X. The Medal and its Wonders
Father Aladel had sifted the character of his penitent quite thoroughly by now. He knew her soul, as every priest knows the soul of a regular penitent, better than his own. He had even acquired a special knowledge of her soul, for she had presented a special problem and it had been necessary to give her special study. He was completely satisfied with what he found. She was solid and trustworthy. If there was trickery in this business, it was surely not of her making. He had further buttressed his opinion by consulting with his friend Father Etienne. It was proper for him to do so, for the Medal was a matter of public concern. Not that he told his friend the identity of the favored Sister at this time; that would come later, at a time approved by Our Lady.
It was Father Etienne, at the time Procurator General of the Congregation, who finally afforded Father Aladel the opportunity to act concerning the Medal. In January 1832, Father Etienne had an official call to make upon Archbishop de Quelen, and asked Father Aladel to accompany him. When his friend had finished his business with the Archbishop, Father Aladel seized the occasion to tell the prelate the story of his penitent, her visions, and the request of the Blessed Virgin for a Medal to be struck. The Archbishop listened keenly and questioned him closely as to the character of the Sister and the theological details of the Medal. At length he was satisfied. He saw nothing contrary to Church teaching in the Medal. Rather, it expressed in apt and beautiful symbolism doctrines the Church had always taught. He gave his permission for the Medal to be made, and asked that some of the first ones be sent him. Monseigneur de Quelen was known for his special devotion to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. It is little wonder that he took to the Medal of the Immaculate Conception at once.
A glance at the character of Monseigneur de Quelen increases our admiration for God’s efficiency: He lays all His plans with supreme perfection. The Archbishop of Paris was a great and good churchman in a hierarchy still mottled with prelates of a lesser stripe. An aristocrat by birth, de Quelen did not share the aristocratic passion for privilege at the expense of the poor. A priest by adoption, he did not count his priesthood a guarantee of security and comfort. A high prelate by election, he did not regard the ancient and noble See of Paris as his personal patrimony. Hyacinthe de Quelen was a true father of his people and shepherd of his flock.
Perversely enough, this good prelate had much to suffer at the hands of his people when they revolted against the oppression of selfish rulers and the pretensions of the unworthy churchmen who supported them. Like many another innocent man, he was forced to suffer with the guilty. In the revolution of 1830, he had to flee twice for his life. Each time, in a spirit of forgiveness, this great prelate returned to rule his people with love.
Shortly after Father Aladel’s historic interview with Monseigneur de Quelen, a virulent epidemic of cholera broke out in Paris. Thus, ironically, after a delay at which the Queen of Heaven herself had complained, the striking of the Medal had to be delayed again, in the very moment of victory. Nursing the sick was the primary work of the Sisters of Charity; and as they moved into action in the cholera crisis, Father Aladel was wholly taken up in directing their campaign of mercy. It was the month of Mary before the busy priest made his all-important visit to the engraver, M. Vachette, at 54 Quai des Orfevres. M. Vachette had founded his firm in 1815; the firm has long since gone out of business, but the order of 20,000 Medals given it by Father Aladel on that blessed day in May 1832 has assured it of immortality.
The first 2,000 Medals of Father Aladel’s order were delivered on June 30, 1832 When Catherine received her share of these first Medals from the hands of the priest, she said:
“Now it must be propagated.”
Catherine always kept some of these first Medals with her throughout her life. About ten of them survive today, jealously guarded in the archives of the Sisters of Charity in Paris. One is on exhibition in the Miraculous Medal Art Museum in Germantown, Philadelphia. They are essentially the same as the Medals we know today, except that they are not the masterpieces of artistry and engraving effected by modern craftsmen. Little, flat, oval pieces of some alloy, they are a far cry from the ravishing vision Catherine saw, yet they are the sole reason for the vision. Our Lady herself came down from Heaven to model them.
The propagation of the Medal urged by Catherine was carried out so swiftly that it was miraculous in itself. The first supply of Medals vanished in no time. Pope Gregory XVI placed one of them at the foot of the crucifix on his desk. Father Gillet, Redemptorist founder of the Sisters. Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in America, had the design of the Medal placed on his ordination card in 1836.
