Catherine Laboure´: Saint of the Miraculous Medal – Part 3

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(The first two parts of this series covered the childhood of Catherine (“Zoe”) Laboure´, her entrance into the order of the Sisters of Charity, and her first visions. Part 3 describes the visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary that revealed her mission to bring the “Miraculous Medal” into existence.)

Part 3: The Miraculous Medal

By November of 1830, the unrest in Paris was over, and Louis Philippe had taken the throne. On Nov. 27, eve of the First Sunday of Advent, Catherine was in the chapel with the other sisters for evening meditation, when she again heard the swish of a silk dress. Looking up, she saw a vision of the Queen of Heaven dressed all in white, standing on a globe and holding a golden ball in her hands. Her fingers were covered with rings whose stones sparkled with brilliant light that poured from them all the way down to her feet. She was radiant “in all her perfect beauty,” as Catherine later described it. Catherine heard the words, “The ball which you see represents the whole world, especially France, and each person in particular. 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.”

Then the vision changed. The ball vanished, and Mary’s arms swept downward, the rays cascading to the globe on which she still stood, her foot crushing the head of a serpent. The globe had the year “1830” inscribed upon it. The Virgin wore a blue mantle over a white dress, with a white veil draped back over her shoulders. An oval formed around the vision like a frame, and written in gold letters within it were the words: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”

The voice said, “Have a medal struck after this model. All who wear it will receive great graces; they should wear it around the neck….” The apparition reversed, and Catherine saw a large M surmounted by a bar and a cross, with the Hearts of Jesus and Mary beneath it, one crowned with thorns, the other pierced by a sword (symbolic of the prophecy of Simeon, when he told Mary, “a sword shall pierce your own heart, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” Luke 2:35). Twelve stars encircled the whole thing. The vision then faded, but would be repeated five more times over the next year.

Catherine told Fr. Aladel about the latest apparitions and the request to have a medal struck. As with her other visions, he did not accord it much importance. Each time the vision was repeated, poor Catherine was compelled once again to approach Fr. Aladel about it. These were extremely unpleasant encounters for Catherine, often involving verbal battles between her and Fr. Aladel. The other Sisters would see Catherine approach the confessional trembling with fear, then hear the sound of raised voices issuing from within.

Although Catherine was never disobedient or rebellious, and would cease the discussion at Fr. Aladel’s order, she was not to be dissuaded from the mission she believed God had entrusted to her. While honoring her vow of obedience, she nonetheless possessed a strong will and a spirited tongue, and doggedly pursued her mission.  There is no doubt that, as Our Lady had warned, Catherine suffered much during this period, even to the extent of telling the Virgin that she “had better appear to someone else, since no one will believe me.” Only Our Lady’s promise of God’s grace sustained Catherine and made it possible for her to persevere.

In fairness to Fr. Aladel, his was not an easy task, either. He needed to determine if Sister Catherine’s visions were genuine and whether it would be prudent to act on them. But eventually, as he came to know Catherine better, he realized that by her very nature it was unlikely that she was inventing it all. He knew that she was good and pious, and he did not doubt the sincerity of her belief that she had seen these things. He also realized that of herself she did not possess the intellectual ability nor the imagination to fabricate such a story with all its lavish detail. Then, too, was the fact that her reported prophecies had indeed come true. Furthermore, he had given his promise to Catherine early on that her identity not be revealed, which placed all the responsibility for carrying out heaven’s orders on his shoulders alone.

Meanwhile, the end of Catherine’s novitiate was fast approaching, when she could possibly be assigned to a far-away post. Somehow, Fr. Aladel managed to use his influence to ensure that Catherine was assigned to the Hospice d’Enghien at Reuilly, where he was the regular confessor. This, of course, was necessary because of his role as Catherine’s spiritual advisor in the matter of her visions. The Hospice had been founded as a retirement home for the old men who in earlier years had served the royal family. Sr. Catherine’s duty would now be to care for these aged residents.

vision-of-mm-2Shortly after her arrival at Enghien, while visiting the chapel at the Motherhouse, Catherine saw Our Lady again. The apparition took the same form as it had on Nov. 27, but on this occasion Our Lady informed Catherine, “You will see me no more, but you will hear my voice in your prayers.”  In the following weeks, during her prayers Catherine heard the frequent urging of Our Lady that the medal be struck. When Catherine complained that Fr. Aladel did not believe her, Our Lady replied, “Never mind. He is my servant and would fear to displease me.”

