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The Story of a Nun and a Medal | Stephen Sparrow

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At no. 140 Rue Du Bac in central Paris, a small crowd continually mills around the entrance to a broad alleyway flanked by high plastered walls. Parked cars line one side of the alley and a cramped office and small souvenir shop occupy the other side. The alley ends at the entrance to a chapel where on a warm July night in 1830, Our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Labouré. The chapel itself is large and plain. To the left of the altar the incorrupt body of Catherine dressed in a nun’s habit lies in a glass casket in front of a plaster statue of Our Lady holding a globe and looking upward with supplicant expression. An alcove in the opposite wall houses a statue setting of Catherine on her knees before Our Lady.

I had made my way to the shrine after earlier visiting the Eiffel Tower and by the time I arrived, Mass was already halfway through. Soon after it finished, all visitors were gently but firmly ushered out and the street gates readied for closing — so people like me had to find alternative amusements while the Gypsies went off to pester some other crowd and the convent community got on with its business; after all the nuns are not there just to answer questions or smile sweetly at visitors — life goes on — even at a shrine.

Catherine Labouré was born on May 2nd 1806. She was one of ten children in a peasant family living about 180 miles south of Paris. France was at that stage recovering after the excesses of the Revolution and life was tough and money scarce. The mother of this devoutly Catholic family died when Catherine was only nine. Twelve years later Catherine joined the order of nuns known as the Daughters of Charity and commenced living out her vocation at the convent in Rue Du Bac.

On the night of July 18 1830, Catherine was roused from sleep by a small ‘child’ who led her to where Our Lady was waiting in the convent chapel. Catherine later related how Our Lady’s robe rustled as she stepped down off the altar to sit in the Spiritual Director’s chair. The object of the ensuing exchange was a request from Our Lady to Catherine to help with a special mission. Four months later, during a second apparition, the mission was outlined. It was to involve the coining of a medal with an image illustrated by Our Lady herself. Catherine was told that those who wore the medal would receive great graces. Changes in Our Lady’s appearance occurred during this second apparition providing detail of the medal’s design. One side was to depict Our Lady standing on a globe representing the world with a serpent under her foot and light rays of grace streaming from the fingers of her outstretched hands. Around the medal’s outer edge were to be the words, "O Mary Conceived Without Sin Pray For Us Who Have Recourse To Thee." The words proclaimed Mary as the Immaculate Conception through whom a wealth of graces could be obtained. The medal’s obverse was to feature a large "M" surmounted by a bar and cross, with two hearts, representing the hearts of Jesus and Mary and all encircled by twelve stars.

After overcoming the skepticism of Father Aladel (her spiritual director), Catherine worked with the priest in having Our Lady’s wishes put into effect. Fortunately the approval of the local Bishop was not slow in coming and the first medals became available in 1832 and, from the outset, the blessings promised by Mary showered down on medal wearers. The new devotion spread rapidly with all sorts of benefits both material and spiritual being claimed and before long the name Miraculous Medal was in common use among Catholics. In 1836 a Canonical inquiry in Paris declared the Marian apparitions to Catherine Labouré to be genuine but the identity of the visionary remained confidential and not even Catherine’s convent confreres knew who it was.

Catherine continued to be the recipient of further communications (locutions) from Our Lady, some of which accurately foretold certain events including the murder of the Archbishop of Paris during the period of the infamous Commune. Not long after the first Apparitions occurred, Catherine was transferred to another Paris convent where she worked the rest of her life caring for homeless elderly men. It was not until 1876 and shortly before her death that she confided to the Mother Superior that she was the nun behind the Miraculous Medal. After her death a cause for canonization was established and in 1933, as part of that process, Catherine’s body was exhumed. It was found to be in a state of perfect preservation and was returned to the Rue Du Bac Convent. Catherine Labouré was canonized in 1947.

There’s little doubt that this whole business of the Miraculous Medal was an extension of the devotion to Mary Immaculate driven by the Holy Spirit and firmly entrenched among Christians from the fifth century onward. In the nineteenth century this devotion manifested itself in a campaign led by the Seville Archdiocese in Spain to have Mary’s Immaculate Conception decreed Catholic dogma. After much consultation the new dogma was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854. This proclamation was confirmed barely four years later by the apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, during which Mary described herself to the fourteen-year-old peasant girl as the Immaculate Conception — a blunt unequivocal statement which, given Bernadette’s slim education, she could never have known of, let alone lied about. In a way the whole process paralleled the Old Testament foretelling the coming of the New - the coming of the Messiah — even down to the incredulity of Bernadette’s parish priest paralleling the unwillingness of so many to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

One of the most remarkable stories associated with the Miraculous Medal concerns the conversion to Christianity of Alphonse Ratisbonne in 1842. Ratisbonne was born in the French city of Strasburg in 1814. His family was Jewish and had substantial banking interests. When Alphonse was eleven, his older brother Theodore disgraced the family by converting to Christianity and studying for the Catholic priesthood. As a result young Alphonse felt a strong antipathy toward all things Christian and especially for the Catholic Church. By the time he was in his twenties Alphonse was living a life of luxury. He described himself as not believing in God and not practicing even the most minor precepts of Judaism.

