VIII. The Apparition of the Miraculous Medal
Outside the convent on the rue du Bac, the City of Paris had grown quiet; people had gone back to their daily living. Charles X retreated to England, where he no longer ruled even “like an English king.” Louis Philippe came to the throne. Although a Bourbon, he was not of the line of Bourbon kings, but of the Orleans family, and most certainly he was not the divine right monarch the royal Bourbons had been. Dubbed from the start “The Citizen King,” he was the figurehead the new nation wanted.
Saturday, November 27, 1830, was just another day, busy like all the rest with prayer and work and study of the things of God. The next day would be the First Sunday of Advent. At half past five, all the Sisters, professed and novices alike, gathered in the chapel for their evening meditation. The chill November dusk had settled outside, and the chapel was in semi-darkness.
Catherine liked this time of evening. She had always liked it. even at home: the laborious day was over and the tired mind found rest in thinking of God. Tonight, the quiet voice of the Sister reading the prophecies of Christ’s coming at Christmas seemed like the voice of Isaiah himself, calling down the centuries. In the darkness, time and place were no more; only the mind was alive. The voice stopped, and a great stillness followed.
Suddenly, Catherine’s heart leaped. She had heard it—that rustling, that faint swish of silk she could never forget, the sound of Our Lady’s gown as she walked! There it was again—and there was the Queen of Heaven, there in the sanctuary, standing upon a globe. She shone as the morning rising, a radiant vision, “in all her perfect beauty,” as Catherine said later.
Catherine’s eyes widened with bliss at the sight. Yet they were not so dazzled but that, womanlike, they took note of every detail of the Virgin’s dress: that her robe was of silk, “of the whiteness of the dawn,” that the neck of it was cut high and the sleeves plain, that she wore a white veil which fell to her feet, and beneath the veil a lace fillet binding her hair.
The Virgin held in her hands a golden ball which she seemed to offer to God, for her eyes were raised heavenward. Suddenly, her hands were resplendent with rings set with precious stones that glittered and flashed in a brilliant cascade of light. So bright was the flood of glory cast upon the globe below that Catherine could no longer see Our Lady’s feet.
Mary lowered her eyes and looked full at Sister Laboure. Her lips did not move, but Catherine heard a voice.
“The ball which you see represents the whole world, especially France, and each person in particular.”
These words stirred the heart of the Sister with fresh transports of joy, and the dazzling rays seemed to her to increase to blinding brilliance.
“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.”
At this moment, Catherine was so lost in delight that she scarcely knew where she was, whether she lived or died. The golden ball vanished from Mary’s hands; her arms swept wide in a gesture of motherly compassion, while from her jeweled fingers the rays of light streamed upon the white globe at her feet. An oval frame formed around the Blessed Virgin, and written within it in letters of gold Catherine read the words:
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
The voice spoke again:
“Have a Medal struck after this model. All who wear it will receive great graces; they should wear it around the neck. Graces will abound for persons who wear it with confidence.”
The tableau revolved, and Catherine beheld the reverse of the Medal she was to have made. It contained a large M surmounted by a bar and a cross. Beneath the M were the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the one crowned with thorns, the other pierced with a sword. Twelve stars encircled the whole.
And then the vision was gone.
Habit is a saving thing. Certainly it saved Catherine embarrassment or discovery in the next few minutes. She must have said the closing prayers of the meditation with the others; she must have taken her place in line to go to the dining hall; she must have recited the grace and sat down at table. She did not remember. It was the chastening voice of the Mistress of Novices that brought her back to earth.
“Sister Laboure must still be in ecstasy,” it said dryly.
Catherine started in confusion. Why the other novices had begun to eat!
The three great Apparitions of our Lady to Catherine Laboure—they are designated by number for convenience—were complete. The first, the Apparition of July 18, is sometimes called “The Virgin of the Chair”; the second and third, actually two phases of the Apparition of November 27, are known by the titles: “The Virgin of the Globe” or “The Virgin Most Powerful,” and “Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.”
The Medal design submitted by the engraver in 1832 and accepted by Father Aladel was the second phase of the Great Apparition of November 27, representing Our Lady bestowing her graces upon mankind through the symbolism of the rays falling from her outstretched hands upon the globe at her feet. It was not the design originally intended, which was the first phase of the Great Apparition, “The Virgin of the Globe,” offering the golden ball to heaven while the rays streamed from her hands upon the large globe on which she stood. Catherine herself remarked upon this change from the original design in her account of the apparitions given to Sister Dufes, her superior, in 1876, and her words carry a tone of complaint. If she saw fit to complain, it must be that Our Lady herself had wanted the Medal to represent her in the attitude of offering the golden ball. Why, then, the change?
