THE MIRACULOUS MEDAL
The Marian Message to the Modern World
The universally designated “Age of Mary,” which had been anticipated by the historic Marian apparitions at Guadalupe some three centuries earlier is generally accepted to have begun in 1830 with the ecclesiastically approved apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Catherine Labouré in what has been named the “Miraculous Medal” apparitions. From these nineteenth-century apparitions until our present time, Marian apparitions have been reported and approved by the Church on every continent. The Marian message to the modern world begins in seed form in the revelations of Our Lady of Grace at Rue du Bac, and then expands in specificity and concretization throughout the twentieth century and on into our own time. It is important to remember that this Marian message maintains its fundamental unity as one message from one Mother, which then admits of diverse historical and cultural expressions, as well as different emphases and specific calls for the implementations of the general Marian message for prayer and penance in reparation to God, and for the conversion of sinners and the salvation of souls.
The “Miraculous Medal” Apparitions, 1830
At the age of 24, Zoé Labouré had entered the Sisters of Charity (having been directed to this particular community founded by St. Vincent by Paul by an inspired dream at the age of 18). Three principal apparitions were received by Sr. Catherine in 1830, and were referred to sequentially as: 1) The “Virgin of the Chair” (July 18, 1830); 2) the “Virgin of the Globe” (November 27, 1830); and 3) “Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal” (November 27, 1830).
On the night of July 18, 1830, the eve of St. Vincent de Paul’s feast day, Sr. Catherine was awakened by an angel under the appearance of a child of four or five years old, who softly called her, “Sister Labouré,” and subsequently guided her to the chapel with the message: “Come to the chapel. The Blessed Virgin awaits you”.
Sr. Catherine heard what she later described as the sound of a silk dress rustling, and then saw the Blessed Virgin descend the altar steps and seat herself in the director’s chair in the chapel. After an initial hesitation, Catherine threw herself on the Virgin’s knee and rested her hands in her lap. The Virgin then said: “My child, the good God wishes to charge you with a mission."
The Virgin revealed to Catherine God’s plans for her; great upcoming trials for France, for the world, and for the Church; great trials that would befall Sr. Catherine personally; and instructions on how she should bear and overcome these trials by meditating upon the glory of God, which would be her motivation for suffering all sacrifices in connection with this mission. The following excerpts are from the originally documented account:
You will be in anguish until you have told them 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.
The times are very evil. Sorrows will come upon France; the throne will be overturned. The whole world will be upset by
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.miseries of every kind.
Come to the foot of the altar [the Virgin indicates a specific spot]. There graces will be shed upon all, great and small, who ask for them. Graces will be especially shed upon those who ask for them.
The Virgin Mary then conveyed specific calls for the reform of laxities that had entered both the Vincentian Fathers and the Daughters of Charity, and she prophesied that when the rule was once again properly observed a new community of sisters would request to join the Community of Rue du Bac (a prophecy fulfilled by the entrance of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Emmitsburg into the Paris Community). The Virgin then proceeded to describe in tears the great trials that would come upon France and the world:
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 will not be the same for other communities. There will be victims. … There will be victims among the clergy of Paris. Monsignor, the archbishop … (she could not continue this sentence because of her 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. Monsignor the archbishop will be stripped of his garments … (once again, she is unable to continue due to her tears). My child, the whole world will be in sadness."
Sr. Catherine asked herself, “When will this be?” Interiorly, she was immediately granted the understanding: forty years. The experience ended with this infused knowledge.
Nine days following these prophecies, on July 27, 1830, a revolution erupted in Paris. After forty years of independence for the French people, Charles X attempted to re-establish the “divine right” monarchy of the Bourbon dynasty. His quest for Bourbon absolutism led him to dissolve the French Chamber on July 26, 1830, and to silence the press. The “Three Glorious Days” of the July Revolution was the tragic result, with Charles being toppled by constitutional monarchists, middle-class merchants, and radical anarchists, all of whom united in a mob which committed countless murders throughout Paris. The Church, which Charles had supported, was attacked with a particular vengeance, with bishops, priests, and religious imprisoned, beaten, and murdered; churches were desecrated, crosses and statues pulled down and trampled underfoot, and Archbishop de Quélen was forced to flee for his life, all in specific fulfillment of the Marian prophecy of July 18.
Both the “Virgin of the Globe” and the “Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal” visions occurred on Saturday, November 27, 1830. On the eve of the first Sunday of Advent during evening prayers with the community, Sr. Catherine once again heard the “swish of a silken gown” and immediately there appeared the Virgin Mary in the sanctuary, this time standing on a white globe with her foot crushing the head of a serpent, which was green with yellow spots. The Virgin held a golden ball in her hands, which she seemed to offer to God as her eyes were directed toward heaven. At the next moment, jeweled rings appeared on her fingers. The precious stones on the rings gave off a cascade of light. The light emanating from the rings was so bright that Catherine could no longer see the Virgin’s feet.
The Virgin Mary lowered her eyes to Catherine, who began hearing her voice, though the Virgin’s mouth did not move:
The ball which you see represents the whole world, especially France, and each person in particular. (At this point the rays coming forth from the rings began to increase in brilliance).
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 forget to ask.
