VII. “This is the Blessed Virgin”
On a midsummer’s night—July 18, 1830, the eve of the feast of St. Vincent de Paul—Our Lady came to Paris. She came, not to the shadowy vastness of her Cathedral of Notre Dame, but to the narrow back street called the rue du Bac, to the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity.
As Sister Laboure and the other novices prepared for bed, they were filled with happy thoughts of the morrow. They had just left the chapel, transformed into a homely elegance of flowers, snowy linen, and polished candelabra in preparation for the feast-day Mass. Their Directress, the old Mother Martha, had talked to them of devotion to the saints, and especially to their blessed Father St. Vincent, and, as a feast-day gift, had given each of them a small piece of a surplice St. Vincent had worn.
Tomorrow, after the glorious Mass, there would be recreation, and they would chat and laugh together and sing old songs; and maybe they would walk over to the priests’ church in the afternoon to pray before their Holy Founder’s body….
Catherine’s heart was bursting with the certainty that grew and swelled within it, the certainty that something was about to happen, something of great moment. Lying wide awake and staring up at the pale whiteness of the bed curtains, she clutched in her hand her piece of that precious surplice. She talked to St. Vincent a long time in her prayers, telling him again of her soul’s dearest wish—to see with her own eyes the Blessed Virgin. It was a startling wish, a startling prayer, on the lips of this hard-headed, practical peasant girl, but it can no longer surprise us, who have seen her intense love of the Mother of God take root and burgeon and fructify; nor could it surprise her, who had witnessed the intimate wonders of Heaven, had seen the Lord Himself.
Suddenly, as if struck with an inspiration, she tore the tiny cloth in two and swallowed half of it. It was a simple act of devotion, growing out of a simple faith. Sophisticated rationalists might sniff at it as ludicrous superstition, but those whose believing mothers have signed their brows with the sacred wedding ring and given them holy water to drink will understand.
A serene peace came over Catherine. In her mind was a single, confident thought: Tonight I shall see her. Tonight I shall see the Blessed Virgin. She closed her eyes and slept.
She had been sleeping some two hours when a sudden light flickered in the dormitory. The light came from a candle carried by a little child of four or five, a child of extraordinary beauty and so surrounded with radiance that the whiteness of his little gown was dazzling. He approached the bed where Catherine lay. He called her softly:
“Sister Laboure! ”
She did not stir. He called again, insistently:
“Sister Laboure! ”
She moved a little; his voice had entered her dreams, and sleep was slipping away. Then:
“Sister Laboure!” once more, and Catherine awoke, her eyes big and staring. She turned her head in the direction of the sound. It seemed to come from near the door. Through the haze of her bed curtains she saw the brightness. She sat up quickly and drew the curtains. The child said:
“Come to the chapel. The Blessed Virgin awaits you.”
Catherine was not frightened. The child had come to take her to Our Lady; it was the moment she had longed for and prayed for, the great part of her life. Only one thought leaping into her mind made her hesitate: We shall be discovered!
“Do not be uneasy,” the radiant vision answered. “It is half past eleven; everyone is asleep. Come, I am waiting for you.”
Catherine jumped out of bed and threw on her clothes. Now, the clothes of a novice Sister of Charity are a complicated bit of costume, and that Catherine could manage them in this highly excitable moment, tying every last ribbon, pinning every last pin, proves as nothing else that she was neither excited, nor upset, nor in ecstasy. She might be going to a rendezvous with Heaven, but the feet that took her there were firmly planted on the earth.
The child led the way to the door and they passed into the hallway. She was amazed to find the hall lights burning.
Down the narrow stairs they went, for the chapel was on the first floor. Catherine’s wonder mounted: everywhere the lamps were lit, and yet they met no one. Once or twice, in her eagerness, she hurried ahead of her little guide, then fell back in humble confusion.
Now they were at the chapel. Catherine gasped in astonishment when the heavy door, which must be locked, swung wide at the child’s mere touch. The chapel was ablaze with light! The chandeliers, the candles on the altar, all burned brightly. Why, she thought, it is like a midnight Mass!
The child moved on into the sanctuary. Obediently, Catherine followed. He stopped by the chair that the Director used when he gave conferences to the Sisters. Instinctively, Catherine knelt.
