XV. The “Cross of Victory” Vision
On February 22, 1848, there erupted the first of the bloody Parisian battles that marked that year of Revolutions. Louis Philippe had grown bored with being a figurehead king and his Bourbon blood had begun to show in a series of high-handed actions that smacked of a return to absolutism. He overplayed his hand, however, by refusing to allow the middle class to hold political rallies, or even a banquet, and the revolution was on. Barricades were thrown up in the streets while the royal soldiers stood by. In a few short hours “The Citizen King” was on his way to exile in England. A provisional government was set up the next day, manned by two parties: the Republicans, who wanted political reform, and the Socialists, who wanted a reform of society itself.
This February revolt was not directed in any way toward the Church. During the years of Louis Philippe’s reign the Catholic Party had aligned itself more and more with the forces of democracy, and the hatred of the Church so rampant in 1789 and 1830 had waned.
Indeed, the Paris mob carried the cross in procession from the Tuilleries to the Church of St. Roch, while cries of Vive le Christ resounded on all sides. Further, the mob treated priests with great respect and invited them to bless the symbolic “trees of liberty.” The Church responded to this show of good will by supporting the provisional government.
The rapprochement was short-lived. The Socialists of Louis Blanc, who detested the Church, soon got the upper hand in the government. They were aided in their bitter attacks on religion by the renegade Abbe de Lammenais, who accused the Catholic Party of being monarchists. Although the Catholics answered the charges, the clergy were set upon in some of the provinces.
A new Assembly was elected on April 23. It was overwhelmingly anti-socialist, and when the noted Dominican preacher and spiritual writer, Lacordaire, arrived in his white robes to take his seat in the Assembly, he received an ovation from the Paris mob. The Assembly suppressed the National Workshops set up at the demand of the Socialists to employ 100,000 jobless workingmen, and, in retaliation Blanc stirred up a fresh revolt. Workingmen threw up new barricades and a bloody, three days’ battle was fought, June 24-26. The revolt was finally put down by General Cavaignac, but not before Monseigneur Affre, Archbishop of Paris, died by an assassin’s bullet on the barricades
With true heroism, the Archbishop had resolved to plead with his children to stop the carnage, had resolved to offer his life, if need be. All fighting ceased as he appeared atop a barricade, his arms raised for silence. A shot rang out, and he fell mortally wounded. Thinking themselves duped, the revolutionists resumed firing and the bloodshed went on for another day. Although he died in vain, it must have consoled the prelate, in his last moments, to hear leaders of both sides disavow his murder. They spoke the truth; Monseigneur Affre had been respected by all. The man who killed him was himself shot down the next day, and died confessing his crime, in the saving arms of the Church.
Sister Rosalie, the redoubtable Sister of Charity who had saved the life of Monseigneur de Quelen in 1830, repeated Monseigneur Affre’s heroic attempt on June 26. She was more successful than he. Climbing upon a barricade in the Faubourg Saint Marceau, she literally brought the Revolution to an end in that Quarter by commanding a cease fire.
When peace and stability were restored, a general election was held, and Prince Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was chosen President of the Second French Republic. The constitution was solemnly proclaimed in the Place de la Concorde. Before the ceremony, the crowd intoned the Veni Sancte Spiritus and Monseigneur Sibour, the successor of the martyred Archbishop Affre, blessed the assemblage. Catholicism was still the heritage of the French people.
Catherine was not involved in any direct way in the Revolution of 1848, as she would be in the Communist uprising of 1871. However, at the end of July, Father Aladel received an urgent note. It had to do with a new vision, a vision of a mysterious cross which Catherine had seen earlier in 1848, or perhaps even in 1847.
A cross, covered with a black veil or crape, appeared in the air, passing over a section of Paris and casting terror into hearts [she wrote]. It was carried by men of angry visage, who, stopping suddenly in front of Notre Dame, let the cross fall into the mire, and, seized with fright themselves, ran off at full speed.
