reluctant to receive a religious candidate so poorly educated as Catherine. Once more, Catherine found a champion, this time in the person of the Sister Assistant of the house, Sister Victoire Sejole, Catherine had been accompanying Sister Sejole on her errands of mercy, and the good Sister, who had an extraordinary faculty for discerning souls, had come to recognize in her an unusual depth of spirituality. She begged the Superior to accept the girl, pointing out that Catherine was “a good village girl, the kind St. Vincent loved,” and promising to instruct her personally in the basics of learning that she would need in the convent. The Sister Superior acquiesced, and Catherine was now about to begin the life with Jesus that she had so desired.
Catherine is given visions of the heart of St Vincent de Paul
Catherine is given visions of the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist
The Virgin Mary appears to Catherine for the first time
Like the apparitions of St. Vincent’s heart, this apparition was a prelude to the great apparition of the Miraculous Medal which would soon happen on November 27. Catherine is to be entrusted with a mission, but she is not yet told what that mission will be. Our Lady does, however, foretell the dire happenings to befall France and the world in 1870, that year of turmoil and upheaval. There is some reason to believe that her predictions were not meant to apply only to the year 1870, for, during the revolution of 1830, which erupted just a week after this apparition, and during the revolution of 1848, these predictions were fulfilled at least in part. It is an especially striking fact that, although Archbishop Darboy was murdered in 1870, as Our Lady had foretold, so too, Archbishop Affre was shot to death on the barricades in 1848, and Archbishop de Quelen had twice to flee for his life during the “Glorious Three Days” of the revolution of 1830.
The fulfillment of these terrible prophecies of the Mother of God may be considered in a practical way as one of the many proofs of the authenticity of the visions. They may be also looked upon as hints of even more horrible punishments to befall mankind, such as World Wars I and II, for which the “mission” to be entrusted to Catherine would be in the form of a remedy for what is lacking by much of mankind.
In this first apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Catherine was left completely in the dark as to the nature of her mission. Four months were to pass before heaven revealed its plans to her, which we offer again in Catherine’s own words:
“Her face was sufficiently exposed, indeed exposed very well, and so beautiful that it seems to me impossible to express her ravishing beauty. Her feet rested on a white globe, that is to say half a globe, or at least I saw only half. There was also a serpent, green in color with yellow spots.
“At this moment, while I was contemplating her, the Blessed Virgin lowered her eyes and looked at me. I heard a voice speaking these words: “‘This ball that you see represents the whole world, especially France, and each person in particular.’
“I could not express what I felt at this, what I saw, the beauty and the brilliance of the dazzling rays.
” ‘They are the symbols of 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,’ (continued the voice). [This sentence is a supplement to the descriptive paragraph above concerning the rings, gems, and rays. Catherine does not mention in the former paragraph that some of the gems emitted no rays whatever]
“At this moment, I was so overjoyed that I no longer knew where I was. A frame, slightly oval in shape, formed round the Blessed Virgin. Within it was written in letters of gold:
” ‘O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee.’
“The inscription, in a semi-circle, began at the height of the right hand, passed over the head, and finished at the height of the left hand.
“The golden ball disappeared in the brilliance of the sheaves of light bursting from all sides; the hands turned out and the arms were bent down under the weight of the treasures of grace obtained.
Within minutes after the vision had disappeared from her sight, “like a candle blown out,” as Catherine put it, there began for the humble Sister the lifelong task of guarding her identity. Catherine understood from the Mother of God that, in giving the Medal to the world, she herself was to remain unknown. So completely caught up in the glorious experience was she that she had no recollection of leaving the chapel and going down to the refectory for supper; she was brought back to earth by the voice of the mistress of novices speaking in sarcasm:
“Sister Laboure must still be in ecstasy.” Yet this Sister spoke more truly than she realised!
In the years that followed, Catherine Laboure became very adept at hiding her great secret, and the ways of community living were her greatest ally. Because of community routine she lived a life that was, on the surface, no different than the lives of the Sisters around her. Even while enjoying the most remarkable favors of heaven, she never missed a duty or an exercise of her religious rule. While devotion to the “Miraculous Medal” became more and more popular, no one knew who the visionary of the Virgin Mary was. Sister Sejole suspected that Catherine was the Seer of the Medal, but others did not think so. The curious sometimes turned attention to Sister Catherine Laboure, but she was always able to turn aside the guesses and conjectures.