Nothing happened. The Virgin was not there. The child stood calmly waiting, as if for a cue, as if he were part of a play. The minutes were long and the stillness grew loud with noises: the scurry of a mouse, the cracking of a pew, the distant clatter of a carriage. Catherine shifted on her knees. Anxiously she glanced over her shoulder toward the gallery. The night Sisters, up with the sick, might be passing. But there was no one. Suddenly the child spoke:
“Here is the Blessed Virgin.”
In the same instant Catherine heard a sound like the rustling of a silk dress, and, looking toward the direction of the sound, saw a lady descending the altar steps. The lady seated herself in the Director’s chair. As she sat there, she reminded Catherine of St. Anne in the picture over the sacristy door. Catherine’s eyes flew to the painting and back to the lady. But no, she was not like St. Anne. A doubt clouded the novice’s mind. Was this really the Mother of God? The child reassured her:
“This is the Blessed Virgin.”
Even this did not allay all her doubts. Was the whole thing a dream, a fancy of the night? She blushed. The lady was looking at her, waiting. The child spoke again, startling her, for now his voice was a man’s voice, deep and commanding and stern. She held back no more, but threw herself at Our Lady’s knee and rested her hands in Our Lady’s lap. Then she lifted her head and looked up, up, into her Mother’s eyes. Many years later she was to write with ecstatic remembrance of this moment, that it was the sweetest of her life.
“My child,” said Our Lady, “the good God wishes to charge you with a mission.”
But that could wait. This moment was Catherine’s; and Mary went on to tell her of God’s plans for her, to warn her of the trials that would come upon her, and to show her how she should bear them.
The good God wished to charge her with a mission. She would meet with many difficulties in carrying it out, but she would overcome the difficulties by thinking upon the glory of God as her reason for doing what He wanted. Most comforting of all, she would know with unerring certainty the Will of God; she would be spiritually secure, for she would recognize at all times what God wanted of her.
“You will be tormented,” Our Lady continued, “until you have told him who is charged with directing you. You will be contradicted, but do not fear, you will have grace. Tell with confidence all that passes within you; tell it with simplicity. Have confidence. Do not be afraid.”
“You will see certain things: give an account of what you see and hear. You will be inspired in your prayers: give an account of what I tell you and of what you will understand in your prayers.”
“The times are very evil. Sorrows will come upon France; the throne will be overturned. The whole world will be upset by miseries of every kind.” As she delivered herself of this ominous prophecy, pain crossed the Virgin’s face. There was a remedy however:
“Come to the foot of the altar.” She indicated the spot. “There graces will be shed upon all, great and little, who ask for them. Graces will be especially shed upon those who ask for them.”
Then the Mother of God turned her attention to the Vincentian Fathers and the Sisters of Charity. “My child, I particularly love to shed graces upon your Community; I love it very much,” she said. “It pains me that there are great abuses in regularity, that the rules are not observed, that there is much relaxation in the two Communities. Tell that to him who has charge of you, even though he is not the superior. He will be given charge of the Community in a special way; he must do everything he can to restore the rule in vigor. Tell him for me to guard against useless reading, loss of time, and visits.”
When the rule should be fully observed once more, Mary promised, another community of Sisters would ask to join the Community of rue du Bac. The prediction was fulfilled in 1849, when Father Etienne received Mother Elizabeth Seton’s Sisters of Emmitsburg, Maryland, into the Paris Community. These Sisters were the foundation stone of the Sisters of Charity in the United States.
Our Lady concluded her instructions concerning the family of St. Vincent with a great promise:
“The Community will enjoy a great peace; it will become large.”
Then Our Lady began to speak of the miseries to come upon France and the whole world. “There will be an abundance of sorrows; and the danger will be great. Yet do not be afraid; tell them not to be afraid. The protection of God shall be ever present in a special way—and St Vincent will protect you. I shall be with you myself. Always, I have my eye upon you. 1 will grant you many graces.”
The Mother of God said it all over again, emphasizing her words, lest there be any mistake. “The moment will come when the danger will be enormous; it will seem that all is lost; at that moment, I will be with you; have confidence. You will recognize my coming, you will see the protection of God upon the Community, the protection of St. Vincent upon both his Communities. Have confidence. Do not be discouraged. I shall be with you. ‘ It was a refrain of hope: Have confidence, have confidence; a refrain of encouragement: Do not be afraid; God, and 1, and St. Vincent will be with you. These were words of promise, to be clung to in time of calamity, as a child clings to its mother’s hand.