Father Chevalier, Catherine’s last director, in his deposition before the Beatification Tribunal, expresses the opinion that the change was made because of the difficulty of representing the attitude of the first phase in metal, and also because Father Aladel thought it more prudent, in view of the anti-religious feeling at the time, to represent Our Lady in the attitude of the second phase. It is hard to see how the one attitude would have been any more acceptable to anti-religious feeling than the other. The probable reason for the change is the first point made by Father Chevalier, that M. Vachette, the engraver, saw difficulty in delineating within the limits of the engraver’s art at that time, the arms and the golden ball superimposed upon the stamped image of Our Lady’s body. There would have been no such problem today, when dies can be cut so deeply and etched so finely, but it was a problem in 1832. Father Aladel, with no technical knowledge of the problem, would have followed the advice of the engraver.
There is, of course, a difference of emphasis upon doctrine in the two representations, for the first phase of the Apparition, in addition to honoring the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady in the words “conceived without sin,” expressly demonstrates the doctrine that Mary is Mediatrix of All Graces. Very simply, this doctrine—considered by the Church to be certain although not yet solemnly defined—teaches that all prayers and petitions, whether made to God directly, to Our Lady, or to the saints, are presented to God by His Mother; and that all graces, whether answers to prayer or gratuitously bestowed by God, pass to men through the hands of His Mother. In the first phase of the Apparition, the attitude of Our Lady, eyes raised to Heaven, lips moving in prayer, and the symbolic offering of the golden ball of the world, beautifully express the intercession of Mary, while the rays from her fingers express the bestowal of God’s graces through her. In the second phase of the Apparition, the bestowal of the graces alone is represented by the rays flowing from the outstretched hands.
However, while Father Aladel must have regretted the inability to present the completeness of doctrine symbolized in the first phase, he must have considered the intercessory powers of Mary as Mediatrix to be sufficiently represented by the words of the prayer on the Medal: “Pray for us who have recourse to thee.” There is no record of dissatisfaction on Catherine’s part when she saw the first Medals, fresh from the press. Her only comment was a call to arms: “Now it must be propagated.” She, therefore, consented from the first to the Medal’s propagation in its altered form. Moreover, as we shall see, she was in regular contact with our Lady and would be expected to consult her on such an important change. The proof of the Medal’s acceptability to Heaven is in the vast multitude of graces bestowed from the beginning on those w ho wore it and recited the prayer engraved on it. Catherine’s complaining reference to the change, forty-four years later, may be laid to her natural anxiety, with approaching death, as to whether she had carried out her mission exactly. Such anxiety could arise easily out of her very justifiable concern, which we shall hear more of, that the statue of “The Virgin of the Globe,” also commissioned by Our Lady, had not been made.
At the command of her director, Catherine wrote out full accounts of her visions, in 1841, in 1856, and again in 1876. It is odd that, while these accounts are minute and detailed in their descriptions, they omit two significant details of the Medal. The first of these is the serpent whose head Our Lady crushed beneath her heel, as she stood upon the white globe of the earth. This was an obvious pictorial reference to Genesis III: 15, the sole scriptural text with any reference to the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception: “She (the woman) shall crush thy head (the serpent’s), and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” The second detail left out of Catherine’s written accounts was the twelve stars on the back of the Medal. These stars refer probably to the Twelve Apostles, and are mentioned in the text from Apocalypse XII: 1, applied by theologians to Our Lady: “A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” That Catherine transmitted the details of the serpent and the stars to her director, at least by word of mouth, is morally certain, for she approved the Medal which bore both details from the first. Besides, in 1836, when the artist LeCerf was painting canvases of the apparitions, she described the serpent to her director as “green with yellow spots”—a rather fearsome serpent, and one, certainly, to offend the sensibilities of an artist!
There was one further instruction concerning the Medal which Catherine gave Father Aladel orally. The priest was puzzled by the fact that there were no words on the back of the Medal, to balance the prayer on the front. He told Catherine to ask Our Lady what should be written there. Catherine consulted the Virgin in prayer, and returned with the verbatim reply: “The M and the two Hearts express enough.”
Aside from the importance of Catherine’s written accounts as religious historical documents, they are, like all such writings not meant to be published, supreme revelations of the character of the one who wrote them. If we knew nothing whatever of Catherine Laboure, we should know from these accounts that she was a practical, commonsense sort of person, not to be rattled even by the glorious visions of another world. Her first thought upon being awakened by the angel on the night of July 18 was: We shall be discovered. On her knees in the chapel, awaiting the arrival of the Blessed Virgin, she kept craning her neck and peering into the dim recesses of the chapel, for fear “the night Sisters, up with the sick,” would see her. When Our Lady finally came, Catherine did not throw herself upon the Virgin at once in ecstasy, but wondered whether this were really the Mother of God. Certainly she had a practical prudence, much like Our Lady’s when she asked the Angel Gabriel: “How shall it be done?”
Again, she is revealed as an extremely observant person, who, even in the ecstasy of her apparitions, did not miss the smallest details, and as a precise person, who did not fail to report them. Catherine tells us, for example, that Our Lady wore “three rings on each of her fingers.” She tells us, further, that the rings were graduated in size, “the largest one near the base of the finger, one of medium size in the middle, the smallest one at the tip.” She even noticed that the rings themselves were set with stones “of proportionate size, some larger and others smaller.”