At the same instant, an outstretched arm appeared which pointed to blood, and a voice was heard, saying: “Blood flows, the innocent dies, the pastor gives his life for his sheep.”
She went on to recount how the cross was lifted up anew with respect and placed upon a base some ten or twelve feet square, where it stood to a height of fifteen or twenty feet. Around it were carried some of the dead and wounded who had suffered “in the grave events which transpired.” The cross was then held in great reverence and was called the “Cross of Victory.” People came to see it from all parts of France and even from foreign lands, led both by devotion, since many miracles of protection were attributed to this cross, and by curiosity, because it was also a great work of art.
Catherine described this mysterious cross as made of some precious, exotic wood, and ornamented with golden bands, a thing of marvelous beauty. Upon it hung the figure of Christ, and with her usual precision Catherine described this figure “with the crown of thorns on His head, the hair entangled among the thorns of the crown, the head drooping upon the side of the heart; the wound in His side, about three fingers in breadth, open and blood flowing from it drop by drop.”
Catherine concluded the letter thus:
Father, this is the third time I have spoken to you of this cross, after having consulted the good God, the Blessed Virgin, and our good father St. Vincent, on his feast day and every day of the octave.
I abandoned myself entirely to him, and asked him to take away from me every extraordinary thought either on this subject or any other. Instead of finding peace after this prayer, I found myself the more pressed to give you the whole thing in writing. I do it by obedience and I hope afterward to be no longer disturbed.
I am with the most profound respect, your entirely devoted daughter in the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
July 30, 1848.
The conclusion of this letter gives us some hint of the agony of soul this mysterious vision of the cross caused Catherine. So great was her agitation that she was driven to ask St. Vincent to wipe out of her mind all memory of this singular vision “and any other extraordinary thought.” Certainly, all the visions of Catherine Laboure caused her great pain and harassment of soul, and, at this point, she seemed to want no further part of that miraculous supernatural world in which she constantly lived.
After Catherine’s death, another note concerning this “Cross of Victory” was found among her effects, but this note throws no more light on the vision than did the first:
The enemies of religion carry a cross, covered with a black veil, which casts terror into souls; the cross triumphs. It is called the Cross of Victory, and wears the livery of the nation. It is set up alongside Notre Dame, in the place of Victories.
It is made of a strange precious wood, magnificently ornamented, with golden apples at its extremities; the great Christ nailed to it leans His head to the right side [sic] and there streams from the wound on his right side a great deal of blood.
The badge of the nation is fixed at the height of the great beam of the cross; white, symbol of innocence, “flickers.” upon the crown of thorns, the red symbolizes blood, the blue is the livery of the Blessed Virgin.
Heaven—and Catherine—were still preoccupied with France. What nation has been given to see its colors part of a miraculous vision, or explained in such mystic symbolism?
This strange vision of Catherine’s has been all but forgotten. Of her biographers, only Lucien Misermont so much as mentions it. Neither she, nor Father Aladel, ever referred to it again. No doubt the obscurity of its meaning has discouraged anyone who stumbled upon it. It would seem to have a very limited significance, directed only to France and her throes of 1848. “The pastor who gave his life for his sheep” certainly could refer to Monseigneur Affre, who perished while on a peace mission in the Revolution of 1848. So, too, however, did Monseigneur Darboy, in 1871. Nor should it be forgotten that, in 1830, Our Lady predicted that “the cross will be cast down, blood will flow, they will open up again the side of Our Lord.
. . . Monseigneur the Archbishop will be stripped of his garments…. The whole world will be in sadness”; and when Catherine wondered, When will this be? she understood clearly—Forty years—that is, in 1870 or 1871.