As soon as Archbishop de Quelen had received some of the first Medals, he put one in his pocket and went to visit Monseigneur de Pradt, former chaplain to Napoleon and unlawful Archbishop of Malines, who lay dying in Paris. This prelate had sided with Napoleon in the Emperor’s quarrel with the Church, and had been excommunicated by the Holy See. He had furthered his contumacy by accepting the archbishopric of Malines from Napoleon’s hands. Ousted from his illegal possession of the See at the Emperor’s downfall, he now lay on his deathbed, unreconciled to the Church and defiant. He received Archbishop de Quelen, but steadfastly refused to discuss the all-important object of the visit, the abjuration of his errors. At length, Archbishop de Quelen, admitting defeat, withdrew. He had not yet left the house when the sick man suddenly called him back. In that stroke of time he had capitulated to the Queen of the Medal. Completely docile and repentant, he made his confession and was received back into the saving bosom of the Church. He died a peaceful death the next day, the first signal triumph of the Miraculous Medal.
The first order of 20,000 Medals proved to be but a small start. The new “Medals of the Immaculate Conception” began to pour from the presses in streams, spilling over France and escaping to the world beyond. Wonders sprang up in their wake, miracles of mercy and healing and grace. By December 1836, the firm of Vachette had sold several million Medals. Eleven other Parisian engravers had equaled this number, and four Lyon engravers were hard at work to meet the demand.
Excitedly, people passed the Medal from hand to hand:
“Take this Miraculous Medal….”
Its formal name was forgotten. It was the “Miraculous Medal” even in those first days, for the power working through it was seen to be truly miraculous. It would never be called anything else. Even the Liturgy has accorded it the proud tide conferred on it by the people who accepted it with faith and love.
If the wildfire spread of the Medal was miraculous, the wonders it worked were more so. No sacramental of the Church had made such impact on the Catholic world since the Rosary had routed the Albigensian and the Turk. Its name was honestly come by, for it literally worked miracles. It seemed to specialize in the impossible, the conversion of the hardened sinner, the cure of the hopelessly ill. And yet it only seemed to specialize in these startling favors because they were startling. Actually it blanketed all the ills of daily living, if only because there were so many more of these. People came to count on this Miraculous Medal in every need. And it is this universal concern of Mary for every necessity of her children, ordinary and extraordinary alike, that has endeared the Medal to all the world.
There would be no point in cataloging the wonders worked by the Medal in those early days, for it works the same wonders today. There are hundreds of modern conversions to match that of Monseigneur de Pradt. The hopelessly ill are still cured. And there are countless lesser favors flowing in a steady stream from the outstretched hands of the Queen of the Medal. The national Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Germantown, Philadelphia, records 500 such favors, actually reported, every week. The favors that go unreported must be, conservatively, ten times that number. And this at but one tiny spot on the globe.
By 1833 the favors attributed to the Medal had become so numerous that Archbishop de Quelen decided to sort them out in the interest of prudence and accuracy. He confided the task to a Father Le Guillou, a noted theologian of the day. Father Le Guillou spent months in examining the origin of the Medal and the more remarkable favors attributed to it. His findings appeared in April 1834, in a publication called Mois de Marie, with an introductory letter by Father Aladel. The theologian’s study had not been a canonical inquiry; that would come later. He simply reported facts, scrupulously verified. The first edition of the brochure sold out overnight; succeeding editions went as quickly. A fifth edition of 22,600 copies printed in December 1835 was gone by February 1836.
Father Le Guillou’s favorable report decided Archbishop de Quelen to institute a canonical inquiry. He appointed Monseigneur Quentin, Vicar General of Paris, to conduct it. The sessions were opened on 1836, a day to be graced twenty-two years later by Our Lady’s first appearance to Bernadette at Lourdes. Father Aladel and Father Etienne were the chief witnesses. Sister Catherine was called, but the court excused her upon the assurance of Father Aladel that it was morally impossible for her to testify because of an invincible repugnance on her part to reveal her identity and an apparent forgetfulness of the details of the vision.