Then the worst: Mary began to specify the sorrows and dangers. She spoke in broken sentences, in halting phrases, fighting back the tears that stood in her eyes. “It will not be the same for other communities. There will be victims…. There will be victims among the clergy of Paris. Monseigneur the Archbishop . . .” She could not finish for weeping. “My child, the cross will be treated with contempt; they will hurl it to the ground. Blood will flow; they will open up again the side of Our Lord. The streets will stream with blood. Monseigneur the Archbishop will be stripped of his garments….”
She could not go on. Tears choked her voice, and her lovely face twisted in pain. She could only conclude:
“My child, the whole world will be in sadness.”
When will all this be? Catherine wondered, and immediately she understood: forty years.
The conversation was not one-sided. Catherine spoke freely, unfolding the secrets of her soul, asking questions which Mary graciously answered.
Then, like the fading of a shadow, Our Lady was gone.
Slowly, Catherine got up from her knees. The child still hovered nearby. Together they left the chapel and went back upstairs to the dormitory. The lights in the hall were still lit, but Catherine scarcely noticed them. Her heart was too filled with gladness and horror and hope and bliss, all jumbled together. The hand that had lighted them would put them out. When they got back to the side of Catherine’s bed, the child, too, faded from sight as Our Lady had. Catherine felt now that she knew who he was: her guardian angel, long the confidant of her wish to see the Blessed Virgin. She climbed quickly into bed and pulled the covers around her. Just then the clock struck two. She had been with Our Lady over two hours! She slept no more that night.
This apparition of the Virgin Mary to Catherine Laboure had a personal atmosphere about it, unlike any other in history. While it announced a world mission for Catherine, that would come about in good time; the business of the moment had to deal almost entirely with her and the needs of her soul and the welfare of her beloved Community.
Even the manner of Our Lady’s coming was different. In other famous appearances to chosen souls, Our Lady has burst suddenly upon their sight, as it were, from out of nowhere. Here, her coming was a calm, logical climax to years of intimacy. She arranged it with a sort of heavenly etiquette. First of all, she led Catherine, in her thoughts, to expect it. Then she sent an angel to announce her coming. When Catherine, following the angel, arrived at the chapel, she found it all in readiness for the great happening, brilliant and lighted as if for a midnight Mass. The good Sisters had unwittingly lent their hands to the preparation: spreading their best linen on the altars and decking them with flowers, scrubbing the floor until it shone, for St. Vincent’s feast on the morrow. Then Catherine heard the rustle of a silken gown, and Mary came.
The crowning touch of the personal, however, was the privilege given Catherine of kneeling at Mary’s knee and resting her hands in her lap. So great a favor has been granted to no other seer. Not to Bernadette of Lourdes: she was granted, once, to kiss the golden rose on Our Lady’s foot. Not to the children of Fatima, not even to Lucy, upon whose shoulders the desperate message for the modern world’s salvation was laid. Only to Catherine Laboure.
Catherine’s subsequent visions were not like this first one. Since they were meant for the whole world, there was a certain impersonality about them, very different from the bonds of intimacy entered into on this night of July 18. In November, Mary would come suddenly, while Catherine was at prayer with her Sisters, would deliver her message and be gone. She would not even speak directly to the novice.
Here, however, there were only Mary and Catherine, and no one else in the universe. Here they talked, the Mother and child, for two hours—a long, long time, even on the clocks of Heaven and eternity.
All too soon the prophecies of the vision were fulfilled. On July 27, 1830, just one week later, the revolution erupted in fury. Barricades were thrown up across the narrow, winding streets of the ancient capital. Boulevard and alley echoed to the rattle of musketry and the drunken cries of the looting, burning mob. The dead lay where they fell and the stink of unburied corpses made the summer air nauseating and disease-ridden.
Charles X had brought it on himself. He had failed to measure the temper of the times. It is amazing that he should have failed to realize how very deeply the ideas of the Revolution had taken root in France, that the common people had grown used to freedom in forty years, that the middle class had slowly but surely grown into a power to be reckoned with. It is amazing that he should have failed to notice the envious glances Frenchmen cast upon the growing American Republic across the water, the Republic they had helped gain and keep its independence.
