|Devotion to Our Lady||
ACT OF CONSECRATION TO OUR LADY OF THE MIRACULOUS MEDAL
O Mary Immaculate, Virgin Mother of God, and our Mother also; we dedicate and consecrate ourselves to thee under the title of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.
Thou didst summon St. Catherine to the chapel, awaiting her there; grant that we too may hasten to the chapel, there to find and Jesus, at a time when most souls are so neglectful and forgetful of visiting thy Divine Son in the most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
Thou didst give St. Catherine a mission to have thy Miraculous Medal struck and distributed, so that graces could flow in abundance upon a spiritually impoverished world; grant that we too may be part of the mission to make thee known and loved in a world that has gone from bad to worse.
Thou didst lament of a waste of time and a lack of discipline in following the religious rule by St. Catherine’s community and commanded that they return to a stricter discipline; grant that we too, who so often become lax and lukewarm in our religious duties, may once again rediscover our former fervor, devotion, zeal and discipline.
Thou didst warn both France and the world, of the calamities that would befall them as a consequence of their indifference and tepidity in the service of God; grant that we may learn from history to avoid making the same mistakes in our own day.
Thou didst promise major graces to those who would wear this Medal around their necks, providing they ask for graces with confidence. O Mediatrix of all Grace, grant us poor repentant sinners, who humbly beseech thy help, that confidence in thee and in the power of thy intercession.
Thou didst desire the propagation of thy Miraculous Medal; grant that we may not be slothful in promoting and explaining thy marvelous and grace-laden gift for sinful mankind. May we never be neglectful in wearing it, and while ever wearing it, may we be blessed by thy loving protection and preserved in the grace of thy Divine Son. May this Medal be for each one of us a sure sign of thy affection for us and a constant reminder of our duties towards thee.
O most powerful Virgin, Mother of our Savior, keep us close to thee every moment of our lives. Obtain for us, thy children, the grace of a happy death; so that, in union with thee, we may enjoy the bliss of Heaven forever. Amen.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
On the night of July 18-19, at the convent of the Daughters of Charity, on the Rue du Bac, in Paris,1830, a young child (perhaps her guardian angel) awakened Sister (now Saint) Catherine Labouré, a novice in the community of the Daughters of Charity in Paris, and summoned her to the chapel. There she met with the Virgin Mary and spoke with her for several hours. During the conversation, Mary said to her, “My child, I am going to give you a mission.”
On November 27th, 1830, at the convent of the Daughters of Charity, on the Rue du Bac, in Paris, Our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Labouré, a novice in the community. She showed Catherine the design of a medal that she wanted to be made and distributed to all the world. The medal was initially known as the Medal of the Immaculate Conception or the Medal of Our Lady of Grace, but due to the many miracles that the medal seemed to produce, it received the popular title of "The Miraculous Medal."
Midsummer Night’s Dream or Reality?
On a midsummer's night—July 18, 1830, the eve of the feast of St. Vincent de Paul—Our Lady came to Paris. She came, not to the shadowy vastness of her Cathedral of Notre Dame, but to the narrow back street called the rue du Bac, to the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity.
As Sister Labouré and the other novices prepared for bed, they were filled with happy thoughts of the morrow. They had just left the chapel, transformed into a homely elegance of flowers, snowy linen, and polished candelabra in preparation for the feast-day Mass. Their Directress, the old Mother Martha, had talked to them of devotion to the saints, and especially to their blessed Father St. Vincent, and, as a feast-day gift, had given each of them a small piece of a surplice St. Vincent had worn.
Tomorrow, after the glorious Mass, there would be recreation, and they would chat and laugh together and sing old songs; and maybe they would walk over to the priests' church in the afternoon to pray before their Holy Founder's body....
I Want to See My Heavenly Mother!
Catherine's heart was bursting with the certainty that grew and swelled within it, the certainty that something was about to happen, something of great moment. Lying wide awake and staring up at the pale whiteness of the bed curtains, she clutched in her hand her piece of that precious surplice. She talked to St. Vincent a long time in her prayers, telling him again of her soul's dearest wish—to see with her own eyes the Blessed Virgin. It was a startling wish, a startling prayer, on the lips of this hard-headed, practical peasant girl, but it can no longer surprise us, who have seen her intense love of the Mother of God take root and burgeon and fructify; nor could it surprise her, who had witnessed the intimate wonders of Heaven, had seen the Lord Himself.