There can be no doubt that Catherine received supernatural help in keeping her secret, not once but many times. The most startling evidence of this help occurred at the time of the Inquiry, when Archbishop de Quelen insisted that she testify in person. She might even wear a veil over her face when she did so, the kindly prelate said. In transmitting the Archbishop’s wishes to her, Father Aladel had vigorously urged Catherine to accede to them. All in vain. The poor, harried Sister felt she could not go through with it. Her repugnance was so genuine that it convinced her confessor, and he defended her stand before the Court. But even he had been amazed at her assertion that it would do her no good to testify, for she had forgotten every last detail of the Apparitions!
A clinching argument in favor of the supernatural character of this forgetfulness was a parallel incident that occurred about this same time.
Plans were afoot to enlarge the chapel at rue du Bac. In order to preserve an exact record of the chapel as it was when Our Lady visited it, Father Aladel decided to have two pictures painted—of the Apparitions of July 18 and November 27. He commissioned an artist named Le Cerf for the work. At one point the artist felt it necessary to verify the color of Our Lady’s veil. The priest, not wishing to prompt Catherine by asking her the specific detail, asked her to refresh his memory by relating the complete details of the Apparitions.
“I can remember no detail,” Catherine answered, “except that the Blessed Virgin’s veil was of the whiteness of the dawn.”
The only point of information wanted!
Heaven came to Catherine’s aid in guarding her secret many other times throughout her life; none, however, so patently supernatural as this period of temporary forgetfulness. It would express this heavenly aid better to say that she was given a supernatural facility in turning aside the guesses of the merely curious and the shrewd surmises of the more thoughtful. As Father Chevalier, her last director, put it:
During her time at Enghien, it was vaguely suspected that she was the privileged Sister to whom the Blessed Virgin had revealed the Miraculous Medal. Allusions to this were made often in her presence, and indiscreet questions were even addressed to her. Some seemed to believe that she had seen the Apparition, others found it difficult to believe. Never did she appear troubled, or upset, or hard-pressed to reply: she always found the means of guarding her secret without giving anything away.
You could conclude that this Sister possessed the virtue of prudence in a high degree, and you could even believe without rashness that on many of these occasions the Spirit of Wisdom helped her in a special way to guard her secret.
The findings of the Canonical Inquiry of Paris completely vindicated Catherine. The court extolled her character and virtue, and placed wholehearted credence in her visions. Two important conclusions were reached: that the Medal was of supernatural origin, and that the wonders worked through it were genuine.
The immediate significance of the Inquiry was the solemn ecclesiastical approbation it gave the Miraculous Medal. The Inquiry had a wider and even more important significance, however, for the findings of this ecclesiastical court, held within a few short years of the events it investigated and based upon first-hand testimony, were vital to the approbation of the Medal by the Holy See, to the establishment of a feast, in 1895, in honor of the Medal, and to the Beatification and Canonization of Sister Catherine herself.
Overjoyed at the findings of his court, Archbishop de Quelen now gave free rein to his lifelong devotion to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. In a series of pastoral letters he urged this devotion upon his people, and consecrated himself and his diocese to the Immaculate Conception. On December 15, 1836 he consecrated the church of Notre Dame de Lorette in Paris to “Mary honored in her most pure conception.” Through his efforts the invocation “Queen conceived without sin” was inserted in the Litany of Loreto.
