IX. The Secret of Forty-Six Years
In those last weeks of 1830, Sister Laboure was not the only one with difficulties. Father Aladel had his own, and to spare. In a way, the difficulties of the anxious Sister were mere mental annoyances compared to the tangled skein of problems in the head of the poor priest. She, after all, had only a succession of happenings to report, happenings which she knew to be true. He had to convince himself whether they were indeed true. She had only the rather patience-trying task of pressing him to action. He had to decide whether such actions were wise. Things were crystal clear to the plain mind of the country girl from Burgundy: Our Lady had appeared to her, had ordered something to be done. All that remained was to do it; it was as simple as that.
It was certainly not as simple as that to Father Aladel. Our Lady had not appeared to him. All his knowledge of this wondrous thing, this Medal, was second-hand, and he had his knowledge from a simple, illiterate novice.
Her ignorance, of course, was the key to the situation. The priest began to see that more and more as time went on. She was intellectually incapable of making up the Apparitions. Then, there were the several prophecies she had reported, some of which had already come true. Consideration of these two facts would be enough to convince him in time, especially when they were seen in the light of Catherine’s character.
She was basically good and pious; she had even those flashes of spiritual intuition which God reserves for the unlettered who love Him. More to the point, she was totally unimaginative. Aside from the “visions,” her thoughts were drab and colorless, even pedestrian. This much was to the good.
But, it must be remembered, everything was not so evident to Father Aladel at the moment. These dazzling events—if they were events—had happened in a bewildering rush. Scarcely a week had passed since this placid girl had first entered his confessional some nine months before, that she had not some new wonder to report. It had all come about at a most inconvenient time. Smack into the middle of his normally busy schedule had burst the disruptive forces of the celebration surrounding the Translation of St. Vincent’s relics, and, when things had gotten back to normal, the surprise of the change of government with its consequent anxieties for all organizations, especially religious ones. To add to the turmoil, the reported visions of the insistent novice were tangled inextricably with these same disruptive forces. Was it any wonder the poor man’s mind was in a muddle?
Father Aladel’s task was made doubly difficult by Catherine’s insistence that her identity remain secret. This made the task his, and his alone. He could not temper or bolster his opinion by having some trusted advisor listen to the remarkable tales of the Saint. He could not even lead her forth to testify before some competent ecclesiastical tribunal. She would have none of this. Our Lady had told her to “tell this to him who has charge of you,” and Catherine would obey this instruction to the letter but not beyond. Father Aladel, then, and he alone, had to decide upon her character, her reliability, the truth of what she said. Others more skilled, Church officials trained in such matters, would handle it from there, but he had to be convinced himself before he referred the matter to them.
The fact that Catherine Laboure kept her secret for forty-six years has caught the popular fancy more than anything else about her. The secret of the Seer’s identity also intrigued her contemporaries. There was a delightful sense of mystery in knowing that somewhere, maybe close by, maybe living here in this very house, there was a favored soul who had been Our Lady’s messenger in delivering the Miraculous Medal to the human race. There were endless guesses, endless wonderings, endless baitings, in the hope of catching the privileged Sister off guard. It was Catherine’s obscurity too, that caught the eye of Cardinal Masella, prefect of the Congregations of Rites, in 1895, and set in motion the Cause for her beatification. During the fifty years of the Process it was this obscurity that constantly impressed new prelates assigned to the Cause and won Catherine new champions. The obvious joke it suggested must have occurred to many during these years, but it was Pius XI who gave it voice at the Beatification ceremonies in 1933.
“To think of keeping a secret for forty-six years,” the Holy Father is reported to have said, “—and this by a woman and a Sister!”
Indeed, keeping her secret was the most significant act of Catherine’s life after the Apparitions. It is amazing, how this habitual, heroic act runs through her remaining years like a golden thread, tying into one glorious whole all the actions and incidents of a lifetime, spiritual and temporal, important and trivial. There is literally nothing in all these forty-six years that was not touched by the influence of the secret.