No doubt it was these words reported back to Fr. Aladel that finally spurred him to action.  His love for Mary and his fear of angering her overcame the lingering doubts he had about Catherine’s visions. Indeed, Our Lady seemed to have great confidence in him, as he also would later be spiritual advisor to Sr. Justine Bisqueyburu, to whom the Green Scapular was manifested in 1840, and would be responsible for its production and distribution.

In January 1832, his good friend, Fr. Etienne, had an appointment with Archbishop de Quelen and asked Fr. Aladel to accompany him. After Fr. Etienne’s meeting, Fr. Aladel took this opportunity to tell the Archbishop about the visions and Our Lady’s request for a medal. After much careful questioning, the Archbishop, who was especially devoted to the Immaculate Conception, consented. On June 30, 1832, the first 2,000 Medals of the Immaculate Conception were delivered. Catherine, upon receiving her share of medals, said, “Now it must be propagated!” She was to keep a few of these first Medals until the end of her life (one of them can be seen at the Miraculous Medal Art Museum in Germantown, PA).

As the saying goes, the rest is history: The Medal’s rapid spread throughout France and the world, and its astonishing impact as a sacramental was rivaled only by the Rosary. So many healings, conversions, and wonders sprang from it that it soon became known as “the Miraculous Medal.”

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Front & Back of a  Medal of the Immaculate Conception (“Miraculous Medal”)

Catherine’s great mission was accomplished; and the ecstasy of the heavenly visions, as well as the despair and frustration of trying to convince Fr. Aladel to act on them, was over. Now Catherine would embark on the final, and longest, phase of her earthly journey: the hidden life of obscurity as she settled into the ordinary routine that was to be her destiny for 46 years.

(In Part 4: Catherine’s Hidden Life & Final Years on Earth)

 

Catherine Laboure´: Saint of the Miraculous Medal-Part 2

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Sr. Catherine  Laboure as a Sister of Charity  illustration by the author

Part 2: The First Visions & Catherine’s Mission

On January 22, 1830, 24-yr.-old Zoe Laboure´ embarked upon her religious life at the Hospice de la Charite in Chatillon. For three months she worked and studied as a postulant with such diligence and dedication that she impressed everyone who knew her. Sr. Sejole described her as “a soul of surpassing candor and purity.” Under Sr. Sejole’s instruction, Zoe rapidly progressed with her reading and writing. Her sister, Marie Louise, now Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity at Castelsarrasin, continued to write encouraging letters, which Zoe deeply appreciated.

In April of 1830, Zoe entered the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity to begin her novitiate. She would now be known as Sister Catherine Laboure.´ Not for her the doubt, confusion, and homesickness of the typical novice! She had struggled for so long to reach this point, she now described herself as so happy she felt that she was “no longer on the earth.”

On April 25, shortly after Catherine’s arrival, a solemn ceremony took place in which the holy relics of St. Vincent de Paul were moved from the Motherhouse, where they had been hidden since the French Revolution, to a new cathedral built in his honor. This occasion was followed by a solemn novena to St. Vincent. One evening, at the end of the novena service, Catherine was privileged with a vision of the heart of St. Vincent, which appeared above a little shrine containing a relic in the chapel. She saw it again on the next two evenings.

The first time the heart appeared white, symbolizing peace and union for the two communities of the priests and sisters of St. Vincent. The second evening, the heart was dark red, which Catherine believed portended a change in government. For the first time, Catherine heard an interior voice, which said, “The heart of St. Vincent is deeply afflicted at the sorrows that will befall France.” The third night, the heart was bright red, and the voice told her that because of the intercession of Mary, the two religious communities would not perish in the coming trouble, and that they would go on to “reanimate the Faith.”