There can be little doubt that she received supernatural help in keeping her secret. This was especially evident when, in 1836, the Archbishop of Paris urged Catherine’s confessor Father Aladel to have her come forward and testify in person at the first official inquiry into the origin of the Medal. After Catherine had repeatedly tried to avoid testifying, with evident reluctance and anguish, she finally came up with the astonishing statement that it would do no good for her to testify anyway, for she could remember no detail of the apparitions! And the fact that this was no pure invention on her part was proven by at least two more well-authenticated periods of forgetfulness at other intervals in her life. God, it seems, intervened in her favor and drew a curtain over her memory during a few periods of time, to keep her humble and in the background.
After these days of intense mystical graces Catherine spent the remaining forty-six years of her life in complete obscurity at the Hospice d’Enghien in the environs of Paris, first as cook, then as laundress and custodian of the clothes room, and finally, for forty years, in charge of the old men who were inmates of the house. It was a singularly humdrum life, without glamour, or even much of human gratitude. The ordinariness of it obscured even her heroic sanctity, so that none of Catherine’s Sisters, except in hindsight, regarded her as more than a good and regular religious. There were certain moments when the glory shone through-as on the morning when her Sisters discovered her in ecstasy before a statue of the Virgin in the garden, or when she made some passing prediction that inevitably came true–however these were but momentary, and everyone quickly forgot them. Beneath the veneer of daily religious life, Catherine Laboure was deeply involved in the practice of heroic virtue and devotion to God.
It was only in 1876, a scant six months before her death, that the secret greatness of Catherine was finally revealed. Our Lady had asked for the erection of a statue depicting her in the attitude of the first phase of the Apparition of November 27, as the “Virgin of the Globe,” and the statue had not been made. Fearing to appear before Mary Immacu¬late without every last detail of her mission accomplished, Catherine broke her long silence in order that it might be done.
Father Aladel had died in 1865 and had been succeeded as Catherine ‘s confessor by Father Chinchon. For reasons that can only be guessed, neither of these men had seen to the making of the statue. Now Father Chinchon was suddenly sent to a distant house, and Catherine, who knew supernaturally that she had but a few months to live, found herself bereft of her trusted confidant. In panic she rejected the idea of confiding in her new confessor, and went directly to the Superior General, to beg him to restore Father Chinchon as her confessor. Whether or not she meant to reveal herself to the General as the Sister of the Apparitions, we shall never know, for she grew confused in his presence and was able only to stammer her startling request. To the General, therefore, she seemed to be just an old nun. Gently but firmly he refused her request.
Catherine went home in tears. The Sister Superior gaped at her in astonishment, for she had never seen her upset before. When she asked Catherine what was the matter, Catherine suddenly grew calm and answered:
“Since I have not much longer to live, I feel that the time 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 next morning, having secured the permission of the Mother of God, Catherine summoned her Superior, revealed herself as the Seer of the Apparitions, and begged that plans be set on foot for the making of the statue of the “Virgin of the Globe.” Before her death she was to see the plaster model in the studio of the sculptor.
The great apparition of November 27, 1830, in which the Miraculous Medal was given to the world, must be considered under two broad aspects: first of all, theologically, and then, as a message to mankind.
The prominent theological doctrine of the apparition is, of course, the Immaculate Conception. The proper name of the Medal is the Medal of the Immaculate Conception, and it was so called from the beginning until the people themselves, pleased with the wonders it worked, called it the Miraculous Medal. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is symbolically portrayed in the representation of Mary crushing the head of the serpent, a reference to Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed; she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
The doctrine is specifically mentioned in the golden letters which formed round the Virgin: “O Mary, conceived without sin … ”
There can be no doubt that the apparition of the Medal hastened the definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was indeed the “great sign” that “appeared in the heavens,” an indication that the time was ripe for the vindication of Mary’s glorious privilege. Pius IX himself asserted that the impetus for his pronouncement came from France. Archbishop de Quelen of Paris, who approved the making of the Medal and later confirmed the authenticity of the vision, had no small part in this impetus. In 1836 he dedicated his archdiocese to the Immaculate Conception, and it was through his urging that the title “Queen conceived without sin” was added to the Litany of Loreto. The apparition of the Medal, therefore, bears a significant relation to the apparitions at Lourdes. It is noteworthy that Bernadette was wearing a medallion that bore on its face the front of the Miraculous Medal when Our Lady appeared to her, and that she described the attitude of the Virgin, making a gracious, sweeping gesture with her arms, “just the way she appears on the Miraculous Medal.”