A moment’s thought will show that the cross played a prominent part in most of Catherine Laboure’s visions. Christ wore it on His breast in the vision of Trinity Sunday, 1830, and it fell to the ground at His feet; it appeared atop the golden ball Our Lady held in her hands in the first phase of the great vision of November 27, 1830, and in the second phase of the vision it appeared again, on the reverse of the Miraculous Medal. On the night before his conversion, Ratisbonne was haunted by the vision of a mysterious cross, a cross which he recognized, once converted, on the back of the Miraculous Medal given him by Baron Bussieres. It is the “Cross of Victory” specifically set up before the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the pilgrims flocking to it from all parts of France and outside of France, that make this vision so mysterious. The prophecy seems not to have been fulfilled. Was it only an allegory, or is its fulfillment yet to come? Could the cross and the “trees of liberty” carried by the Parisian mob in the recent Revolution have been part of its fulfillment?
Whatever the vision’s meaning, or its outcome, Catherine unburdened herself of it and life went on. Despite her prayers to St. Vincent, she was not to know release from the miraculous.
On a certain morning about the year 1850 when the rising bell rang at 4 o’clock, the Sister who slept in the bed alongside Catherine’s noticed with alarm that Catherine was missing. Worse, her bed had not been slept in. Dressing quickly, the Sister ran to the Superior with the disturbing news. Other Sisters noticed the commotion and joined the search. Catherine was found in the garden, on her knees before the statue of Our Lady, hands joined in prayer. Apparently she had been there all night. She was in a state of trance, or more properly, of ecstasy, for she heard no one approach her, nor did she rouse when they spoke to her. Even as the Sisters watched, she extended her arms wide as if in complete acceptance or submission. Then she came to herself, visibly embarrassed at discovering her audience. She got to her feet without a word of explanation and went to the chapel for the morning meditation. Although she showed signs of great fatigue from the night-long vigil she knelt up straight as ever at her prayers, heard Mass, and began the day’s duties, as if nothing had happened. That afternoon she asked permission to go to the rue du Bac to consult with Father Aladel.
This garden statue of Our Lady was a favorite of Catherine’s. It was her custom—and the whole house was aware of it—to pray before it often. It got to be a sort of game with the orphans of the house, to hide in the bushes and watch the holy Sister at her prayers. Not many years after the incident the statue was replaced by a new one. This replacement was shattered by the Communists in 1871, and the old statue restored to its place of honor, to the evident joy of Sister Catherine.
In 1854 Pius IX made the momentous pronouncement that, beyond any shadow of a doubt, Our Blessed Lady was “preserved and exempt from all stain of original sin, from the first instant of her conception.” Pius himself recognized that the impetus of devotion to the Immaculate Conception that led to this definition had come from France. Indeed, it is certain that the Apparitions of the Miraculous Medal to Catherine Laboure in 1830 hastened the solemn declaration of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, just as the Apparitions of Lourdes, wherein Our Lady declared: “I am the Immaculate Conception,” set the seal of Heaven’s approval on it.
There was great joy in France in 1858 when it became known that Mary had appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a peasant girl of the French Pyrenees. No one was happier than Catherine Laboure. “You see,” she exclaimed, “it is our own Blessed Mother, the Immaculate!”
On the day of the first national pilgrimage of France to the grotto at Lourdes, a group of the Sisters of Enghien were standing at the front door of the house, deep in conversation. Catherine joined them, and, before they knew what was happening, she had launched into a detailed description of the ceremony taking place at that moment at Lourdes. Several days later, the Parisian papers verified everything she had said.
It is interesting to conjecture whether Catherine had her knowledge of an event occurring several hundred miles away by clairvoyance or whether she was bilocated, being actually present at Lourdes and Enghien at one and the same time. There are several well-authenticated cases of bilocation in religious history, notably those of St. Catherine of Siena, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, and, more recently, of the English lay apostle, Teresa Higginson. Whatever the way in which Catherine Laboure came to a knowledge of this distant event, her knowledge was definitely of supernatural origin.
A tangible reminder of the very real connection between the Apparitions of Paris and Lourdes was the medal Bernadette wore about her neck during her meetings with the Mother of God. It was not a Miraculous Medal, but a sort of hybrid: the face of the medal was an exact copy of the front of the Miraculous Medal, but the back was devoted to St. Teresa of Avila. This medal was given by Bernadette to a parish priest of St. Thomas d’Aquin in Paris, who was on pilgrimage to Lourdes, and eventually it found its way to the rue du Bac, where it now reposes in the archives.