Suddenly, as if struck with an inspiration, she tore the tiny cloth in two and swallowed half of it. It was a simple act of devotion, growing out of a simple faith. Sophisticated rationalists might sniff at it as ludicrous superstition, but those whose believing mothers have signed their brows with the sacred wedding ring and given them holy water to drink will understand. A serene peace came over Catherine. In her mind was a single, confident thought: Tonight I shall see her. Tonight I shall see the Blessed Virgin. She closed her eyes and slept.
Here is What Happened…
Catherine has given us three complete accounts of the apparitions, written in her own hand at three distinct periods of her life. We will let Catherine tell her story in her own words:
"On the eve of the feast of St. Vincent, good Mother Martha spoke to us of devotion to the saints, and to the Blessed Virgin in particular. It gave me so great a desire to see her that I went to bed with the thought that I would see my good Mother that very night—it was a desire I had long cherished. We had been given a piece of a surplice of St. Vincent's. I tore my piece in half, swallowed it, and fell asleep, confident that St. Vincent would obtain for me the grace of seeing the Blessed Virgin.
"At eleven-thirty, I heard someone calling my name: " 'Sister, Sister, Sister!' Wide awake, I looked in the direction of the voice. Drawing the bed-curtains, I saw a child clothed in white, some four or five years old, who said to me: 'Come to the chapel! Get up quickly and come to the chapel! The Blessed Virgin is waiting for you there!'
"At once the thought struck me: 'Someone will hear me.' The child answered: 'Do not be afraid. It is eleven-thirty; everyone is asleep. Come, I am waiting for you.'
"He followed me, or rather I followed him; he kept to my left, and was surrounded with rays of light. Wherever we went, the lights were lit, a fact which astonished me very much. But my surprise was greatest at the threshold of the chapel: the door opened of itself, the child scarcely having touched it with the tip of his finger. It was the height of everything, to see that all the torches and tapers were burning—it reminded me of Midnight Mass. I did not see the Blessed Virgin. The child led me into the sanctuary, to the side of Monsieur le Directeur's chair. There he remained the whole time. Since the time seemed long, I looked to see whether the watchers were passing by the tribunes. [Sisters who remained on duty at night.] Finally the hour came; the child announced it to me, saying:
" 'Here is the Blessed Virgin; here she is.'
"I heard a noise like the rustling of a silk dress, which came from the direction of the tribune near the picture of St. Joseph; a lady was seating herself in a chair on the altar steps at the Gospel side—just like St. Anne, only it was not the face of St. Anne.' [Catherine is referring here to a picture of St. Anne seated in a chair, which hung in the sanctuary; Our Lady's attitude reminded her of this picture]. I doubted whether it was the Blessed Virgin. Again the child, who stood by, the whole time, said to me: 'This is the Blessed Virgin.'
"It would be impossible for me to describe what I felt at that moment, or what passed within me, for it seemed to me that I could not possibly look upon the Blessed Virgin. It was then that the child spoke, no longer as a child, but as a grown man, and in the strongest terms. [Catherine explained elsewhere that the child suddenly assumed a man's voice and sternly admonished her for doubting that it was really the Blessed Virgin.]
"Looking upon the Blessed Virgin, I flung myself toward her, and falling upon my knees on the altar steps, I rested my hands in her lap. There a moment passed, the sweetest of my life. I could not say what I felt." (End of the account by St. Catherine Labouré).
Then she lifted her head and looked up, at her Mother.
“My child,” said Our Lady, “the good God wishes to charge you with a mission.”
You Have a Mission
But that could wait. This moment was Catherine's; and Mary went on to tell her of God's plans for her, to warn her of the trials that would come upon her, and to show her how she should bear them. The good God wished to charge her with a mission. She would meet with many difficulties in carrying it out, but she would overcome the difficulties by thinking upon the glory of God as her reason for doing what He wanted. Most comforting of all, she would know with unerring certainty the Will of God; she would be spiritually secure, for she would recognize at all times what God wanted of her.