Now Catherine found herself with a dilemma: Here she was, barely a month into her novitiate, faced with the formidable task of telling her new confessor, Fr. Jean Aladel, whom she had only spoken to once before, about her visions! Though apprehensive at the prospect, she could not deny the interior insistence to tell him everything.

Thirty-year-old Fr. Jean Aladel, though a holy, prudent, and capable man, was also a hard taskmaster, cold and aloof in temperament. He and Catherine would clash often in the coming years. During the first revelation of Catherine’s visions, he urged her to remain calm and to forget about them, something which Catherine found difficult to do. In fact, she soon was given the grace of seeing the visible presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, a phenomenon that lasted during the entire term of her novitiate.

On June 6, Trinity Sunday, she had a vision of Christ the King during the Gospel at Mass (the first saint to have such a vision in modern times). Suddenly, Christ’s royal robes, ornaments, and even the cross He held, fell to the ground. With sadness, Catherine intuitively knew that a change in the government of France was imminent. She dutifully reported this latest apparition to Fr. Aladel, who as usual advised her to put it out of her mind. This created great conflict within Catherine’s soul, as she was torn between the heavenly favors being bestowed on her, and obedience to her spiritual advisor, who was dismissing them as so much nonsense. Yet all the while, Catherine was being prepared for her great life mission. Her deep devotion to Mary, the years of spiritual development and sanctity, were all about to culminate in the high point of Catherine’s life.

On the evening of July 18, 1830, Catherine was tired from all the happy preparations the nuns had made for the next day’s celebration of the Feast of St. Vincent. Yet, a strange excitement and sense of expectancy prevented her from sleeping. Holding in her hand the small piece of St. Vincent’s surplice that each Sister had received that day as a relic, she fervently prayed to this great saint that she would receive what had long been her heart’s fondest wish: to see the Blessed Virgin. In an impulsive act of faith and devotion, she tore the tiny relic in two and swallowed half of it. Then, as peace and serenity flowed over her, Catherine drifted off to sleep with the thought, “Tonight I shall see the Blessed Virgin.”

About two hours later, she was awakened by a soft voice calling her name, and opened her eyes to see a little boy of radiant beauty standing by her bed, holding a lit candle. “Come to the chapel,” he whispered. “The Blessed Virgin awaits you.” Sensing Catherine’s fear of being discovered, he assured her that everyone was asleep. Catherine hastily jumped out of bed, donned her habit, and followed the child through the hall and down the stairs to the first-floor chapel.  She was amazed to see every lamp lit along the way, although they met no one.

Reaching the heavy, locked door of the chapel, the child touched it, and it swung wide open. Every chandelier and candle — even the altar candles — was burning brightly. “Like a midnight Mass,” Catherine thought. She followed the boy into the sanctuary, where he stopped next to the chair the Director used when giving conferences to the Sisters. Catherine knelt down. A few minutes later, the child announced, “Here is the Blessed Virgin!” Catherine heard a sound like the rustling of silk, and saw a lady descend the altar steps and sit in the Director’s chair. She looked at Catherine, waiting. Catherine stood in confusion and doubt, but again the child answered her thoughts and said,  “This is the Blessed Virgin.” Catherine knelt at Our Lady’s knee, resting her hands in Mary’s lap — a privilege that no other seer has ever been granted — and looked up into Mary’s eyes. Catherine would always recall this as the sweetest moment of her life.

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“My child,” Our Lady said, “the good God wishes to charge you with a mission.” But rather than reveal the mission immediately, Mother Mary instead spoke to Catherine of personal things, of God’s plans for her life, of trials she would face and how to deal with them. She told Catherine that God would give her the strength and wisdom to overcome any obstacles she would face in the fulfillment of her special mission, and that she would always know what God wanted of her.