The incidents of Catherine’s ecstasy in the garden and clairvoyance concerning Lourdes help to explain the increasing suspicions that she was the Sister of the Apparitions of 1830.
It is a vexing thing, the way these rumors concerning Catherine got around, and they must have annoyed her a great deal. They were a threat to her security and, in a very real sense, a danger to her peace of soul. Always to be on one’s guard can be very unnerving, and the sly allusions, the open questions, plagued Catherine all her life. She had to have heavenly aid to turn them aside so often and so well. Indeed the fact that she managed to go along so placid and serene, seemingly unconcerned, demonstrates a great trust in the power of Heaven to protect her. It was not herself that she had to fear, for she had the shields of a strong will and a deep humility. Her danger lay from others, and she had to rely on Heaven to divert their thoughts and stop their mouths or, in the breach, to give her the means of baffling them.
As is so often the case, it would seem that Catherine was most often betrayed by well-meaning persons, persons who truly admired her and wished her well. The chief culprits seem to be Sister Sejole, her one close friend, and Father Etienne.
Sister Sejole will be remembered as the young Assistant at Chatillon who perceived from the first the greatness of Catherine’s soul and urged the Superior to accept her as a postulant. When it became known that the Blessed Virgin had appeared to one of the novices, Sister Sejole exclaimed:
“If it is true, it must be Sister Laboure. That child is destined to receive the greatest graces from Heaven.”
Sister Sejole always held this conviction and, although she never questioned Catherine about the Apparitions, she lost no opportunity, when in Paris, to visit her. What is more to the point, she urged others to do the same.
“Later on, when they speak of her who saw the Blessed Virgin,” she told them, “you will be happy to have known this beautiful soul, living such an ordinary life and keeping herself hidden behind her duties.” This is but one example of what was a practice with Sister Sejole.
Father Villette, Procurator General at the time of the Ordinary Process in the opening years of the present century, states boldly in his deposition that “if at the end of Sister Catherine’s life, only a few persons doubted that she was the Sister favored with the Apparitions, it was because Father Aladel and Father Etienne, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity and confidant of Father Aladel, departed a little from the silence they had guarded up until this time.”
Issue can be taken with Father Villette on two points: it is certain that Catherine’s identity was not so widely known, even at the end of her life, as Father Villette indicates; and it would seem that Father Aladel must be exonerated of the charge that he had broken faith with his penitent. To begin with, Father Aladel died in 1865, eleven years before Catherine, and therefore was not alive to depart from his customary silence, even a little, “at the end of Sister Catherine’s life.” Furthermore, there can be found no slightest trace of evidence that Father Aladel ever revealed Catherine’s identity to anyone, except perhaps to Father Etienne and, as shall be seen, this can be justified.
Father Villette is right, however, in saying that Father Etienne revealed Sister Catherine’s identity, at least by indirection, to Sister Dufes when he sent her to the house at Enghien as Superior in 1860.
Aside from working closely with Father Aladel in the affairs of the Community, Father Etienne was his most intimate friend. However, it would be most unjust to Father Aladel to suggest that it was through their friendship that Father Etienne came to know that Catherine was the Sister of the visions. It would be wholly wicked to suggest that so good a priest as Father Aladel would have sacrificed a priestly confidence to friendship.
The more sensible explanation of Father Etienne’s knowledge is that he was told the identity of the Sister, with her permission, because of the nature of the offices he held in the Community. We have, in fact, the evidence of Father Chevalier and Father Chinchon, both confessors of the saint in their turn, of Father Villette and others that Father Aladel did at some time during Catherine’s life reveal her identity to Father Etienne. Further, there is found among Catherine’s writings, in her own hand, a casual reference to a conversation that she had with Father Etienne concerning certain specific requests of the Blessed Virgin, and the whole tone of the reference indicates that this was not the first such conversation.