“You will be tormented,” Our Lady continued, “until you have told him who is charged with directing you. You will be contradicted, but 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.”
“The times are very evil. Sorrows will come upon France; the throne will be overturned. The whole world will be upset by miseries of every kind.” As she delivered herself of this ominous prophecy, pain crossed the Virgin's face.
You Will Find Grace and Help at the Altar
There was a remedy however: “Come to the foot of the altar.” She indicated the spot. “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.”
Then the Mother of God turned her attention to the Vincentian Fathers and the Sisters of Charity. “My child, I particularly love to shed graces upon your Community; I love it very much,” she said. “It pains me that there are great abuses in regularity, that the rules are not observed, that there is much relaxation in the two Communities. Tell that to him who has charge of you, even though he is not the superior. He will be given charge of the Community in a special way; he must do everything he can to restore the rule in vigor. Tell him for me to guard against useless reading, loss of time, and visits.”
When the rule should be fully observed once more, Mary promised, another community of Sisters would ask to join the Community of rue du Bac. The prediction was fulfilled in 1849, when Father Etienne received Mother Elizabeth Seton's Sisters of Emmitsburg, Maryland, into the Paris Community. These Sisters were the foundation stone of the Sisters of Charity in the United States.
Our Lady concluded her instructions concerning the family of St. Vincent with a great promise:
“The Community will enjoy a great peace; it will become large.”
The Bearer of Bad News
Then Our Lady began to speak of the miseries to come upon France and the whole world. “There will be an abundance of sorrows; and the danger will be great. Yet do not be afraid; tell them not to be afraid. The protection of God shall be ever present in a special way—and St Vincent will protect you. I shall be with you myself. Always, I have my eye upon you. 1 will grant you many graces.”
The Mother of God said it all over again, emphasizing her words, lest there be any mistake. “The moment will come when the danger will be enormous; it will seem that all is lost; at that moment, I will be with you; have confidence. You will recognize my coming, you will see the protection of God upon the Community, the protection of St. Vincent upon both his Communities. Have confidence. Do not be discouraged. I shall be with you. ' It was a refrain of hope: Have confidence, have confidence; a refrain of encouragement: Do not be afraid; God, and I, and St. Vincent will be with you.” These were words of promise, to be clung to in time of calamity, as a child clings to its mother's hand.
Then the worst: Mary began to specify the sorrows and dangers. She spoke in broken sentences, in halting phrases, fighting back the tears that stood in her eyes. “It will not be the same for other communities. There will be victims.... There will be victims among the clergy of Paris. Monseigneur the Archbishop…” She could not finish for weeping. “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....” She could not go on. Tears choked her voice, and her lovely face twisted in pain. She could only conclude: “My child, the whole world will be in sadness.”
When will all this be? Catherine wondered, and immediately she understood: forty years.
The conversation was not one-sided. Catherine spoke freely, unfolding the secrets of her soul, asking questions which Mary graciously answered. Then, like the fading of a shadow, Our Lady was gone.
No More Sleep That Night!
Slowly, Catherine got up from her knees. The child still hovered nearby. Together they left the chapel and went back upstairs to the dormitory. The lights in the hall were still lit, but Catherine scarcely noticed them. Her heart was too filled with gladness and horror and hope and bliss, all jumbled together. The hand that had lighted them would put them out. When they got back to the side of Catherine's bed, the child, too, faded from sight as Our Lady had. Catherine felt now that she knew who he was: her guardian angel, long the confidant of her wish to see the Blessed Virgin. She climbed quickly into bed and pulled the covers around her. Just then the clock struck two. She had been with Our Lady over two hours! She slept no more that night.
A Personable Queen
This apparition of the Virgin Mary to Catherine Labouré had a personal atmosphere about it, unlike any other in history. While it announced a world mission for Catherine, that would come about in good time; the business of the moment had to deal almost entirely with her and the needs of her soul and the welfare of her beloved Community.
