Mother Teresa of Calcutta, renowned for the worldwide mission of charity that she began in 1946, used a simple "tool" as a symbol of that charity: the "Miraculous Medal." A common sight it was to watch Mother take a fistful of such medals, kiss them, and hand them out to the poor. Queues of people would form outside her convents when word would spread that Mother Teresa had come to town. One by one she would welcome young and old, the sick and the needy, lay and clergy, the significant and the insignificant. Rarely would any leave without Mother pressing Miraculous Medals into their hands.
On her last visit to the South Bronx of New York in June 1997, sitting in a wheelchair less than three months before her death, Mother cradled a full basket of these medals on her lap. Her sisters kept refilling the basket as Mother gave sizeable quantities to each priest greeting her after Mass. Noteworthy was the reverence with which she handled these religious sacramentals, and the earnestness with which she suggested they be used as tools for spreading the Gospel message of love.
Why did Mother Teresa pass out Miraculous Medals? What are they? What connection do they have to the work of her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity (whom Mother affectionately called MCs)? Since Mother herself oversaw the yearly distribution of tens of thousands of Miraculous Medals in the final decade of her life, and since her MCs continue to circulate 1.8 million Miraculous Medals annually, a brief look at this phenomenon seems well indicated.
Eighty years before Mother was born, the Miraculous Medal had its origin. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared on the 18th of July and on the 27th of November, in the year 1830, to a young Daughter of Charity, St. Catherine Labouré, on the Rue du Bac in Paris. Our Lady's parting message to the visionary was that a medal be cast and distributed with a depiction of her Immaculate Conception on the front, and a tableau of Calvary on the back. Within ten years of the apparition—generally regarded as the beginning of the modern era of Marian phenomena—the medal became so widespread and popular, and occasioned such numerous healings and conversions, that people began calling it the "Miraculous Medal"—a nickname which continues to the present day. French missionaries spread the Medal and its miraculous reputation worldwide in the mid-19th century. In 1842, the conversion of the rabidly anti-Catholic agnostic Alphonse Ratisbonne through the use of a Miraculous Medal gained international celebrity. In the first half of the 20th century, the Conventual Franciscan Friar and later Martyr of Charity at Auschwitz, St. Maximilian Kolbe, championed the mass distribution of Miraculous Medals. St. Maximilian called the Medal: "our weapon with which to strike hearts" and "a bullet with which a faithful soldier hits the enemy, that is evil, and thus rescues souls."
If St. Maximilian Kolbe can be considered the foremost advocate of the Miraculous Medal in the first half of the 20th century, a good case could be made to designate Mother Teresa the foremost champion of the Medal in the second half of the 20th century. She inherited the Kolbean insight that the Medal was an effective tool for evangelization—spreading the Gospel of Love. How does the Medal encapsulate the Gospel message of perfect charity? A look at the symbolism of the front and back of the Medal is like reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Lessons about Jesus Christ, His Church, the Redemption, the Eucharist, the Divine Mercy, Grace, Original Sin, Mary, Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell are all to be learned by studying the images impressed on the Medal.
The obverse (front) of the Miraculous Medal depicts the scene from the Book of Genesis 3:15, known as the Protoevangelium, the "first gospel," where God prophesies that a Woman and her offspring will eventually crush the head of the ancient serpent, who had tricked Adam and Even into committing Original Sin. Standing atop the earth, with her foot on the crawling snake, Mary is depicted as the Immaculate Conception—a doctrine explained by the words of the prayer framing Our Lady in an oval: "O Mary conceived without sin pray for us who have recourse to thee." Mary, the New Eve, the first of our human race to be freed from Original Sin (at the very instant she was conceived in her mother's womb), offers us the graces from God to overcome the influences of evil that slime their way though our frail lives. These graces that she mediates from God to us are symbolized by the rays that come from her fingers. Notice that not all of her fingers have rays emanating. She explained to St. Catherine that the absent rays represent graces which God offers but we refuse. All in all, the front of the Miraculous Medal is a mini-catechism about the great struggle between good and evil that engages the human race—a struggle in which Mary stands out as first prize of the victory won by Christ and as our God-given Mother channeling to us the graces necessary to share in the same victory.
The reverse (back) of the Miraculous Medal depicts the scene from the Gospel of John 19:25-27, where the Cross of Jesus Christ, with Mary at its foot, stands uppermost in the mystery of Divine Charity—redemptive love without limits. Surrounded by an oval of 12 stars, symbolizing the 12 Tribes of Israel from the Old Testament and the 12 Apostles of the New Testament, the Cross on the Miraculous Medal represents hope—a hope which Mary understood and which Mother Teresa conveyed each time she pressed the Medal into the hands of the poor. At the base of the cross is a horizontal bar, and this is regarded as a symbol of the Altar; for it is on the Altar at Mass that the Sacrifice of Calvary continues to be present in the world of today and down through the ages. The initial M at the foot of the Cross and the Altar indicates the way in which Mary gathers the faithful to receive the graces of Redemption and partake of Holy Communion with her attitude of faith and stance of total consecration to Christ and His mission of charity.
Beneath the Marian monogram are the two hearts—the Sacred Heart of Jesus encircled with thorns and the Immaculate Heart of Mary pierced by a sword. The covenant of these two Hearts in the blood of suffering and sacrifice would ultimately become an alliance in glory. The glorified Jesus, ascended into Heaven, and the Immaculate Mary, assumed body and soul to the same abode, live now united in one eternally synchronized heartbeat of love for humanity—called to share someday in the fullness of life and love.
On the Cross, Jesus said to his beloved disciple (and to all of us until the end of time) "Behold your Mother" (Jn. 19:27). He then cried out "I thirst." Mother Teresa did not fail to see the connection between those phrases. Jesus thirsted for His love to be received and spread. Mary on Calvary understood her Son's thirst, received His love, returned his love, and spread it. The motto of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity is precisely "I thirst"—their mission to satisfy the thirst of Jesus as He cries out to them in the poorest of the poor—their goal to return Jesus' love by their love the way Mary did. As simply as she could, Mother Teresa adopted the Miraculous Medal as a beautiful tool to symbolize the return of love for Love: Love is repaid by love alone.
Taking a Miraculous Medal in her gnarled and toilworn fingers, Mother Teresa often would ask the sick person "Where does it hurt?"; then she would gently press the medal on that spot. "Let Our Lady kiss where it hurts," she would be heard to say. Then she would tell the sick person: "Repeat after me: ‘Mary Mother, be a mother to me NOW.'" She would stress the word "now," and repeat the phrase, as she caressed the sick with Our Lady's medal. For Mother Teresa, this was a "medal of charity"—a sign of God's single interest in each and every person at each and every moment "now" of life. She gave to the Miraculous Medal a new apostolic thrust, and refocused the Medal's spirituality and theology through the prism of her holy mission of charity.
O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee, so that the thirst of Jesus might be satisfied, and His world become something beautiful for God, a kingdom of love, where you, O Mary Mother of Jesus, can be a mother to me and to all, now and forever. Amen.
Father James McCurry, O.F.M.Conv., is Past-President of the Mariological Society of America, former National Director of the Militia Immaculata in the United States, and appears regularly on EWTN. This article was written by Fr. McCurry, O.F.M. Conv. in honour of the beatification of Mother Teresa, 19th October 2003. With ecclesiastical approval of the Archdiocese of New York (5th September 2003).