There is no Christian amulet so generally worn by all ages, classes, and conditions as the Miraculous Medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So well known is it and so universally worn that it is called by excellence the medal; and it is difficult to find any man, woman, or child who lays any claim to leading a good Christian life that does not wear it. There are many other medals approved and blessed by the Church, the efficacy of which has been frequently attested by the supernatural favors they have obtained for those who wear them in the spirit of faith; but there is none to compare with this little symbol of our confidence in our Immaculate Mother.
Much of what appears in this essay is taken from the excellent work of the Abbé Aladel, C. M., “The Miraculous Medal.” This pious and learned religious was for many years the spiritual director of the favored soul through whom it pleased the Mother of mercy to bestow so signal a favor upon her children; and it was at his command that she reluctantly committed to writing an account of the visions accorded her regarding the Miraculous Medal. It will, then, be of interest to cast a hasty glance at the life of this favored servant of Mary.
Zoe Labouré for such was her name in the world, was born May 2, 1806, in a village of the Cote-d’Or Mountains, called Fain-les Moutièrs, of .the parish of Moutièrs-Saint-Jean, France. The locality was rendered holy by the presence and labors at an earlier day of such eminent servants of God as SS. Bernard, Vincent of Paul, and Jane Frances de Chantal. Zoe’s parents were a pious rural couple of limited means; and her mother died when she was but eight years of age. But holy souls were not wanting to continue the good work which her mother had begun in her Christian training; and God soon began to give unmistakable proofs that even in childhood she was one of His favored children. At an early age she began to be favored with supernatural visions, among which was, several times, that of a venerable man, whom her confessor told her was doubtless St. Vincent of Paul, who wanted her to become a Daughter of Charity. After persevering prayer and careful examination, she followed this advice, and the event proved that her confessor had been enlightened from on high. Zoe became a postulant in the house of the Sisters at Chatillon, a town of France, about a hundred miles south-east of Paris, in the beginning of the year 1830. Her visions continued; and in January, 1831, she was clothed with the habit of religion under the name of Sister Catharine. She was characterized by her superiors as a person of a somewhat reserved, but calm, positive character, cold, and even pathetic. After having been for more than forty-five years a favored child of Mary and a shining example of every virtue for her companions, she closed her mortal career on the last day of the year 1876, in the House of Providence, near the spot where she had spent her life in religion. Such, then, was the person whom it pleased God and Our Lady to make the instrument of the divine mercy in giving to the faithful on earth the Miraculous Medal. Let us pause and examine into the circumstances attending this important event, and the spread of the devotion to which it immediately gave rise.
Sister Catharine was favored with many visions, but the one with which we are principally concerned took place November 27, 1830. It was not, however, till 1856 that, at the command of her spiritual director, the Abbé Aladel, she committed the account of it to writing. Again, in 1876, a short time before her death, she wrote another account of it. A third copy, without a date, was found among her papers after her death, that was probably only a draft from which one of the other copies had been made.
The circumstances which led immediately to the vision in which the medal was shown were these: Sister Catharine, having been favored with so many celestial visions, ardently desired to see the Blessed Virgin her self, whose voice, it would seem, she had frequently heard; and with the childlike simplicity so much insisted on by our divine Saviour, and so distinguishing a feature of the true servants of God, she prayed long and devoutly for this favor. On July 18, 1830, the feast of St. Vincent of Paul, the directress of the novices gave a very touching instruction on devotion to the saints, which affected Sister Catharine very much and increased her desire to look upon the Queen of saints. That night about half-past eleven o’clock she heard her name distinctly called three times, and looking out through the curtains she saw a child of ravishing beauty, and apparently about three or four years of age, who said to her: “Come to the chapel, where the Blessed Virgin awaits you.” Accompanied by the child, whom she confidently believed to be her guardian angel, she obeyed, and soon after entering the chapel the holy Mother of God appeared, and spoke of the trials which were in store for the Sister and which were to befall the Church. Some of these she described in detail, while the tears flowed from her eyes, and she appeared very sad. At the conclusion of this vision her celestial companion conducted Sister Catharine back to her place in the convent. This was but the preparation for the more important manifestation that was to be made to her.