As both Procurator General and Superior General, Etienne was of the first rank in the hierarchy of both the Vincentian Fathers and Sisters of Charity. Added to this, the Double Family of St. Vincent was under process of reformation at the time, and this reformation stemmed directly from the admonitions of Our Lady given during the Apparition of July 18, 1830 and through interior communications granted Sister Catherine at various times in the years that followed it.
When Father Etienne was elected Superior General in 1843, he set about initiating so faithfully and energetically the reform demanded by Our Lady that he earned the title of second founder of the Double Family. The reform was not a work of days, or even months, but of years, and throughout the years Catherine continued to convey the express wishes of the Blessed Virgin to her Superiors. Sometimes she sent these messages through Father Aladel, who had been elected Third Assistant to the Superior General in 1834 and Director of the Sisters in 1846, but it is conceivable that she also at times delivered her messages to Father Etienne in person; indeed, on the strength of the written memorandum found among her papers, it is practically certain.
There is every indication, therefore, that Father Etienne came by his knowledge of Sister Catherine legitimately and with justification. There can be no quarrel with him, or with Father Aladel, on this point. Fault can be found only with the fact that he passed his knowledge on. It may be argued that the Superior General would have felt himself justified in identifying Sister Catherine to Sister Dufes since the latter was to be Catherine’s Superior, but at the same time the necessity of doing so can be justly questioned. None of Catherine’s previous Superiors seems to have known she was the Sister of the Apparitions, nor does there seem to have been any particular inconvenience to anyone because of the lack of this knowledge Moreover, Catherine was strongly insistent upon remaining unknown, even to her Superiors.
This is the only occasion of which we have definite knowledge of Father Etienne’s breaking silence. There may have been others; but a secret needs to be let out only once in order for it to spread.
At any rate, whether through Sister Sejole or Father Etienne or the guesses and deductions of the Sisters themselves, there was a steady undercurrent of rumors to the effect that Sister Catherine Laboure was the one favored by Our Lady. The remarkable thing, remarkable enough to indicate the protection of Heaven in the matter, was that the rumors never got out of hand. Although they persisted for years, they never seem to have been taken very seriously.
Sister Henriot, for example, told the Tribunal of Beatification:
“I entered the house of Reuilly in 1861 as an ‘orphan.’ [She was twenty-one years old at the time!] Several times my companions, pointing out Sister Catherine, said to me: ‘There is the Sister who saw the Blessed Virgin.’ I must say that we did not attach great importance to these words.”
Sister Tanguy, sent to Enghien in 1863, was told she was going to the house of the Seer of the Medal, but she, too, testified that the information made no great impression on her.
Even more remarkable, Catherine prophesied many events in her lifetime, and her prophecies all came true, yet no one seems to have been particularly struck by her miraculous gifts.
There are many examples of the dexterity with which Catherine avoided the pitfalls laid for her, examples revealing her consummate prudence.
At times Catherine adopted the simple expedient of ignoring the questions put to her.
The Sister pharmacist at Reuilly used often to cross the hall from the pharmacy to the portress’s lodge to say her chaplet with Catherine. There was an uncommonly ugly statue of Our Lady in the portress’s lodge and one day the pharmacist thought to use it as bait in drawing out Catherine.
“Don’t you think, Sister Catherine, when the Blessed Virgin appeared to one of our Sisters, as they say, she could not have been as homely as that?”
Catherine smiled, but never answered her.
On another occasion, a young Sister who was showing a gentleman and a lady through the convent saw Catherine approaching down the corridor.
“Here comes the Sister who had the vision,” she whispered to her visitors.
Much to her dismay, the gentleman immediately went up to Catherine with outstretched hand.
“Oh, Sister,” he cried, “how happy I am to meet the Sister of the Medal! ” Sister Catherine merely simulated surprise. The young Sister, sorely embarrassed, rushed to make her apologies to Catherine when the visitors had gone.
“They told me in the seminary that it was the Sister of the poultry yard at Enghien who had seen the Blessed Virgin,” she explained, “and I repeated it.”