The first phase of the apparition, popularly referred to as the “Virgin of the Globe,” however, is concerned with the doctrine which describes Mary as the Mediatrix of all graces. Briefly, this doctrine, which is not yet defined by the Church but which is considered certain by theologians, states that all prayers and petitions, whether addressed specifically to Mary, or to God and the saints, are presented to God by her, and all graces, whether answers to prayer or gifts unsought, pass through her hands to mankind. This doctrine is admirably represented by the attitude of the Mother of God offering the golden ball which represents the world, to God, her lips moving in prayer-this is the intercessory office of Our Lady-and by the brilliant rays streaming from the rings on her hands, symbolic of the actual bestowal of the graces obtained.
This doctrine is also expressed in a general way in Our Lady’s explanation of the dazzling rays: “They are the symbols of the graces I shed upon those who ask for them.”
In the second phase of the apparition this doctrine of the mediation of Mary continues to be expressed in the rays falling from the outstretched hands “bent down under the weight of the treasures of grace obtained,” and the golden words: “O’ Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee.”
The twelve stars on the Medal, which Catherine does not mention in any written account of the vision, but which she described to her confessor by word of mouth, refer to the text from the Apocalypse, 12:1, “A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”
The Medal received liturgical approbation when a Mass and Office were assigned in its honor at the direction of Aloisi Cardinal Masella, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, in 1895. It is one of only three sacramentals in the history of the Church to be thus liturgically honored, sharing its distinction with the Rosary and the Brown Scapular.
As a message to mankind, the meaning of the Miraculous Medal apparition is thoroughly clear. The approach of Our Lady is personal to each human soul. she is concerned, not with mankind in general, but with each individual. “This ball represents the whole world, especially France, and each person in particular.” The Medal to be struck will be a personal link between Our Lady and each person who wears it. She does not call for pilgrimages, nor for the building of a shrine. This tiny Medal is to be her shrine, and her devotees are to carry it always about their necks.“Grace will abound for those who wear it with confidence.”
It was and is the fulfillment of this promise, the abundance of graces, that quickly endeared the Medal to the world. The spread of the Medal was so rapid and the flood of favors it let loose so startling, that the faithful gave it the name “Miraculous.” The number of Medals minted since 1832, when it was first struck, is beyond all counting. It is easily in the hundreds of millions. The Medal is worn by Protestant and Jew as well as Catholic.
The wonders it works are as ordinary or as extraordinary as the needs and ills of mankind. Conversions to the Faith, repentance of hardened sinners, recognition of the Will of God, peace in homes, recoveries from illness acute and chronic, critical and minor-the catalogue is endless. Each wearer of the Medal has his own story to tell. Best of all, the Medal seems to have a special power for promoting and deepening personal devotion to the Mother of God. Thus it has not merely a passing or momentary effect on the soul it touches, but an effect which is so lasting as to be, in many cases, eternal. Under this aspect, it has assumed a mighty role in the reconversion of the world, for it betters the individual soul, and the world’s goodness is exactly equal to the sum of all good hearts.
Catherine Laboure is the perfect model of what Our Lady intended the Medal to do for mankind. As already stated, the Miraculous Medal is meant to sanctify those who wear it. Catherine Laboure is not a saint because she saw the Blessed Virgin, but because she cultivated devotion to her and allowed this devotion to influence her way of life. In so doing, she realized perfectly Our Lady’s objective: not the performance of heroic, or even unusual, deeds by her clients, but the perfection of their ordinary states of life.
Catherine’s formula was very simple: she did what she was supposed to do; she did it as well as she could; and she did it for God. It is a formula that everyone can, and should, follow. No one pretends that it is easy; the pursuit of virtue entails self-discipline and sacrifice: but it is attainable.
The sanctity of Catherine Laboure is proof. She is, therefore, the “Saint of Ordinary People,” a flesh-and-blood rendering of the message of Mary to mankind through the Apparitions of the Miraculous Medal, a model for the salvation of the modern world. Mary Immaculate did not specifically ask for any set form of devotion beyond the wearing of the Medal. Therefore one must come to the conclusion that the medal itself provides the inspiration for devotion, for the medal is a lesson unto itself of the depth of love that we are to have for Jesus and Mary.