VI. A Vision of Christ as King
With the conclusion of her nine days of grace, young Sister Laboure was faced with a formidable task. In spite of the reassurance of the last vision, heavy thoughts of things to come weighed her down. To make matters worse, she suffered an interior urging that could not be denied: she must tell her confessor what had happened. Her honest cry of anguish at the prospect, written down sixteen years later, gives a graphic glimpse into the torture of her soul: “I could not hold back from speaking to my confessor….” She did not want to speak, but she had to.
The fact that Sister Laboure did not know the novices’ confessor made the task of approaching him doubly hard. She had been to confession to him only once since her arrival, so she had no way of knowing whether he was kind or cold, whether he would receive her startling story with interest or ridicule or anger. Catherine was not stupid. In spite of her lack of education, she had native shrewdness and clear-sightedness. She knew anyone would shy away from and look askance at talk of visions; how would this trained priest react? She was scarcely in the novitiate a week, and here she was, babbling about “seeing things.” Would he send her away, away from everything she had fought to attain? Yet it had to be done; she had to speak; there was no drawing back.
In these terrible days, it was her sound faith that sustained her, the realization that God knew what He was about. The dread moment came, and in a rush of relief, Catherine tells us that the confessor “calmed me as much as possible, turning me away from all these thoughts.”
We have already mentioned this doughty opponent, Father Jean Marie Aladel. Opponent is the word, for he and Catherine were to cross swords many times before she was able to escape into the obscurity of her long life, a major part of her mission accomplished. Even then, all would not be peace between these two. He was but thirty years old when young Sister Laboure first knelt before him.
Jean Marie Aladel, like his famous penitent, was born in the Month of Mary, May 4, 1800, in the village of Ternes, near Saint-Flour, among the mountains of Cantal. He went to the college of Saint-Flour, and later to the seminary there. After two years in the diocesan seminary, he decided that his vocation lay with the Vincentian Fathers, and he was received into the novitiate on rue de Sevres in Paris on November 12, 1821 . He was ordained in 1 1824, the year of Catherine’s dream of St. Vincent, and spent the first year of his priesthood teaching philosophy at the major seminary in Amiens. The following year he was transferred to the mission house of St. Anne in the same city. Toward the end of 1828, at the very time Catherine came to Paris to work in her brother’s cafe, he was recalled to Paris to bolster the little staff of nine priests who were struggling to keep the headquarters of the Community going, after the disasters of the Revolution and the wars of Napoleon. There he was charged with the duties of confessor, chaplain, conference preacher, and retreat master to the community of Sisters on rue du Bac.
So much for the facts of Father Aladel’s life up to his meeting with Sister Laboure in 1830. It is much harder to determine the kind of man he was. There is a Life, published in 1873, but it is so eulogistic that it tells us nothing of the real man; it is little more than a citing of the rules and constitutions of the Congregation with the notation that Father Aladel kept them all. The best general impression of him is that he was one of those men who are hard on themselves and on everyone else. Certainly Sister Laboure had much to suffer at his hands: there is sworn testimony that she often approached his confessional in a fit of trembling. He was cold and aloof by temperament, yet warm enough to form a deep and lasting friendship with Father Jean Baptiste Etienne, the future Superior General and “second founder” of the Congregation. Yet it must be admitted that Father Aladel leaves one with an impression of impersonality that at times approaches ruthlessness.
There can be no denying the deep piety, even holiness, of the man, nor his prudence, judgment, common sense, and administrative ability. His high posts in the Congregation and the advancement of the Sisters of Charity under his hand attest to these. Nor would it be slighting his virtues and abilities to point out that these need not have been exceptional, since there were so few men to choose from for the posts he filled, as it would not be slurring their friendship to point out that Father Etienne was particularly aware of his friend’s virtues and abilities.
In the last analysis, recourse must be made to the spiritual axiom that God fits the burden to the back, and Jean Aladel’s must have been a very capable back indeed, to carry the burdens God fitted to it. It was given to him not only to direct the soul of St. Catherine Laboure, and to be the external apostle of the Medal, founder of the Children of Mary, and transmitter of Catherine’s divinely inspired messages of reform to the two Communities of St. Vincent; he was also given the direction of Sister Justine Bisqueyburu and her apostolate of the Green Scapular. The supreme accolade, however, was bestowed by Our Lady when she said: “He is my servant.”