Even the manner of Our Lady's coming was different. In other famous appearances to chosen souls, Our Lady has burst suddenly upon their sight, as it were, from out of nowhere. Here, her coming was a calm, logical climax to years of intimacy. She arranged it with a sort of heavenly etiquette. First of all, she led Catherine, in her thoughts, to expect it. Then she sent an angel to announce her coming. When Catherine, following the angel, arrived at the chapel, she found it all in readiness for the great happening, brilliant and lighted as if for a midnight Mass. The good Sisters had unwittingly lent their hands to the preparation: spreading their best linen on the altars and decking them with flowers, scrubbing the floor until it shone, for St. Vincent's feast on the morrow. Then Catherine heard the rustle of a silken gown, and Mary came.
The crowning touch of the personal, however, was the privilege given Catherine of kneeling at Mary's knee and resting her hands in her lap. So great a favor has been granted to no other seer. Not to Bernadette of Lourdes: she was granted, once, to kiss the golden rose on Our Lady's foot. Not to the children of Fatima, not even to Lucy, upon whose shoulders the desperate message for the modern world's salvation was laid. Only to Catherine Labouré.
Catherine's subsequent visions were not like this first one. Since they were meant for the whole world, there was a certain impersonality about them, very different from the bonds of intimacy entered into on this night of July 18th. In November, Mary would come suddenly, while Catherine was at prayer with her Sisters, would deliver her message and be gone. She would not even speak directly to the novice.
Here, however, there were only Mary and Catherine, and no one else in the universe. Here they talked, the Mother and child, for two hours—a long, long time, even on the clocks of Heaven and eternity.
Our Lady’s Prophecies Come True
All too soon the prophecies of the vision were fulfilled. On July 27th, 1830, just one week later, the revolution erupted in fury. Barricades were thrown up across the narrow, winding streets of the ancient capital. Boulevard and alley echoed to the rattle of musketry and the drunken cries of the looting, burning mob. The dead lay where they fell and the stink of unburied corpses made the summer air nauseating and disease-ridden.
Charles X had brought it on himself. He had failed to measure the temper of the times. It is amazing that he should have failed to realize how very deeply the ideas of the Revolution had taken root in France, that the common people had grown used to freedom in forty years, that the middle class had slowly but surely grown into a power to be reckoned with. It is amazing that he should have failed to notice the envious glances Frenchmen cast upon the growing American Republic across the water, the Republic they had helped gain and keep its independence.
His futile attempt to restore the “divine right” monarchy of Louis XIV came to a preposterous climax on July 26th, 1830 when he dissolved the Chamber, revoked his brother's Charter, and muzzled the press. The constitutional monarchists, the middle-class shopkeepers, the extreme radicals, and the Parisian mob, all united against him. The “Glorious Three Days” of the July Revolution followed, and Charles X was toppled from his throne.
Now, with the fall of Charles, the Church felt the wrath of his enemies. Now it reaped the whirlwind, as it has always reaped, when certain selfish prelates have mistakenly and crassly aligned themselves with the rich and powerful against the common man and the poor. Bishops and priests, members of religious orders, guilty and innocent alike, were imprisoned and beaten and killed. Godlessness ran wild, desecrating churches, pulling down statues, trampling the cross under foot. Just as Our Lady had said.
Sisters of Charity Spared
The Vincentian Fathers and the Sisters of Charity were spared during this short but intense persecution. Our Lady had promised them her protection, and she gave it. A retreat was in progress at the Motherhouse of the Sisters when the revolution broke: the retreat went on undisturbed. Twice the mob assailed the Motherhouse of the priests; twice they went away, calmly and without incident.
Father Aladel had much to think about during these days. Sister Labouré had been to him again, with a full and explicit account of Our Lady's visit and of what she had said. The things she had foretold had come to pass. It was incredible: the short revolution was an impromptu affair; it had taken even the most informed by surprise. Sister Labouré, behind her convent walls, could have heard not a whisper of it. Then there was the incident of the attempt on the cross over the entrance to the Vincentian Motherhouse—Sister Labouré had said the attempt would be made.