Her description of Our Lady’s veil and headdress is a marvel of exactitude. “A white veil covered her head,” Catherine wrote, “falling on either side to her feet. Under the veil her hair, in coils, was bound with a fillet ornamented with lace, about three centimeters in height or of two fingers’ breadth, without pleats, and resting lightly on the hair.”
This supreme accuracy carries over into the recording of the time and place of her visions. She saw the heart of St. Vincent “above the little shrine where the relic of St. Vincent was exposed in the chapel of the Sisters, over the picture of St. Anne and in front of St. Joseph’s picture.” On the night of July I 8, she heard herself called by name at “eleven-thirty in the evening.” She heard the noise of Our Lady’s coming “from the side of the tribune near St. Joseph’s picture.” When she returned to her bed, “it was two o’clock in the morning, for I heard the hour strike.” The opening paragraph of her account of the Great Apparition is incomparable: “On November 27, 1830, which fell upon the Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent, at five-thirty in the evening, in the deep silence after the point of the meditation had been read—that is, several minutes after the point of the meditation—I heard a sound like the rustling of a silken gown, from the tribune near the picture of St. Joseph.”
The precision of these descriptions, particularly the details of the Virgin’s attire, makes all the more mysterious Catherine’s omission of the serpent and the twelve stars, and her failure to give us the faintest clue as to Our Lady’s age or personal appearance.
Catherine had a woman’s eye for color. When the heart of St. Vincent was shown her in April, 1830, she recorded that it was successively “white flesh color,” “fiery red,” “dark red,” and “vermilion.” It finally appeared “sombre, the color of dead flesh.” Certainly not every woman can boast this eye for nuance and shading. Her description of the Virgin’s dress in the apparition of November 27: “of the whiteness of the dawn,” has ever been the despair of artists, and they have gotten around the problem by painting the dress a flat white or cream color. Catherine, who, as a farm girl had often seen the day break, meant literally that Our Lady was clothed in the color of the dawn sky: a basic white with myriad tints of red, pink, saffron, and the palest blue.
Perhaps the most surprising trait revealed by Catherine Laboure in her written accounts is her flair for the right word or phrase. Certain descriptive flashes in her story of the Apparitions would be the envy of professional writers. When she tells us that the chapel all lighted for the coming of the Blessed Virgin reminded her of “Midnight Mass,” the phrase is completely evocative. As Mary came, Catherine heard “the swish of a silken gown.” When the Virgin departed, “she faded away and became but a shadow, which moved toward the tribune, the way she had come.” At the close of the Miraculous Medal Apparition, on the other hand, “everything disappeared from my sight, like a candle that is blown out.” In describing the brilliant rays that flashed from Mary’s hands, Catherine uses the word rejaillissant, thus suggesting a breathtaking picture of dazzling light “bursting from all sides,” like a fountain. The rays grew so bright that they “flooded the base, so that I could no longer see the feet of the Blessed Virgin.” Mary’s hands were “bent down under the weight of the treasures of graces obtained.” For an uneducated girl, Catherine’s accounts are masterpieces of clarity and beauty.
As soon as possible, Catherine, with a natural fear and trepidation—she had been rebuffed so many times!—laid the whole matter of the Medal before Father Aladel. He listened patiently, but once more refused to put much stock in the visions of a novice.
The great vision of November 27, the vision of the Medal, was repeated again and again, probably five times in all. This very repetition seemed to insist on action, and each time Catherine was troubled afresh, for each time she knew that she must approach Father Aladel again, and each time she dreaded the encounter more.
These encounters of confessor and penitent had become highly excitable and unpleasant. Voices were raised and hard words uttered. The sounds of battle drifted out of the confessional to startle the ears of the Sisters waiting their turn. Although they did not know then what it all meant, Sisters later testified before the solemn tribunal convoked by Rome to investigate Catherine’s sanctity, that they often overheard the voice of Father Aladel, its tone peremptorily commanding, and the voice of Sister Laboure, its tone just as peremptorily insisting. She testified herself, shortly before her death, that she once confessed to the priest that, in a moment of frustration, she had told Our Lady that she “had better appear to someone else, since no one will believe me,” and that the priest in horror had called her a “wicked wasp.” These pitched battles were not of her choosing, for there is further testimony of the Sisters who survived her that she approached the confessional trembling. She had a dogged and determined will, however, that would not sidestep any unpleasantness to achieve its objective, and a spirited tongue to pursue that objective against all argument and remonstrance. There is ample evidence of her tart rejoinders throughout her life.
Not that she was untractable or disobedient: that is another matter entirely. Father Aladel, who knew her soul best, never accused her of the slightest disobedience or rebellion. Quite the opposite: he called her most submissive. Therefore, when he would feel himself forced to call a halt to the discussion, his word was enough for her no matter how sorely she might suffer in her silence. In the matter of her visions, nevertheless, she had a command from Heaven that must be obeyed, and she fought tooth and nail to obey it, to see the mission entrusted to her carried out. As always, it was her indomitable obedience that won the day.