Charles had seen his brother Louis XVI sacrificed in the upsurge of the new age. He had seen another brother, Louis XVIII, wisely drift with the tide, granting a constitutional charter and ruling as a constitutional monarch, even while he blustered that he held his throne by divine right. Charles X, however, was a stubborn old man of sixty-seven when he came to the throne in 1824. All his life he had fought for Bourbon absolutism, and he was not going to change in his old age. “I would rather saw wood than rule like an English king,” he had said, and that about summed it up. His futile attempt to restore the “divine right” monarchy of Louis XIV came to a preposterous climax on July 26, 1830 when he dissolved the Chamber, revoked his brother’s Charter, and muzzled the press. The constitutional monarchists, the middle-class shopkeepers, the extreme radicals, and the Parisian mob, all united against him. The “Glorious Three Days” of the July Revolution followed, and Charles X was toppled from his throne, the trappings of royalty falling from him as they had fallen from Our Lord in the vision of Trinity Sunday.
The Church had prospered under Charles: “For Throne and Altar” had been the motto of his reign. Unfortunately, a great number of the prelates of the land, many of them aristocrats by birth, were only too eager for the full restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, with the privileges it brought the nobles and the clergy. Now, with the fall of Charles, the Church felt the wrath of his enemies. Now it reaped the whirlwind, as it has always reaped, when certain selfish prelates have mistakenly and crassly aligned themselves with the rich and powerful against the common man and the poor. Bishops and priests, members of religious orders, guilty and innocent alike, were imprisoned and beaten and killed. Godlessness ran wild, desecrating churches, pulling down statues, trampling the cross under foot. Just as Our Lady had said.
Monseigneur de Quelen was forced into hiding. He was saved from the maelstrom, spirited away by the quick thinking of a famous Sister of Charity, Sister Rosalie Rendu, a true champion of the poor and downtrodden. During the first day of the fighting, Sister Rosalie, despite the added burden of caring for the wounded, did not neglect a certain old derelict, confined to his bed in a hovel. It was her custom to take him a daily loaf of bread. On this day, to her surprise, she found the old fellow on his feet, breathing the fire of revolution. He pushed aside the loaf she offered and told her, scornfully:
“We need charity no longer. We sack the Archbishop’s palace tomorrow!”
Sister Rosalie knew her “children,” and she knew this was no idle boast. She acted quickly. When the sacking came off as scheduled next day, the looters found the Archbishop and his entire household flown. Ironically, the good prelate was secreted in Sister Rosalie’s own house in the midst of the Faubourg Saint Marceau, where all the looters lived!
The Vincentian Fathers and the Sisters of Charity were spared during this short but intense persecution. Our Lady had promised them her protection, and she gave it. A retreat was in progress at the Motherhouse of the Sisters when the revolution broke: the retreat went on undisturbed. Twice the mob assailed the Motherhouse of the priests; twice they went away, calmly and without incident.
Father Aladel had much to think about during these days. Sister Laboure had been to him again, with a full and explicit account of Our Lady’s visit and of what she had said. The things she had foretold had come to pass. It was incredible: the short revolution was an impromptu affair; it had taken even the most informed by surprise. Sister Laboure, behind her convent walls, could have heard not a whisper of it. Then there was the incident of the attempt on the cross over the entrance to the Vincentian Motherhouse—Sister Laboure had said the attempt would be made—and the refugee bishop . . .
The novice Sister had told Father Aladel that a bishop would seek asylum at the rue de Sevres, and that Our Lady said he could be taken in, for he would be quite safe there. Father Aladel had scarcely returned home from speaking with her when Father Salhorgne told him that Monseigneur de Frayssinous, Bishop of Hieropolis and Minister of Public Worship in the fallen government, had been there to ask whether he might not hide out among the Vincentian Fathers. Father Salhorgne was afraid the prelate might be discovered, should the mob return, and Monseigneur had left.
With all the civil and religious unrest, Father Aladel had even more important things to consider. He had to decide whether this young novice was indeed a seer, whether she had really been favored with the visions she described. The priest could not doubt her sincerity: she really thought she saw them. Suppose she had—what then?
As for Catherine, these terrible days were a sort of triumph, for they went a long way toward vindicating her. She was not the victim of illusions, for the prophecies of her visions had come true. It was a horrible proof, and she could not bring herself to dwell upon it. Rather, her thoughts were fixed upon the future. The Blessed Virgin had spoken of a mission. What could it be? When would she see Our Lady again? The question set up a longing in her, a longing that seized upon her soul and gave it no rest by day or night.