With all the civil and religious unrest, Father Aladel had even more important things to consider. He had to decide whether this young novice was indeed a seer, whether she had really been favored with the visions she described. The priest could not doubt her sincerity: she really thought she saw them. Suppose she had—what then?
As for Catherine, these terrible days were a sort of triumph, for they went a long way toward vindicating her. She was not the victim of illusions, for the prophecies of her visions had come true. It was a horrible proof, and she could not bring herself to dwell upon it. Rather, her thoughts were fixed upon the future. The Blessed Virgin had spoken of a mission. What could it be? When would she see Our Lady again? The question set up a longing in her, a longing that seized upon her soul and gave it no rest by day or night.
The Apparition of the Miraculous Medal
Outside the convent on the rue du Bac, the City of Paris had grown quiet; people had gone back to their daily living. Charles X retreated to England, where he no longer ruled even “like an English king” (meaning a king with no power, like a puppet king). Louis Philippe came to the throne. Although a Bourbon, he was not of the line of Bourbon kings, but of the Orleans family, and most certainly he was not the divine right monarch the royal Bourbons had been. Dubbed from the start “The Citizen King,” he was the figurehead the new nation wanted.
Evening Prayer Apparition
Saturday, November 27th, 1830, was just another day, busy like all the rest with prayer and work and study of the things of God. The next day would be the First Sunday of Advent. At half past five, all the Sisters, professed and novices alike, gathered in the chapel for their evening meditation. The chill November dusk had settled outside, and the chapel was in semi-darkness.
Catherine liked this time of evening. She had always liked it, even at home: the laborious day was over and the tired mind found rest in thinking of God. Tonight, the quiet voice of the Sister reading the prophecies of Christ's coming at Christmas seemed like the voice of Isaias himself, calling down the centuries. In the darkness, time and place were no more; only the mind was alive. The voice stopped, and a great stillness followed.
Our Lady Appears, Only Catherine Sees
Suddenly, Catherine's heart leaped. She had heard it—that rustling, that faint swish of silk she could never forget, the sound of Our Lady's gown as she walked! There it was again—and there was the Queen of Heaven, there in the sanctuary, standing upon a globe. She shone as the morning rising, a radiant vision, “in all her perfect beauty,” as Catherine said later. Though others were in the chapel, only Catherine saw Our Lady.
Catherine's eyes widened with bliss at the sight. Yet they were not so dazzled but that, womanlike, they took note of every detail of the Virgin's dress: that her robe was of silk, “of the whiteness of the dawn,” that the neck of it was cut high and the sleeves plain, that she wore a white veil which fell to her feet, and beneath the veil a lace fillet binding her hair.
The Virgin held in her hands a golden ball which she seemed to offer to God, for her eyes were raised heavenward. Suddenly, her hands were resplendent with rings set with precious stones of different sizes, three on each finger, that glittered and flashed in a brilliant cascade of light. So bright was the flood of glory cast upon the globe below that Catherine could no longer see Our Lady's feet. But some of the gems gave off no light at all.
Mary lowered her eyes and looked fully at Sister Labouré. Her lips did not move, but Catherine heard a voice: “The ball which you see represents the whole world, especially France, and each person in particular.” These words stirred the heart of the Sister with fresh transports of joy, and the dazzling rays seemed to her to increase to blinding brilliance.
The Rings on Her Fingers
While Catherine was wondering why some jewels gave off no light. Just as she was thinking this, the Blessed Virgin turned her eyes on her and made her understand with what generosity and great joy she dispensed grace. But she indicated that there are graces for which she is not asked, and it is for this reason that some of the gemstones did not send forth rays of light: “These rays symbolize the graces I shed upon those who ask for them. The gems, from which rays do not fall, are the graces for which souls neglect to ask.”
The Model of the Medal
At this moment, Catherine was so lost in delight that she scarcely knew where she was, whether she lived or died. The golden ball vanished from Mary's hands; her arms swept wide in a gesture of motherly compassion, while from her jeweled fingers the rays of light streamed upon the white globe at her feet. Then a change took place in what Catherine was seeing. An oval frame formed around the Blessed Virgin, and written within it in letters of gold Catherine read the words: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
The voice spoke 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 tableau revolved, and Catherine beheld the reverse of the Medal she was to have made. It contained a large M surmounted by a bar and a cross. Beneath the M were the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the one crowned with thorns, the other pierced with a sword. Twelve stars encircled the whole.