Then Our Lady grew sad as she told Catherine of the many hardships that would befall France in the years ahead. At times Mary wept and spoke in halting phrases. But she reassured Catherine, “Come to the foot of the altar. There graces will be shed upon all who ask for them.”  She also promised Catherine that the Vincentian Fathers and Sisters of Charity would have the special protection of God, with St. Vincent and Mary herself always with them, granting them many graces. During this intensely personal audience with Our Lady — which lasted nearly two hours and is unique in the history of Marian apparitions — Catherine spoke freely, confiding in Mary and asking questions. Then suddenly, Our Lady faded and was gone. 

Catherine followed the child back to her room, where he also disappeared. Catherine went back to bed, where she lay awake until morning, reliving every detail of this incredible experience. At her first opportunity, she told Fr. Aladel about the vision and all of Mary’s predictions.

A week later, on July 27, 1830, a revolution erupted in the streets of Paris, and King Charles was overthrown, fulfilling the prophecy of Our Lady’s words, as well as Catherine’s earlier visions. Intense persecution of the Church and clergy followed, but through it all the Vincentian Fathers and the Sisters of Charity were spared, as Our Lady had promised.

Despite his previous misgivings, Fr. Aladel was now faced with the fact that everything Sister Catherine had foretold as a result of her visions had happened. For Catherine, also, these terrible events served as proof to her of the reality of her experiences. She wondered about her “mission,” when it would happen, and when she would see Mother Mary again.

Coming in Part 3: The Miraculous Medal

Previous Posts in this series:

Part 1: Zoe – “A Good Village Girl”

 

Catherine Laboure: Saint of the Miraculous Medal-Part 1

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Part 1: Zoe, “A Good Village Girl”

Although most Catholics, and some non-Catholics, are familiar with the Miraculous Medal and its origin, few know much about St. Catherine Laboure´ (pronounced Lab-oh-ray), the woman to whom the medal was first manifested by the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is not surprising, however, when one considers the personality of Catherine herself and the humility and restraint that characterized her entire life. Yet, she is the woman whose visions ushered in what Pope Paul VI called “the Marian Age,” and she was privileged to enjoy the longest audience with Our Lady of any visionary.

Born on May 2, 1806 in Fain-les-moutiers, France, to Pierre and Madeline Laboure, she was baptized Catherine, but was rarely called by that name. Instead, she was nicknamed “Zoe” after a locally popular saint on whose feast day she was born. The Laboures were a hard-working family who lived comfortably, if not luxuriously, in a spacious house on a large and prosperous farm. Zoe’s father, Pierre, had entered the seminary in his teens, but later changed his mind and became a farmer instead. Though devout, he was a silent, gruff perfectionist who ruled the family with an iron hand. By contrast, Madeline Louise Gontard was from a cultured, respected family and was genteel and saintly. She bore 17 children, 10 of whom survived their first year.

Zoe possessed the best characteristics of each parent — Pierre’s strong will and capability, and Madeline’s gentle, pious nature. Zoe was very close to her mother, their shared deep piety and love of God creating a strong bond between them. But on October 9, 1815, when Zoe was only 9, her mother died of unknown causes at the age of 42. Shortly thereafter, little Zoe climbed up on a chair and took down the family statue of the Blessed Virgin. Hugging it close to her, she whispered, “Now, dear Blessed Mother, you will be my mother!” The deep, loving, close relationship with her heavenly Mother had begun, and would grow and endure for the rest of Zoe’s long and extraordinary life.

In 1816, Pierre’s sister Marguerite and her husband, Antoine Jeanrot, who owned a vinegar distillery in St. Remy, offered to take in Zoe and her younger sister Tonine. Aunt Marguerite and Uncle Antoine were kind and charitable, and the girls were very happy there.  During the two years she lived with them, Zoe continued to grow spiritually and nurture her devotion to Mother Mary. In St. Remy she had plenty of opportunity for spiritual growth. The village had a resident priest, so she was able to attend more services than she had back home. In church, Zoe didn’t fidget and grow distracted like the other children. Kneeling with her hands joined in prayer, she gazed at the altar with a rapt devotion far beyond her years. Her cousin Claudine was amazed at Zoe’s devotion in church and sought to imitate her. “What a pleasure it is to watch Zoe in church,” she often remarked. “How alert she is when she prays!”

