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The Story of a Nun and a Medal | Stephen Sparrow
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 nuns
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 Ladys robe rustled as she
stepped down off the altar to sit in the Spiritual Directors 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 Ladys
appearance occurred during this second apparition providing detail of
the medals 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 medals 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 medals 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 Ladys 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 Catherines
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, Catherines
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.
Theres 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 Marys 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 Bernadettes 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 Bernadettes 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 Chestertons 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. Bernards 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. Pauls handkerchiefs and aprons to cure illnesses and
drive out demons. In Acts 5:15-16 Peters 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
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 Ratisbonnes 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:
Path to Rome
of Lisieux: Patron Saint of Common Sense
Hours in Lourdes
Cathedral: Temple Sagrada Familia and Its Saintly Architect
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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