And then the vision was gone.
Back to Earth with a Bump
Habit is a saving thing. Certainly it saved Catherine embarrassment or discovery in the next few minutes. She must have said the closing prayers of the meditation with the others; she must have taken her place in line to go to the dining hall; she must have recited the grace and sat down at table. She did not remember. It was the chastening voice of the Mistress of Novices that brought her back to earth. “Sister Labouré must still be in ecstasy,” it said dryly. Catherine was hit by confusion. Why the other novices had begun to eat!
The “Three Great Apparitions”
The three great Apparitions of our Lady to Catherine Labouré—they are designated by number for convenience—were complete. The first, the Apparition of July 18th, is sometimes called “The Virgin of the Chair”; the second and third, actually two phases of the Apparition of November 27th, are known by the titles: “The Virgin of the Globe” or “The Virgin Most Powerful,” and “Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.”
The Medal design submitted by the engraver in 1832 and accepted by Father Aladel was the second phase of the Great Apparition of November 27th, representing Our Lady bestowing her graces upon mankind through the symbolism of the rays falling from her outstretched hands upon the globe at her feet. It was not the design originally intended, which was the first phase of the Great Apparition, “The Virgin of the Globe,” offering the golden ball to Heaven while the rays streamed from her hands upon the large globe on which she stood. Catherine herself remarked upon this change from the original design in her account of the apparitions given to Sister Dufes, her superior, in 1876, and her words carry a tone of complaint. If she saw fit to complain, it must be that Our Lady herself had wanted the Medal to represent her in the attitude of offering the golden ball. Why, then, the change?
Father Chevalier, Catherine's last director, in his deposition before the Beatification Tribunal, expresses the opinion that the change was made because of the difficulty of representing the attitude of the first phase in metal, and also because Father Aladel thought it more prudent, in view of the anti-religious feeling at the time, to represent Our Lady in the attitude of the second phase. It is hard to see how the one attitude would have been any more acceptable to anti-religious feeling than the other. The probable reason for the change is the first point made by Father Chevalier, that Monsieur Vachette, the engraver, saw difficulty in delineating within the limits of the engraver's art at that time, the arms and the golden ball superimposed upon the stamped image of Our Lady's body. There would have been no such problem today, when dies can be cut so deeply and etched so finely, but it was a problem in 1832. Father Aladel, with no technical knowledge of the problem, would have followed the advice of the engraver.
There is, of course, a difference of emphasis upon doctrine in the two representations, for the first phase of the Apparition, in addition to honoring the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady in the words “conceived without sin,” expressly demonstrates the doctrine that Mary is Mediatrix of All Graces. Very simply, this doctrine—considered by the Church to be certain although not yet solemnly defined—teaches that all prayers and petitions, whether made to God directly, to Our Lady, or to the saints, are presented to God by His Mother; and that all graces, whether answers to prayer or gratuitously bestowed by God, pass to men through the hands of His Mother.
In the first phase of the Apparition, the attitude of Our Lady, eyes raised to Heaven, lips moving in prayer, and the symbolic offering of the golden ball of the world, beautifully express the intercession of Mary, while the rays from her fingers express the bestowal of God's graces through her. In the second phase of the Apparition, the bestowal of the graces alone is represented by the rays flowing from the outstretched hands.
However, while Father Aladel must have regretted the inability to present the completeness of doctrine symbolized in the first phase, he must have considered the intercessory powers of Mary as Mediatrix to be sufficiently represented by the words of the prayer on the Medal: “Pray for us who have recourse to thee.” There is no record of dissatisfaction on Catherine's part when she saw the first Medals, fresh from the press. Her only comment was a call to arms: “Now it must be propagated.” She, therefore, consented from the first to the Medal's propagation in its altered form. Moreover, as we shall see, she was in regular contact with our Lady and would be expected to consult her on such an important change.