Our Lady was at work in other quarters, too. The Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity on rue du Bac was located in the parish of a zealous priest named Father Defriche-Desgenette. The parish church was called the Church of the Missions. Father Desgenette approached Father Aladel and urged him to welcome pilgrimages to the Chapel of the Apparitions on rue du Bac. Father Aladel refused on the grounds that an influx of pilgrims would interfere with the devotions of the Sisters and destroy the recollection and interior spirit of the Community. Favorable to Father Aladel is the fact that Our Lady did not ask for pilgrimages to rue du Bac, as she was explicitly to ask at Lourdes. Nevertheless, considered a century later, Father Aladel’s refusal seems to have been short-sighted. It is to be feared that his decision actually retarded the spread of devotion to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. This opinion is strengthened by the tremendous strides made in devotion to Our Lady of the Medal in France since the Chapel of the Apparitions became a place of general pilgrimage several years ago. Father Aladel’s decision is further to be deplored because it deprived the Sisters of Charity of presenting to the Queen of Heaven the vast devotion of the faithful who flocked to the shrine of Our Lady established by Father Desgenette some years later.
When Father Aladel turned down Father Desgenette’s suggestion, he actually made the counter suggestion that the pastor make his parish church of the Missions the place of pilgrimage. Father Desgenette did nothing about it at the time, possibly because it seemed illogical to him to ask pilgrims to bypass the actual church where Our Lady had appeared in favor of another where no such supernatural event had occurred. In 1832 he was appointed pastor of the parish of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. The parish was run down at the heels spiritually and for four years even the enormous zeal of this man of God could do nothing to reform it. He wrote of it in discouragement:
“There is in Paris a parish almost unknown, even by a large number of its parishioners. It lies in the center of the town, between the Bourse and the Palais Royale, bounded by theatres and haunts of pleasure. It is the quarter most given up to the preoccupations of moneymaking and industry, and to passions of every kind. Its church, which is dedicated to Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, is empty even on feast days…. No Sacraments are administered, even at the hour of death…. If the parish priest succeeds in gaining admission to the bedside of a dying person, it is on condition that he wait until the dying person has lost consciousness and, furthermore, that he appear only in lay dress.”
As the years passed, Father Desgenette became convinced that he was wasting his time in this hell hole. And then, on December 3, 1836, he received an interior illumination during Mass: he must dedicate his church to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. A great peace flowed into his soul, but, Mass over, he began to fear that the interior voice was an illusion. He was making his thanksgiving when the same voice sounded in the depths of his soul: You must dedicate your church to the most Holy and Immaculate Heart of Mary. Back in his rectory, Father Desgenette determined to rid his mind of what might still be an illusion by sitting down to compose, calmly and with deep logical thought, a set of rules for an association in honor of the Immaculate Heart. Much to his amazement, he found that every last rule was already crystal clear in his mind, and, while his pen flew over the paper, the good priest trembled with the knowledge that it was not the result of his own thought that he was writing down!
On Sunday, December 11, Father Desgenette announced the formation of the new society and called a first meeting for that evening. In a burst of optimism, he counted on fifty people attending. Five hundred came, most of them men, and all of them without any clear idea of what the association was about! During the Litany of Loreto a sensible thrill of devotion ran through the congregation at the invocation “Refuge of Sinners, pray for us,” which the priest recited three times, his voice charged with emotion.
Five days later, on December 16, 1836, Archbishop de Quelen canonically erected the Association of the Holy and Immaculate Heart of Mary for the Conversion of Sinners.
Thus, within two weeks, a whirlwind of grace had descended on the parish of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. The parish was rejuvenated overnight, and the church became a place of national pilgrimage. On April 24, 1838, a brief of the Sovereign Pontiff erected the Association into an Archconfraternity with the power of affiliating similar associations throughout the Church. At the death of Father Desgenette the Archconfraternity of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires numbered twenty million associates, and 15,000 affiliated confraternities. There are many more thousands today. The center of the devotion in America is Father Baker’s magnificent Basilica of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna, N. Y.
Thus, what Father Aladel rejected became the lifework of Father Desgenette. There can be no doubt that it was the work of Providence, but the question, whether Providence intended it originally for Father Aladel and the Sisters of Charity, will always go unanswered.
When Father Desgenette would come upon Sisters of Charity kneeling before the altar of the Archconfraternity in Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, he would say to them:
“My good Sisters, I am pleased to see you here; but your own chapel is the true pilgrim shrine. There you have the Blessed Virgin; there she manifested herself to you.”