Sister Laboure was not to find peace in following her confessor’s advice to forget what she said she had seen. She was to live in two worlds during her novitiate: the orderly world of prayer, meditation, work periods, and recreation that made up her seminary life, and that other secret, dazzling spiritual world that God let loose upon her sight. The visions of St. Vincent’s heart were but the first of a train of visions.
Sister Laboure was given “another great grace,” during the whole time of her novitiate: the visible presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. She does not say whether this vision was a constant thing, that is, vouchsafed each time she entered the chapel, whether it was only during Mass, or during a certain portion of the Mass. She says only that she “saw Our Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament.” She continues: “I saw Him during the whole time of my seminary, except when I doubted; the next time, I saw nothing, because I had wished to penetrate the mystery, and, believing myself deceived, had doubted.”
In this straightforward statement of the saint, both her prudence and her discernment are revealed. Strangely enough, she does not seem to have had any doubts concerning the reality of the visions of St. Vincent’s heart. Could it have been the sense of caution urged upon her by her confessor that caused her to examine these visions of Our Lord more closely? At any rate, she felt it prudent to doubt, not the reality of Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist (she could never doubt that), but the reality of what she saw. She felt it wise to be afraid lest she suffer illusion—and not once only. Whenever she doubted, whenever she was afraid, she saw nothing. At the same time, she recognized that the withdrawal of the vision was not a punishment, but a reassurance, a proof of its reality. She understood that Jesus hid Himself when she examined the vision in order to show her that it was genuine, and that He did not want her to probe so august a mystery, but only to accept it with simple faith. When she had breathed a sigh of relief and gone back to believing and accepting with conscience clear and reassured, He showed Himself again.
This extraordinary favor speaks volumes of the way Heaven cherished this humble little novice. To see Jesus Christ once would be the supreme favor of a lifetime, but to see Him constantly throughout nine months . . . !
On Trinity Sunday, June 6, 1830, Sister Laboure was given a special vision of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, or more specifically of Christ as King. This time she is precise as to the moment of the vision. Our Lord appeared to her, robed as a king, with a cross at His breast, during the Gospel of the Mass. Suddenly, all His kingly ornaments fell from Him to the ground—even the cross, which tumbled beneath His feet. Immediately her thoughts and her heart fell, too, and were plunged into that chasm of gloom that she had known before, gloom that portended a change in government. This time, however, she understood clearly that the change in government involved the person of the King, and that, just as Christ was divested of His royal trappings before her, so would Charles X be divested of his throne.
It is a startling thing, this sacred vision of God Himself coming in majesty to foretell the fall of an earthly monarch, and the vision of Christ the King to Catherine Laboure seems to have had no other purpose than to foretell the fall of Charles X of France. The mystery of it will never be fully solved; yet here and there the mind may mull over certain clues.
The greatest of these clues is the nature of the French monarchy itself, which, as Hilaire Belloc understood so well, was a holy thing, wedded to the people it ruled, and the prototype of all the monarchies of Europe. This ancient royalty had its roots in Rome and had received its Christian mandate in the crowning of Charlemagne by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800 A.D. It had lived for more than a thousand years in one line of men. No matter how great the goodness or wickedness of these royal men—and there was an ample supply of both—the sanctity of the monarchy itself and its mystical espousal to the French people is not to be questioned. In its institutions, its duties, its relationship to those it governed, its elaborate ritual, it was an imitation on a much lower plane of the Church of God. The French, kings and subjects alike, knew this well. Jeanne d’Arc was in an agony until the Dauphin should be crowned at Rheims and his body anointed and consecrated in the sacred rite which was so essential to this kingly religion; in a sense, it was her sole mission, and it is significant that her fortunes declined afterward. Louis XI had the Ampulla of holy oil brought from Rheims that his dying eyes might rest on it. Napoleon III sought to sanctify his usurpation by having himself anointed with the small, hard lump that was all that remained of the holy oil in 1853. The Kings of France, no matter how absolute their rule, had to be born and to die, had to eat and drink, take their recreation, and pray in the sight of the people. At the birth of her ill-fated Dauphin, Marie Antoinette almost died of suffocation, because of the press of the common people in her chamber, witnessing her lying-in; only the quick-witted action of a bystander, breaking a window to let in the fresh air, saved her.