Something however was troubling him since later he was to write, "in my heart there was a void and I was not happy at all — even among so much wealth." That all changed when he became engaged to his sixteen-year-old niece Flora. Suddenly he became inexplicably happy — so happy in fact that he thought there must be a God after all. Alphonse Ratisbonne was like Chesterton’s hypothetical atheist: desperately trying to suppress the gratitude he felt for the good things of this world and unable to do so.

Due to the young age of his fiancé, wedding plans were put on hold while Ratisbonne went on a long holiday to Italy. He visited a number of cities catching up with old friends and ending up in Rome in the company of devout Catholic Theodore de Bussiéres. Ratisbonne was still bitterly anti-Catholic but the pleasant company of the de Bussiéres family caused him to delay his departure for home by an extra five days. During this time Theodore gently ribbed his friend about his hostility toward organized religion and dared him to wear a Miraculous Medal around his neck. Ratisbonne accepted the challenge and also promised to recite each day St. Bernard’s prayer to Our Lady (the Memorare) thinking nothing could possibly come of something so "harmless." Several days later (January 20th) the two men found themselves in a carriage outside the Church of S. Andrea delle Fratte. While his friend had business nearby, Ratisbonne felt drawn to enter the church. Once inside he had an extraordinary experience; an experience comparable in many respects to what happened to St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

Describing later what had happened, Ratisbonne wrote, "everything seemed to be shrouded totally in darkness, with the exception of one chapel and I saw the live, grand, majestic, most beautiful, merciful and most holy Virgin Mary, standing on her altar. She was similar in form to the image that can be seen on the Miraculous Medal of the Immaculate. She signaled me to fall on my knees. An irresistible force pushed me towards her. She did not say anything but I understood." The long and the short of it was that Ratisbonne experienced an instantaneous and complete conversion. Afterward he renounced both his wealth and the intention to get married and after a brief period of religious instruction was baptized in Rome and soon after entered a seminary to follow in the footsteps of his Catholic Priest brother Theodore. He later founded a religious order whose specific task was to pray for the conversion of Jews.

The experience of Alphonse Ratisbonne is a reminder that the age of miracles is still very much with us. Veneration of the relics of saints (e.g. St. Therese of Lisieux) and sacred images (such as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe), have over the years resulted in countless miracles and favors, and then there is the mystery of the healings and wonders coming out of Lourdes in France. Reading the New Testament, we learn in Acts 19:11,12 of the power of St. Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons to cure illnesses and drive out demons. In Acts 5:15-16 Peter’s shadow falling on the sick was sufficient to effect cures. And the Gospel of Matthew 9:20-22 tells of the woman cured of a hemorrhage by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment.

So we should have no fear that in wearing a holy medal we may be relying on some sort of good luck charm. I wear a Miraculous Medal to remind me of why I exist because I know how easy it is to get tricked into thinking that life can be lived comfortably without God. But I know I would be hopelessly lost without His Mother holding my hand and redirecting me back to Him.

In early September 2004 I spent nearly a week in Rome and took the trouble to search out S. Andrea delle Fratte. Tucked away in a narrow street and hemmed in by other buildings the visitor could easily walk past without realizing there was even a church there. The interior is baroque in style and high up windows allow natural light to stream in producing an amazing effect. The walls are decorated with spectacular large canvases depicting St. Joseph, St. Michael, the Baptism of Jesus and other biblical scenes. The ceiling and dome are a mass of elegant frescoes. The stuccos in the vault and major arch are gold plated and the gold and silver tabernacle has precious stones embedded.

The apse contains a large painted icon of the crucifixion of St. Andrew and the Chapel of The Apparition features a canvas depicting Our Lady of the Miracle installed shortly after Ratisbonne’s conversion and based on his description of the ‘vision’. As if that were not enough, the church is home to two stunning marble angels sculpted by Bernini. S. Andrea delle Fratte was known to be a favorite church of St. Don Bosco. It should also come as no surprise to learn that in 1887, fourteen-year-old St. Therese of Lisieux heard Mass there on at least two occasions while on pilgrimage with her father and sister. Today the Church is still popular with tourists and pilgrims and while I was there a group of Italian nuns arrived to take over from another group praying the rosary in front of Madonna del Miracolo — something that I suspect occurs in relays all day long.

Other IgnatiusInsight.com Articles by Stephen Sparrow:

Eugenio Zolli’s Path to Rome
St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Patron Saint of Common Sense
Forty-Four Hours in Lourdes

Gaudi's Grand Cathedral: Temple Sagrada Familia and Its Saintly Architect

Stephen Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi-retired and reads (and writes) for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Sigrid Undset, Dante Alighieri and St Therese of Lisieux. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined a family wood working business, retiring from it in 2001. He is married with five adult children. His other interests include fishing, hiking, photography and natural history, especially New Zealand botany and ornithology.

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