Immediately following this vision, the golden ball from the Virgin’s hands vanished, and her arms and hands swept widely open, horizontally and downward, with her palms facing forward. The rays of light streamed from the rings on her fingers, outward and down upon the white globe under her feet. At that moment, an oval outlined frame formed around the Blessed Virgin. Written in the frame encircling the Virgin in gold letters were the words: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” The Virgin then spoke: 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 vision then revolved, and Catherine saw the back of the medal image. A large “M” was in the center, which was connected to a higher cross by a horizontal bar. Beneath the M image were the hearts of Jesus and Mary, with the Heart of Jesus crowned with thorns and the Heart of Mary pierced with a sword. Encircling these details were twelve stars. Immediately, the vision vanished. This same vision of the medal was repeated several times on other occasions to Sr. Catherine before the medal was eventually struck.
Profound Mariological significance is contained within the multiple symbols present in the visions. On the front image, the Blessed Virgin is standing on a globe while crushing the head of the serpent, which depicts her universal coredemptive role with Jesus as prophetically foreshadowed in Genesis 3:15: “She will crush your head”.
Rays of light are streaming from her outstretched hands and her jeweled rings, signifying her role as the Mediatrix of all graces. In the first Virgin of the Globe vision, Mary held the golden ball and offered it to God, which would signify her role as universal Advocate for all humanity. But the technical difficulty for the engraver at the time in superimposing the ball over the Virgin’s body seemed to encourage the striking of the second “Miraculous Medal” vision of the Virgin with outstretched arms, rather than the Virgin of the Globe vision. Mary’s role as Advocate is also revealed in the words written in golden letters: “…Pray for us who have recourse to thee.” The dogma (at that time, doctrine) of the Immaculate Conception is revealed in the first part of the phrase, “O Mary, conceived without sin …” The original name of the medal was the “Medal of the Immaculate Conception,” but such an extraordinary quantity of miracles accompanied its release and promulgation that it was quickly named the “Miraculous Medal” by the faithful.
On the reverse side of the medal vision, we see the “M” connected to the base of a cross, which re-emphasizes the doctrinal role of Mary as the Co-redemptrix in the united work of redemption with and subordinate to her Son (cf. Jn 19:25-27). The depiction of the united and suffering hearts of Jesus and Mary would continue to be the most central theme throughout the Marian messages to the modern world, a theme which would be more explicitly and dramatically developed in the Fatima message.
The twelve stars surrounding the back medal image represents the universal queenship of Our Lady as depicted in Revelations 12:1, with its depiction of the mother of the male child (Rev 12:5), who is also mother of the “rest of her offspring” (Rev 12:17); the mother of the twelve apostles who symbolically fulfills the twelve tribes of Israel—the Mother of the Church.
It is difficult to imagine a richer, more densely packed Mariological dogma, doctrine, and devotion than this, specifically and artistically represented on what was to become two sides of an approximately one-inch medal. The most essential elements of the Marian message conveyed through later apparitions over the course of the following two centuries were here outlined and initiated by Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Also evident is the historical precedent of the Virgin Mother’s concern and intercession during times of moral, social, and global degeneration, war, and disaster.
In 1832, the Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor de Quélen, granted permission for the first medals to be struck. In 1836, a process of ecclesiastical investigation led to the conclusion of supernatural authenticity for the apparitions and for numerous miracles attributed to it.
In 1842, the Holy See’s approval was granted to the Miraculous Medal devotion as a result of a positive investigation into the conversion of the famous European Jewish figure, Alphonse Ratisbonne, which took place through a vision of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal while Ratisbonne was in Rome. It is commonly held that the private revelation of the Miraculous Medal acted as a confirming influence on Bl. Pius IX in his decision to define solemnly the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854.
Sr. Catherine kept her identity as the visionary recipient of the apparitions a secret for forty-six years, and only revealed her identity when she sensed death approaching in 1876. She was canonized by Pius XII on July 27, 1947.
During his 1980 pilgrimage to the chapel of the apparitions on the Rue du Bac, Pope Saint John Paul II referred to Our Lady’s doctrinal roles of coredemption, mediation, advocacy, and her Immaculate Conception as they are contained in the Miraculous Medal revelations, confirming them in his own papal prayer to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal:
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.
O Mary, this was the prayer that you gave to Saint Catherine Labouré in the Chapel of the Apparitions, more than one hundred and fifty years ago. This invocation, engraved on the Miraculous Medal, is now worn and repeated by the faithful throughout the world.…Blessed are you among women! You are intimately associated with the work of our redemption, associated with the Cross of our Savior, your heart has been pierced, next to his heart. And now, in the glory of your Son, you never cease to intercede for us, poor sinners. You watch over the Church for you are its Mother. You watch over each of your children. From God, you obtain for us all graces that are symbolized by the rays of light which radiate from your open hands, and the only condition that you demand of us is that we approach with the confidence, the hardiness, and the simplicity of a child. And it is thus that you bring us before your divine Son.
Dr. Mark Miravalle holds Pope Saint John Paul II Chair in Mariology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also the president of the International Marian Association, and president of Vox Populi Mariae Mediatrici, the international movement in the Church that supports a papal definition of Mary as spiritual mother of all humanity. You can visit his website at markmiravalle.com