In the month of November Sister Catharine communicated to her spiritual director an account of another vision with which she had been favored, and which he related to the Promoter of the diocese, February 16, 1836, in these words: “At half-past five in the evening, while the Sisters were in the chapel making their meditation, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a young Sister as if in an oval picture; she was standing on a globe, only half of which was visible; she was clothed in a white robe and a mantle of shining blue, having her hands covered, as it were, with diamonds, whence emanated luminous rays falling upon the earth, but more abundantly upon one part of it. A voice seemed to say: ‘These rays are symbolic of the graces Mary obtains for men, and the point upon which they fall most abundantly is France.’ Around the picture, written in golden letters, were these words: ‘O Mary! conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!’ This prayer, traced in a semicircle, began at the Blessed Virgin’s right hand, and, passing over her head, terminated at her left hand. The reverse of the picture bore the letter “M” surmounted by a cross, having a bar at its base, and beneath the monogram of Mary were the hearts of Jesus and Mary, the first surrounded with a crown of thorns, the other transpierced with a sword. Then she seemed to hear these words: ‘A medal must be struck upon this model; those who wear it indulgenced, and repeat this prayer with devotion, will be in a special manner under the protection of the Mother of God.’ At that instant the vision disappeared.”1
According to the testimony of Sister Catharine this vision appeared several times in the course of a few months. Her own account of what may be called the final vision, which resulted in the striking of the medal as we now have it, will be of special interest. It is related in the following words, and the length of the quotation will be more than compensated for by the importance of the subject. The Sister writes: “The 27th of November, 1830, which was a Saturday, and the eve of the first Sunday in Advent, while making my meditation in profound silence, at half-past five in the evening, I seemed to hear on the right-hand side of the sanctuary something like the rustling of a silk dress, and, glancing in that direction, I perceived the Blessed Virgin standing near St. Joseph’s picture; her height was medium, and her countenance so beautiful that it would be impossible for me to describe it. She was standing, clothed in a robe the color of auroral light, the style that is usually called à la vierge—that is, high neck and plain sleeves. Her head was covered with a white veil, which descended on each side to her feet. Her hair was smooth on the forehead, and above was a coil ornamented with a little lace and fitting close to the head. Her face was only partially covered, and her feet rested on a globe, or rather a hemisphere (at least I saw but half a globe). Her hands were raised about as high as her waist, and she held in a graceful attitude another globe (a figure of the universe). Her eyes were lifted up to heaven, and her countenance was radiant as she offered the globe to Our Lord. Suddenly her fingers were filled with rings and most beautiful precious stones; the rays gleaming forth and reflecting on all sides enveloped her in such dazzling light that I could see neither her feet nor her robe. The stones were of different sizes, and the rays emanating from them were more or less brilliant in pro portion to the size. I could not express what I felt, nor what I learned in these few moments.
“While occupied in contemplating this vision, the Blessed Virgin cast her eyes upon me, and a voice said in the depths of my heart: ‘The globe that you see represents the entire world, and particularly France, and each person in particular.’ . . . And the Blessed Virgin added: ‘Behold the symbol of the graces I shed upon those who ask me for them,’ thus making me understand how generous she is to all who implore her intercession. . . .
“There now formed around the Blessed Virgin a frame slightly oval, upon which appeared, in golden letters, these words: ‘O Mary! conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!’ Then I heard a voice which said: ‘Have a medal struck upon this model; persons who wear it indulgenced will receive many graces, especially if they wear it around the neck; graces will be abundantly bestowed upon those who have confidence.’ ‘Suddenly,’ says the Sister, ‘the picture seemed to turn,’ and she saw the reverse, such as has already been described.”2
Although the twelve stars surrounding the monogram and the two hearts are not mentioned in the Sister’s notes, it would appear certain that she spoke of them at the time she related the vision; otherwise they would hardly have been added.