Young Zoe was a natural leader and peacemaker among her playmates, yet she was never bossy or arrogant. Though not a pretty child, she was sweet and pleasant. When teased, she would laugh and shrug it off, never taking revenge or feeling sorry for herself. On feast days, the children had the rare treat of candy, which in those days was made at home and considered a luxury. Yet on several occasions Zoe gave her own share to the poor children, who otherwise would never enjoy such a treat. 

Although Zoe had a rich spiritual life, she was sorely lacking in formal education. This is strange, because her mother had been a schoolteacher, her father had pursued graduate studies at the seminary, and her seven oldest siblings had all received a good education. But God used the limited circumstances of Zoe’s life to bring about His perfect plans. From an early age, she aspired to a religious vocation. During her childhood, she did not receive any formal spiritual direction, and was unable to study spiritual matters through books because she had never been taught to read. But because of her constant, deep communion with God, it is obvious that He guided her in the absence of human teachers.

After a couple of years, Zoe’s Aunt Marguerite became increasingly involved in the Jeanrot’s successful distillery business, and Zoe’s oldest sister, Marie-Louise, was preparing to leave home to join the Sisters of Charity. So Pierre decided to bring Zoe and Tonine back home so that Zoe, now 12, could take over Marie-Louise’s task of running the large household. It was a formidable responsibility for such a young girl to care for the household, which consisted of Zoe’s father, sister, and several brothers — one of whom was an invalid — as well as the dozen hired farm hands who had to be fed. Although she was assisted by one servant, Pierre made it clear from the beginning that to Zoe alone fell the duty of ordering the household. All day long, she made beds, washed dishes, did laundry, ironing, sewing and mending, cooked meals, and carried food out to the workers in the fields at midday. Zoe’s favorite household chore was feeding the hundreds of pigeons in the Laboure´ dovecote. The birds loved her and would swirl around her as she laughingly scattered grain on the ground for them.   

On January 25, 1918, Zoe received First Holy Communion in the village church. This event served to deepen and strengthen her devotion and virtue, and from that point on Zoe became, in the words of her sister Tonine, “entirely mystic.” Every day she attended 6:00 a.m. Mass, which meant a half-hour walk in all kinds of weather and often in darkness, to get to the church in Fain, as there was no daily Mass in her own village church. Throughout the day she would go to a corner and take a few moments to commune with God. She sometimes slipped across the street to the village church for the Stations of the Cross (one of her favorite devotions) or a quick prayer in her preferred spot before a painting of the Annunciation. In the evening she would return to church to end her busy day in quiet reflection.

Zoe often visited her sick neighbors, a harbinger of the work she would later do as a Sister of Charity. She fasted every Friday and Saturday, despite the objections of her family. This is one of the first indications of her iron will and determination when she believed herself to be directed by God. Zoe instinctively understood her need for prayer and self-denial. It was as if deep in her soul she knew she was preparing for a great mission.

One night in 1824, Zoe dreamed that she was attending Mass in the village church. The elderly priest saying Mass turned and looked deeply into her eyes. Zoe blushed and looked away, because the old priest’s eyes were so compelling. After Mass, he turned towards the sacristy and motioned to Zoe to follow. Frightened, she turned and ran from the church. On her way home, she stopped to visit a sick woman of the village. Entering the sickroom, she again encountered the old priest. She backed away in fright, but he said to her, “You do well to visit the sick, my child. You flee from me now, but one day you will be glad to come to me!” With these words, Zoe suddenly awakened; but now, instead of fear, she felt a great sense of peace and joy. She was puzzled by the strange dream, however, and would not discover its significance for several years. 

Shortly after this dream, Zoe received the first of several marriage proposals from young men of the district. She was now 20 years old, and although not beautiful, she was pleasant-looking, strong, well-built, nicely groomed, sweet and innocent. Wisdom and kindness shone out of her large, solemn, cornflower-blue eyes, her best feature. She was extremely capable and already highly skilled in the running of a country home — all desirable qualities for a future wife and mother. Zoe’s father was very pleased and tried to persuade her to accept one of the proposals, but since she had plans for the religious life, Zoe naturally turned them all down.