The proof of the Medal's acceptability to Heaven is in the vast multitude of graces bestowed from the beginning on those who wore it and recited the prayer engraved on it. Catherine's complaining reference to the change, forty-four years later, may be laid to her natural anxiety, with approaching death, as to whether she had carried out her mission exactly. Such anxiety could arise easily out of her very justifiable concern, which we shall hear more of, that the statue of “The Virgin of the Globe,” also commissioned by Our Lady, had not been made.
At the command of her director, Catherine wrote out full accounts of her visions, in 1841, in 1856, and again in 1876. It is odd that, while these accounts are minute and detailed in their descriptions, they omit two significant details of the Medal.
The first of these is the serpent whose head Our Lady crushed beneath her heel, as she stood upon the white globe of the earth. This was an obvious pictorial reference to Genesis 3:15, the sole scriptural text with any reference to the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception: “She (the woman) shall crush thy head (the serpent's), and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
The second detail left out of Catherine's written accounts was the twelve stars on the back of the Medal. These stars refer probably to the Twelve Apostles, and are mentioned in the text from Apocalypse 12:1, applied by theologians to Our Lady: “A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” That Catherine transmitted the details of the serpent and the stars to her director, at least by word of mouth, is morally certain, for she approved the Medal which bore both details from the first. Besides, in 1836, when the artist, LeCerf, was painting canvases of the apparitions, she described the serpent to her director as “green with yellow spots”—a rather fearsome serpent, and one, certainly, to offend the sensibilities of an artist!
There was one further instruction concerning the Medal which Catherine gave Father Aladel orally. The priest was puzzled by the fact that there were no words on the back of the Medal, to balance the prayer on the front. He told Catherine to ask Our Lady what should be written there. Catherine consulted the Virgin in prayer, and returned with the verbatim reply: “The M and the two Hearts express enough.”
Aside from the importance of Catherine's written accounts as religious historical documents, they are, like all such writings not meant to be published, supreme revelations of the character of the one who wrote them. If we knew nothing whatever of Catherine Labouré, we should know from these accounts that she was a practical, commonsense sort of person, not to be rattled even by the glorious visions of another world. Her first thought upon being awakened by the angel on the night of July 18th was: “We shall be discovered!” On her knees in the chapel, awaiting the arrival of the Blessed Virgin, she kept craning her neck and peering into the dim recesses of the chapel, for fear “the night Sisters, up with the sick,” would see her. When Our Lady finally came, Catherine did not throw herself upon the Virgin at once in ecstasy, but wondered whether this were really the Mother of God. Certainly she had a practical prudence, much like Our Lady's when she asked the Angel Gabriel: “How shall it be done?”
Again, she is revealed as an extremely observant person, who, even in the ecstasy of her apparitions, did not miss the smallest details, and as a precise person, who did not fail to report them. Catherine tells us, for example, that Our Lady wore “three rings on each of her fingers.” She tells us, further, that the rings were graduated in size, “the largest one near the base of the finger, one of medium size in the middle, the smallest one at the tip.” She even noticed that the rings themselves were set with stones “of proportionate size, some larger and others smaller.”
Her description of Our Lady's veil and headdress is a marvel of exactitude. “A white veil covered her head,” Catherine wrote, “falling on either side to her feet. Under the veil her hair, in coils, was bound with a fillet ornamented with lace, about three centimeters in height or of two fingers' breadth, without pleats, and resting lightly on the hair.”
This supreme accuracy carries over into the recording of the time and place of her visions. She saw the heart of St. Vincent “above the little shrine where the relic of St. Vincent was exposed in the chapel of the Sisters, over the picture of St. Anne and in front of St. Joseph's picture.”
On the night of July 18th, she heard herself called by name at “eleven-thirty in the evening.” She heard the noise of Our Lady's coming “from the side of the tribune near St. Joseph's picture.” When she returned to her bed, “it was two o'clock in the morning, for I heard the hour strike.” The opening paragraph of her account of the Great Apparition is incomparable: “On November 27th, 1830, which fell upon the Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent, at five-thirty in the evening, in the deep silence after the point of the meditation had been read—that is, several minutes after the point of the meditation—I heard a sound like the rustling of a silken gown, from the tribune near the picture of St. Joseph.”