Certainly, without the secret, Catherine would have been a very different person. From earliest childhood she had lived in the back lanes and the quiet corners; she had worked behind the closed door of her village home. She spoke little and unfolded herself less. She was withdrawn and interior, thinking her own deep thoughts and keeping them to herself. It is appalling to think of the disastrous effects of publicity on such a soul: how she would have shrunk in terror from the assaults of the curious: the prying and questioning, the adulation and praise. They would never have let her alone, and Catherine’s nature needed privacy as the lowliest creatures of the deep need it.
It can even be questioned whether, without the secret, Catherine would have been a saint. The secret was vital to assure her soul of the climate in which to grow. Her sanctity was a hidden thing, a shy blossom that bloomed unseen and unknown, for sanctity usually follows the pattern of personality. There are saints who were born leaders and who became holy by leading, and there are saints who were born to obscurity and who became holy by remaining obscure. Catherine Laboure was one of these latter. The world and its limelight were not for her. Aside from an exceptional grace of God, she would have been as out of place as if she had been thrust from her convent altogether.
These, of course, are only conjectures made to point up the pervading importance of the secret. The fact is that she kept her secret for forty-six years.
In the formal Inquiry into the origin of the Medal held at Paris in 1836, Father Aladel testified that the very first time Catherine told him of the Apparition of the Miraculous Medal, she extracted from him the promise that he would never reveal her name or identity in any way. No doubt it was a promise easily given, because at the time the priest put no credence in her visions. He could not know then what difficulties his promise would make for him later, or he might not have been so quick to give it. But give it he did, and Catherine held him to it. Here again we run full tilt against the enormous strength of her will. A more pliant spirit than hers would have yielded to the importunities of high personages—the Archbishop of Paris among them—that she reveal herself to them; a weaker soul than she would have grown weary of avoiding the increasing traps set for her, and would have surrendered. But not Catherine. She was her father’s daughter in obstinacy.
The question naturally arises as to whether Our Lady told Catherine that she was to remain unknown. There is no explicit indication of it in her written communications to Father Aladel. Our only direct knowledge is Father Aladel’s assertion that Catherine made him promise not to reveal her identity. Indeed a command from Our Lady need not be posited. It is quite in character for Catherine to make the demand of secrecy without any prompting. By nature she heartily disliked publicity, and by grace she was thoroughly humble. Father Aladel has deposed under oath that the only reason he could give for her refusal to testify before the Tribunal of the Archbishop of Paris in 1836 was her profound humility and earnest wish to remain unknown.
Nevertheless, though we have no evidence from Father Aladel that Our Lady imposed silence on the Sister, we have a very definite statement from Catherine herself in the last months of her life. When she found herself bereft of her confessor in 1876, she said to Sister Dufes, her Superior:
“Since I haven’t much longer to live, I feel that the moment to speak out has come. But, as the Blessed Virgin told me to speak only to my confessor, I shall say nothing to you until I have asked Our Lady’s permission in prayer. If she tells me I may speak to you, I will do so, otherwise I will remain silent.”
It is strange that in her written accounts of her conversation with the Blessed Virgin, Catherine does not say that she was charged to “speak only to my confessor.” Yet she undoubtedly said so, forty-six years later. We must, therefore, take her at her word, for she always spoke the truth.
This final, definite declaration of Catherine’s is bolstered by the testimony of Sister Tanguy, Assistant-Superior of the House at Reuilly, who relates that Catherine was one day overheard telling a servant of the house:
“The Blessed Virgin wishes that the Sister who saw her live in humility.”
In the meantime, something urgent had arisen, of supreme importance to a successful solution of the whole business. Sister Laboure was nearing the end of her novitiate; she would soon be eligible for an assignment that might take her to the opposite border of France, or even to some foreign outpost. At this critical time, when he had not made up his mind about the visions, it was essential that Father Aladel keep her within easy reach. To do so was not so simple as it seemed: Father Aladel had no authority to assign the Sisters; he was not yet their director. On the other hand, at this time no one but himself knew how necessary it was for Sister Laboure not to leave Paris.
Certainly, Catherine herself was supremely interested in her appointment. In the final weeks of their spiritual apprenticeship, religious novices are naturally curious about where they shall be sent to begin their lives of active service. This curiosity gives rise to hopes and fears bandied about from one to another and forming the chief topic at recreation. It would be fascinating to have watched Catherine in these last seething weeks of her novitiate, in the midst of the banter and surmise.