The double religious family to which Catherine belonged had had official relationships with the French monarchy. Louis XIII had died in the arms of Vincent de Paul. The Founder continued to serve his widow, Anne of Austria, during the early part of her Regency, both as her confessor and as an important member of the royal Council of Conscience, a body established for the reform of the Church. Under Louis XV and Louis XVI, the Vincentian Fathers had been royal chaplains at Versailles, and, after the restoration, had been privileged to form a guard of honor about the bier of Louis XVIII.
That the vision of Christ the King had some intimate relationship with the end of the Bourbon dynasty seems evident, for Charles X was the last of the royal Bourbons; his cousin Louis Philippe, who succeeded him, belonged to a lateral line. Again we are confronted with the astonishing preoccupation of Heaven with the fortunes of France.
Before leaving this vision, we must point out the noteworthy fact that Catherine Laboure was the first saint in modern times to be vouchsafed a vision of Christ as King. In the light of the great present-day devotion to the Kingship of Christ, we would seem justified in questioning whether the vision might not have a mystical meaning. In announcing the end of the oldest of monarchies, might not Christ have meant to point up the passing quality of all earthly authority, and to foretell present-day devotion to His Kingship as the index of the eternal quality of His own Reign?
Certainly, however, Sister Laboure did not ponder thus in her heart. She knew only, as the common people know, that there was to be “a change in government,” and that, as inevitably came to pass, “many miseries would follow.” She knew only, as the common people know, that there had been too many changes of government in France over the last forty years, too many miseries following, and, with this instinctive knowledge of the people, she grew sad and feared.
The statesmen and politicians of the land would have laughed at the long, prophetic thoughts of the little Sister, for national order seemed well established and peace reigned. Indeed, the government was enjoying the flush of esteem that had come with the brilliant victory of the French troops in Algiers, a victory which the nation had asked through the intercession of St. Vincent. In certain coffee houses and wine shops of Paris, however, there would have been no laughter. The brutal men assembled there would merely have smiled with grim satisfaction at this forecast of success for the revolution they were plotting.
These visions of Our Lord, like those of the heart of St. Vincent, Catherine duly reported to Father Aladel. Oddly enough, there is no record of his ever having commented on them, in public or private, during his lifetime. We can be certain that Catherine told him about them when they occurred, for it was not like her to withhold anything from her confessor; and we have the account of them written for him in her own hand in 1856. It can only be surmised that, when Father Aladel came to believe in the visions of his penitent, he did not see these visions of Our Lord as part of the series which the visions of St. Vincent’s heart, and of Our Lady, constituted. He might, rightly enough, have judged in retrospect that the Eucharistic visions of Sister Laboure were for herself alone and not in the public domain, but the vision of Christ the King certainly had no personal message for her. In portending the fall of the King of France and the miseries to follow, this vision would seem to be a valid part of the general scheme of Catherine’s “public” visions.
Whatever he thought, Father Aladel bade his penitent put these things out of her mind as so much nonsense.
Catherine must have found it all very confusing. She was torn between loyalties. Heaven was showering her with extraordinary favors; her confessor was telling her they were nothing of the sort. It was as if God were pulling at her one arm, while His official representative was pulling at the other. Confusing as it was, it was good for her, for it removed any least danger that she might begin to cherish her own self-importance, and it purified her soul, as trials are meant to do.
The high point of Catherine’s life was fast approaching now: the great apparitions of the Virgin Mary. For these was she born, for these came she into the world, even as Christ came to bear witness to the truth. They are the reason for her being and the wellspring of her holiness. The years of sanctity that went before them, the years of sanctity that followed after, cluster about them like a setting about a gem. Not that Catherine Laboure was holy because she saw, or was to see, the Blessed Virgin; she was holy because she was faithful to the mission given her to do. God’s plan for her life and sanctification was: that she should cultivate a deep devotion to the Mother of God; that she should receive, at first hand, important instructions from this great Lady; that she should carry out these instructions to the letter; and, while doing all this, she should remain hidden, living an ordinary religious life in doing ordinary religious works.
All the graces given her by God worked to this end. Catherine corresponded to every grace; she did what was expected of her and did it well. This is why she is a saint.