The precision of these descriptions, particularly the details of the Virgin's attire, makes all the more mysterious Catherine's omission of the serpent and the twelve stars, and her failure to give us the faintest clue as to Our Lady's age or personal appearance.
Catherine had a woman's eye for color. When the heart of St. Vincent was shown her in April, 1830, she recorded that it was successively “white flesh color,” “fiery red,” “dark red,” and “vermilion.” It finally appeared “sombre, the color of dead flesh.” Certainly not every woman can boast this eye for nuance and shading. Her description of the Virgin's dress in the apparition of November 27th: “of the whiteness of the dawn,” has ever been the despair of artists, and they have got around the problem by painting the dress a flat white or cream color. Catherine, who, as a farm girl had often seen the day break, meant literally that Our Lady was clothed in the color of the dawn sky: a basic white with myriad tints of red, pink, saffron, and the palest blue.
Perhaps the most surprising trait revealed by Catherine Labouré in her written accounts is her flair for the right word or phrase. Certain descriptive flashes in her story of the Apparitions would be the envy of professional writers. When she tells us that the chapel all lighted for the coming of the Blessed Virgin reminded her of “Midnight Mass,” the phrase is completely evocative. As Mary came, Catherine heard “the swish of a silken gown.” When the Virgin departed, “she faded away and became but a shadow, which moved toward the tribune, the way she had come.”
At the close of the Miraculous Medal Apparition, on the other hand, “everything disappeared from my sight, like a candle that is blown out.” In describing the brilliant rays that flashed from Mary's hands, Catherine uses the word “rejaillissant”, thus suggesting a breathtaking picture of dazzling light “bursting from all sides,” like a fountain. The rays grew so bright that they “flooded the base, so that I could no longer see the feet of the Blessed Virgin.” Mary's hands were “bent down under the weight of the treasures of graces obtained.” For an uneducated girl, Catherine's accounts are masterpieces of clarity and beauty.
To Believe or Not to Believe?
As soon as possible, Catherine, with a natural fear and trepidation—she had been rebuffed so many times!—laid the whole matter of the Medal before Father Aladel. He listened patiently, but once more refused to put much stock in the visions of a novice.
The great vision of November 27th, the vision of the Medal, was repeated again and again, probably five times in all. This very repetition seemed to insist on action, and each time Catherine was troubled afresh, for each time she knew that she must approach Father Aladel again, and each time she dreaded the encounter more.
These encounters of confessor and penitent had become highly excitable and unpleasant. Voices were raised and hard words uttered. The sounds of battle drifted out of the confessional to startle the ears of the Sisters waiting their turn. Although they did not know then what it all meant, Sisters later testified before the solemn tribunal convoked by Rome to investigate Catherine's sanctity, that they often overheard the voice of Father Aladel, its tone peremptorily commanding, and the voice of Sister Labouré, its tone just as peremptorily insisting.
She testified herself, shortly before her death, that she once confessed to the priest that, in a moment of frustration, she had told Our Lady that she “had better appear to someone else, since no one will believe me,” and that the priest in horror had called her a “wicked wasp.” These pitched battles were not of her choosing, for there is further testimony of the Sisters who survived her that she approached the confessional trembling. She had a dogged and determined will, however, that would not sidestep any unpleasantness to achieve its objective, and a spirited tongue to pursue that objective against all argument and remonstrance. There is ample evidence of her tart rejoinders throughout her life.
Not that she was untractable or disobedient: that is another matter entirely. Father Aladel, who knew her soul best, never accused her of the slightest disobedience or rebellion. Quite the opposite: he called her most submissive. Therefore, when he would feel himself forced to call a halt to the discussion, his word was enough for her no matter how sorely she might suffer in her silence. In the matter of her visions, nevertheless, she had a command from Heaven that must be obeyed, and she fought tooth and nail to obey it, to see the mission entrusted to her carried out. As always, it was her indomitable obedience that won the day.