Catherine was very good about it. “Little one, you shouldn’t speak out at random like that,” was all she said.
When she felt the circumstances warranted it she could be curt, especially in the case of those who took for granted that their assumptions were wholly valid. Two postulants were leaving Enghien to make their seminary at the Motherhouse, and they induced one of the Sisters to take them to Sister Catherine before they left. They found her at recreation in the garden, close by a statue of Our Lady. The scene was well set for their desires.
“Go quickly now,” the Sister said, pushing them forward, “for you know that Sister Catherine hates to waste time.”
The girls ran and threw themselves on their knees before the astonished Catherine.
“We are leaving for the seminary, Sister; tell us something of the Blessed Virgin.”
“Mademoiselles, make your seminary well,” Catherine replied. That was all.
And there is always the resolute character with the direct approach, who rides roughshod over all convention and human feeling. One day a Sister came expressly to seek Catherine out. Sister Dufes summoned Sister Henriot, the former “orphan” now back at Enghien as a professed Sister, to conduct the visitor to Catherine. They came upon the saint hard at work.
“Did you postulate at Chatillon? ” the visitor asked abruptly, without introduction.
“Yes,” Catherine answered mildly.
“In what year and during what months?”
Catherine told her. And then the broadside:
“Are you the Sister favored with the visions of Our Lady?”
Catherine bent to her work, without deigning a reply.
Sister Catherine was not the only one constantly on her guard. Father Aladel had to step carefully, too. Once, when he was visiting a certain Community house in Paris, the Sisters crowded around him, begging for a “first-hand” account of the Apparitions. He was about to launch into his story when his eye caught Catherine among the Sisters. He flushed and stammered. Then he became frightened for fear his embarrassment had been noticed and would be rightly taken as a sign that the Sister of the Apparitions was present. Swiftly he breathed a prayer to Mary for help. To his amazement Catherine was smiling and pressing him with questions along with the others, as if she had never heard the tale before. He carried on easily from there.
Some years later Father Aladel found himself in a situation even more perilous to the secret. When the paintings of the Apparitions commissioned from the artist LeCerf were completed and hung in the Motherhouse, Father Aladel was anxious for Catherine to see them, not alone from reasons of sentiment, but in order to check on their authenticity. He arranged to meet her casually in the hall where the pictures hung. While examining the pictures, they were surprised by a certain Sister who advanced upon them like a schoolmistress who has caught the culprits she was laying for. Seemingly certain of her quarry, the Sister rather brutally ignored Catherine and threw her triumphant statement at the priest:
“This must be the Sister of the Apparitions.”
Although startled, Father Aladel was sure of himself and of Catherine this time. “Tell her, Sister,” he said.
Catherine merely laughed, as if the idea were completely ridiculous.
“Oh, I see she is not,” the baffled Sister said, “or you would not have told her to answer.”
And so it went, the guarding of the secret, through the years, almost like a game with its set of rules for ducking and dodging and stepping aside. Catherine acquired a great facility at it as time went on; indeed, she would hardly have been human had she not found a certain enjoyment in the cat-and-mouse contest. While the well-timed smile or laugh or shrug of the shoulders was all-important in turning aside her pursuers, it is hard not to see in them flashes of her country wit and the human satisfaction that, in this serious guessing game, she held the key.
It was in a sense a lifework to guard her secret, but she was willing to endanger even this in the interest of the truth
In the last year of her life, Catherine sat sewing at recreation, listening to the small talk but saying little herself, as was her wont, when suddenly she was shocked to hear one of the young Sisters advance, in scoffing tone, the opinion that the Sister who saw Our Lady saw only a picture.
Swiftly Catherine raised her head and fixed the thoughtless Sister with stern, compelling eyes.
“Sister,” she said slowly and clearly and in a tone of voice 1 that caused everyone to turn and listen, “the Sister who saw the Blessed Virgin, saw her in flesh and bone, even as you and I see each other now.”