As it is, we can reconstruct nothing of these days, for we have no whisper of evidence to go on. Let it not be stated flatly, however, that Catherine would have had no part of such doings. In the terse, two-sentence biography written in the seminary record book, her directress states that during her noviceship Catherine was, surprisingly enough, “gay.” It is an adjective no one would have applied to her in her former life, except possibly in her earliest childhood. It is an adjective no one would ever apply to her again. Happy she was, always, but hardly gay. Yet during these short months of preparation, her directress has recorded for the ages the fact that she was gay. It is indeed a startling and provocative picture of the quietest of saints.
It must not be forgotten that Catherine Laboure had chosen and been accepted into a way of life that emphasized community living. She had weathered the period of testing successfully, the period when aspirants to this hardest of all ways of life are carefully watched to see whether they are equal to its give and take. Therefore, we must not make the mistake of considering Catherine Laboure a sort of hermit living in the midst of a bustling hive of women. She was quiet, particularly so: one who did not speak needlessly, nor waste words when she spoke. Yet she was capable of spending pleasant hours of recreation in the company of her Sisters. To say otherwise is to call her a misfit in religion; and there is the delightful evidence that, as a novice, she was gay.
Sister Laboure had, however, more motive than mere affability for her interest in her first mission. She was all too painfully aware that her business with Father Aladel was far from finished. Though she must take refuge in a firm belief that Our Lady would see things through, the young Sister can be allowed some human anxiety as to when and how.
The only glimpse we have of Catherine among her companions during the entire nine months of her novitiate concerned the keeping of her secret. Word had gotten around that one of them had seen the Blessed Virgin. The way important news “leaks out” in religious houses is something of a mystery, but it is a phenomenon common to all of them. In this case, Father Aladel was certainly the source. Apparently he had revealed the facts of the Apparitions, even though he had not yet fully made up his mind about them. At any rate, the novices were in the garden at recreation one day, when one of them, Sister Pinot, artlessly and without thought, turned to Sister Laboure, seated next to her, and asked:
“Are you the one who saw the Blessed Virgin?”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than Sister Pinot blushed violently and turned away, ashamed of her impertinence. Catherine, however, took the affair so lightly, everyone was sure that, if one of them was the favored Sister, it was certainly not she!
However, the thought stayed with Sister Pinot to torment her, and the poor novice could find no peace of soul until she had revealed it to Father Aladel in confession. Father Aladel did nothing to disabuse her of the notion, nor did he say anything to confirm it. Nevertheless, he was so struck by the incident that he later used Sister Pinot as his secretary in matters relating to the Miraculous Medal. Sister Pinot’s distress of soul ceased from the moment she unburdened herself.
How Father Aladel managed to keep Sister Laboure within reach, we do not know, but manage it he did. When the canonical time of her novitiate was over, she was missioned to the Hospice d’Enghien located at Reuilly in the environs of Paris. Father Aladel was the regular confessor at the Hospice.
The Hospice d’Enghien, in the Faubourg Saint Antoine, was far enough away from the Motherhouse on the rue du Bac, judged by the mode of transportation of those days. Today, a cab ride of approximately twenty minutes separates the two houses. The Hospice was founded by the Duchesse de Bourbon in memory of her son, the Duc d’Enghien, who had been shot in the trenches of Vincennes prison during the days of the Terror. It was intended as a haven for the faithful retainers who had grown old in the service of the Orleans family. Connected by a long mall with the House of Charity of Reuilly, it shared with the Reuilly house a common superior and chapel. This mall was to become the pathway of Sister Catherine’s life, and she was to amass a tremendous mileage in forty-six years, on her errands between the two houses, and especially on her trips to the chapel which, in later years, was close by the Reuilly house.
Mother Etienne, appointed first Visitatrix of the Province of the United States when Mother Seton’s Sisters joined the Community of St. Vincent, visited Enghien on May 8, 1852 and recorded the visit in her diary. The record is of interest because, unknown to Mother Etienne, the Seer of the Miraculous Medal was living in the house at the time.