It is only proper to state that there are certain discrepancies between the accounts of the vision as given by Sister Catharine and her spiritual director; but these are only regarding minor details, and do not affect the narrative as a whole.
The Abbé Aladel was very slow to credit the Sister’s accounts of her visions, and told her to pay no attention to them, but to dismiss them from her mind. But the Blessed Virgin, in the goodness of her tender heart, was resolved to afford her faithful servants on earth another proof of her maternal care and protection, and to make this humble religious the instrument of her mercy. So, in the month of December of the same year, she favored the Sister with another vision. “But,” says the Abbé Aladel, “there was a striking difference between this and the previous one; the Blessed Virgin, instead of stopping at St. Joseph’s picture, passed on, and rested above the tabernacle, a little behind. . . . The Blessed Virgin appeared to be about forty years of age, according to the Sister’s judgment. The apparition was, as it were, framed from the hands in the invocation: ‘O Mary! conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee! traced in golden letters. The reverse presented the monogram of the Blessed Virgin, surmounted by a cross, and beneath were the divine hearts of Jesus and Mary. Sister Labouré was again directed to have the medal struck upon this model. She terminates her account in these words:
“To tell you what I understood at the moment that the Blessed Virgin offered the globe to Our Lord would be impossible, or what my feelings were while gazing on her. A voice in the depths of my heart said to me: ‘These graces are symbolic of the graces the Blessed Virgin obtains for those who ask for them.’” When Sister Labouré related the third apparition of the medal, M. Aladel asked her if she had seen anything written on the reverse. The Sister answered that she had not. The father then told her to ask the Blessed Virgin what should be put there. The Sister obeyed, and, after per severing prayer, she was told one day at meditation that “M” and the two hearts expressed enough.3
None of the accounts of the apparition mentions the serpent under the feet of the Blessed Virgin; and the Sister, being asked in confidence by her superior, long after Father Aladel had passed to his reward, about it, said that there was a serpent of a greenish color, with yellow spots. She remarked at the same time that the globe in the hands of the Mother of God was surmounted by a little cross.
Two years after the apparition of the Blessed Virgin to Sister Catharine, Mgr. de Quélen, Archbishop of Paris, had the medal struck, and with this important event dates the beginning of the extraordinary devotion that has since been paid to it. It is not necessary to remark on the rapid spread of this devotion among all classes of Christians, first in France and then in other countries, nor upon the many well-authenticated supernatural favors with which God Himself has attested the efficacy of the Miraculous Medal. The smallness of its size and the manner in which it is worn place it in the power of everyone to keep a medal about him, and to have a share in the protection of which the holy Mother of God makes it the instrument.
Such, then, was the origin of the Miraculous Medal. At first it was received with mistrust by the Sister’s spiritual director, as spiritual directors are always accustomed to receive such communications; and when the account was narrated to the Archbishop of Paris, the same and even greater precautions were observed; for the hierarchy of the Church are not so precipitate nor so enthusiastic in matters of this kind as our ill-informed separated brethren would fain have the world believe. They well know that if these things are from God He will, in His own good time and way, give unmistakable evidence of His divine approval, and if not, He will ere long doom them to an eternal oblivion. Hence the ecclesiastical authorities know they can leave all to the workings of His providence, and await the result. That there have been delusions in matters of this kind no one will deny; but that all such manifestations are not delusions is equally certain. Matters of this kind must stand or fall by the ordinary laws of evidence; and it is as great a folly to reject all evidence as it is to accept all evidence.
The indulgences attached to the Miraculous Medal are those known as the Papal or Apostolic indulgences, mentioned in the Raccolta, pp. 444-450.
1 “The Miraculous Medal,” pp. 57, 58.
2 “The Miraculous Medal,” pp. 57-60.
3 “The Miraculous Medal,” pp. 63, 64.