At age 22, feeling that she had fulfilled her responsibility to her family, and knowing that Tonine was quite capable of taking over, she told Pierre of her desire to enter a convent.  Surprisingly, he refused to give his consent. At this time, Zoe’s brother Charles, who lived in Paris and had recently lost his wife, wrote to Pierre that he desperately needed help running his successful restaurant. Pierre felt that this was a perfect opportunity to dissuade Zoe from the religious life. Living in Paris for a while and tasting its delights would show her what she would miss by shutting herself from the world in a convent! After much strong persuasion, Zoe finally agreed to go to Paris. Although she could have run away to a convent and would probably have been accepted, obedience and respect for her father kept her from acting on her own wishes.

The Paris of 1828 was a sparkling, exciting city, a world of art and culture far removed from the sleepy villages where Zoe had spent her early life. Charles’ bistro, however, was a humble establishment, frequented mostly by rough workmen who talked, joked, and quarreled raucously, loudly calling for service from their waitress, Zoe. Not by nature a timid person, she was unafraid of them; nonetheless, she found their vulgarity and bold advances offensive. Her decisive firmness in dealing with them earned her the eventual respect of the clientele, who recognized her goodness and altered their crude manners somewhat in her presence. Without a doubt, this was the lowest point in Zoe’s life. Charles sympathized with his sister’s feelings and tried to shield her as much as possible from any unpleasantness. But as the months wore on, Zoe’s patience was wearing thin and giving way to panic at the prospect of being trapped in her seemingly hopeless situation.

At this point, her brother Hubert’s wife, Jeanne, persuaded Zoe’s father to let Zoe live with them in Chatillon, where Jeanne conducted a boarding school for wealthy young ladies. Although Pierre consented, Zoe did not fit into this environment much better than she did at Charles’ restaurant. Being a 23-year-old unschooled, simple country girl, she was totally out of place among her refined, fashionable, well-educated and much younger schoolmates. 

A few weeks after her arrival in Chatillon, while visiting the Sr. Superior at the Hospice, Zoe noticed a portrait of a priest on the wall of the parlor. With shock, she recognized him as the same man who had appeared in her dream four years earlier! Upon inquiry, she was told that he was St. Vincent de Paul, founder of the Sisters of Charity. Her confessor, upon hearing of this, told Zoe, “St. Vincent de Paul calls you! He wishes you to be a Sister of Charity.”

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St. Vincent de Paul, founder of the Sisters of Charity

Now that Zoe’s vocation seemed clear, she set about dealing with the obstacles in her way — namely, gaining the consent of her father and that of the Sr. Superior of the Hospice. Again, Zoe enlisted the aid of Jeanne, who because of her similarity to Zoe’s mother (her cousin), was a great favorite of Pierre’s. Somehow Jeanne convinced him to allow Zoe to enter the convent. He did, however, extract a petty revenge by denying Zoe her dowry. Though this must have hurt Zoe tremendously, she never at any time spoke ill of her father. Fortunately for Zoe, Hubert and Jeanne generously assured her that they would supply the dowry she needed to enter the convent.

Now Zoe had to convince the Sisters of Charity to accept her as a postulant. To all outward appearances, Zoe had little to offer them. She was illiterate and her personality was of the shy, calm, silent type that was often misconstrued as cold and apathetic. But the Assistant Superior, Sr. Francoise Victoire Sejole, who would later become Zoe’s closest friend in the religious life, had gotten to know Zoe well, because Zoe often accompanied her on calls to the sick poor. Sr. Sejole saw past outward appearances to the beauty and depths of Zoe’s soul. She convinced the Sr. Superior Josephine Cany that Zoe was “a good village girl, the kind St. Vincent loved,” and offered to teach Zoe everything she required to enter the seminary in Paris. Sr. Cany agreed, and at last Zoe was free to follow the path God had laid out before her so many years ago.

(Coming up in Part 2: The Visions & Catherine’s Mission)