After a long ride we arrived at Enghien, a hospital and a house of mercy, founded by Mme Bourbon, a member of the royal family, in 1819…. Enghien is a faubourg, celebrated for its charming situation on the east side of Lake Montmorency…. The hospital is supported by revenues, and so liberally, that patients sometimes express the fear that they are doing no penance. Many of its inmates seem to have seen better days.
The gardens of this Institute are so extensive that they send part of the fruits and vegetables to market. Mme Bourbon left this house, by will, to Mme Adelaide, sister of Louis Philippe. This lady has provided the whole establishment with linen, from the castle. She has purchased an additional asylum; it contains sixty-three girls, left orphans by the dreadful cholera of 1849. The washing and cooking are done at the hospital, and the same Sister Servant has charge of both houses…. This being also a house of mercy, soup, medicine, etc., are given out regularly. The church is very handsome; also, the front entrance shaded by linden trees.
Not long after she had come to stay at Enghien, probably in April 1831, on a visit to the rue du Bac, Catherine saw Our Lady for the last time. She saw her in the same beloved chapel, but not in the same spot: not on the left of the sanctuary where she had appeared before, but directly over the high altar. Otherwise, the vision unfolded itself exactly as on the fateful evening of November 27. This last appearance of Our Lady had a special note of urgency about it, because Our Lady informed her that it was the last.
“You will see me no more,” said the voice Catherine had come to know and to love, “but you will hear my voice in your prayers.”
With this simple promise, so simple that the mind does not begin to grasp the magnitude of it, began that familiar and intimate conversation between Catherine Laboure and the Mother of God that was to last forty-six years. The two-hour conversation of these two on the night of July 18, 1830, was and remains a prodigy among heavenly favors. But it pales and becomes as nothing when measured against the lifelong communication that now began. In any perplexity great or small, Catherine had only to speak to Our Lady and Our Lady replied. Or the Virgin herself would begin the conversation: warning, reproving, foretelling. It was as casual and normal as the daily meeting of friends, like picking up the telephone for a chat. Catherine never referred to this promise again, except to record it in writing at the request of her director; but evidence of its fulfillment cropped up throughout her life. Father Aladel would request information about certain details of the Apparitions: Catherine would ask Our Lady and return with the answer, or, Catherine would come to him with fresh instructions from the Queen of Heaven. At the end of her life, before revealing her secret to Sister Dufes, she would “ask Our Lady” if she should do so. The very ordinariness of Sister Catherine obscures the reality of this tremendous favor.
The note of urgency, the imperious call to action, in the finality of this last appearance of Mary, together with Father Aladel’s refusal to act must have produced an agony of frustration in the soul of Sister Catherine. That this was certainly so can be deduced from a later event in her life: years later she was to assert that Father Aladel’s failure to carry out Our Lady’s request for a statue was “the torment of my life.” If his failure to fulfill one request caused her such torment, how must this failure to act at all have racked her.
Our Lady was not to be thwarted. The promised voice, the voice Catherine “would hear in her prayers,” now raised itself in steady complaint that the Medal had not been struck.
“But, my good Mother,” Catherine pleaded, “you see that he [Father Aladel] will not believe me.”
“Never mind,” the voice replied, “he is my servant, and would fear to displease me.”
Sister Catherine reported this faithfully to the priest. Our Lady had touched a sore spot, and the good priest trembled in his fear. He was troubled to the depths of his soul at the veiled threat. “He would fear to displease me.” God knew, it was the last thing he wanted to do! It is no small thing to displease the Queen of Heaven; it is worse to be threatened by her. And so it came about, after all the admonition and argument, all the mental wrestling, all the prudence and caution, that these few words from the lips of the Mother of God spurred Father Aladel to action.
Not that he was wholly convinced. These words had not suddenly parted the curtain and shown him the truth of Sister Catherine’s claims. He had been impelled to action primarily by fear. Our Lady had said well that “he would fear to displease me.” Yet this was not a superstitious fear; it was a fear born of love. He loved Our Lady dearly; he felt that he could not take the slightest chance of displeasing her. For this reason, although not completely satisfied as to the reality of Catherine’s visions, the priest resolved to act.
All this is borne out by the way in which he acted. He did not, even yet, rush headlong, but waited for an opportunity to present itself.