XIV. The Medal and Ratisbonne
Soon after the apparition of July 18, 1830, Catherine had told her director:
“The Blessed Virgin asks another mission of you. She wishes you to establish an order of which you will be the founder and director. It is a Confraternity of Children of Mary. Many graces, many indulgences, will be granted to it. The month of Mary will be celebrated with great solemnity. Mary loves these festivals. She will reward their observance with abundant graces.”
Father Aladel took no action on this request until 1835, five years after it had been made. Even then, the first group of Children of Mary did not come into existence until 1838, at Beune, in the district where Catherine Laboure was born.
In his first audience with Pius IX, after the Pontiff’s accession to the throne, Father Etienne petitioned for the formal establishment of the Children of Mary as a Pontifical Association. The Holy Father granted this request in a rescript dated June 20, 1847, which granted to the new Association ail the indulgences already enjoyed by the Prima Primaria the Sodality in honor of Our Lady set up by the Jesuits in 1584 Thus the Children of Mary came into official being seventeen years after the request of Our Lady.
The Children of Mary is a religious society—of girls primarily, although there are some boys in the group—whose members have banded together to do particular honor to Our Lady, through acts of devotion, but especially in imitating her virtues of purity, humility, obedience, and charity. In other words, like any religious society of the Church properly so called, it has for its chief end the perfection of its members, and there can be little doubt that, over the years, countless young souls have become heroically holy through the Association of the Children of Mary.
After its official foundation the Association sprang up all over the face of the globe, in every country and among every people. Its present-day membership may be guessed from the fact that, in 1948 when a centenary celebration was held in Paris, 10,000 delegates from every country in the world attended.
Catherine never connected herself with the Association in any official way, but she always went out of her way to show her pleasure when any child of her acquaintance was inducted into the society. Each new member of the group established at the Sisters’ house in Reuilly always had a few words of welcome and counsel from her lips. She could be said, in fact, to have had a special zeal for the salvation of youth. She was deeply concerned with the temptations surrounding the children of the neighborhood, for the quarter where the houses of Reuilly and Enghien were located was rough and crime-ridden. Whenever her duties would allow, she would cross the yard to the Reuilly house and spend some time among the neighborhood children who had gathered there. Whether due to her influence or not, these street waifs were later admitted to the classes held for the orphans of the house.
An interesting exchange took place one day between Catherine and one of the Sisters of the house, which indirectly affected these children. The Sister, Sister Fouquet, was walking in the garden, when Catherine approached her.
“Little one,” Catherine said gently, “little one, you are pondering something evil in your head.” When the young Sister had recovered from the shock of having her thoughts read so clearly, she blurted out her troubles all in a rush: “I entered the Community to care for the sick. They have put me with the orphans—and now children from the neighborhood have joined the classes. I shall never be able to teach, especially before so many!” And she finished defiantly: “I would rather return to my family.”
“Be brave,” Catherine admonished her gently. “I will pray to the Blessed Virgin for you. Promise me that you will stick at it for a year, and I promise you that you will pass your school examinations and will persevere in your vocation.”
When Sister Fouquet told this story, she was already forty-two years in the Community.
Some years later, in 1873 or 1874, Catherine was involved in another incident concerning this clash of hospital and orphanage work, which had been the Sisters’ main work, and teaching, which was becoming a principal work of the Community at that time. Many of the older Sisters looked with distaste on the work of teaching, as a departure from their primitive rule. It even got abroad that Catherine herself preferred the work of the hospital Sisters to that of the school Sisters, and feared that the second work might eclipse the first. How definite were her views in this matter will never be known. It could well be that some chance remark on her part was exaggerated out of all proportion because of the suspicions that she was the Sister of the Visions. At the Beatification process, the matter was mentioned only as hearsay.
At any rate, Catherine had gone to the Motherhouse one day with a group of Sisters from Enghien to visit several of the novices who had postulated there. A young teaching Sister, Sister Darlin, was serving her turn as portress that day. Observing the group from Enghien her eyes rested especially on Catherine:
“I had been told that she was the Sister who had been favored with the Apparitions of the Most Holy Virgin,” Sister Darlin states. “I looked upon her with respect, thinking to myself sadly that this worthy Sister did not appreciate the school Sisters, and I liked school work a great deal. I said to myself: Is it possible for her to love the Most Holy Virgin so much, and not to care for an office in which it is possible to inspire the children with great devotion for Mary? “I wished to speak to her very much, but did not dare.”
At that same moment, Catherine left the group and approached Sister Darlin.
“Come with me, Sister,” Catherine said smiling pleasantly “we shall go to the ‘Holy Mary’ class and say an Ave Maria together.”
Sister Darlin stared in amazement; then flushed with pleasure. This was precisely the class of which she had particular charge. More than that, Catherine had never, until that moment, laid eyes on her.
Catherine’s efforts to reassure Sister Darlin of her good will were not at an end. After they had recited the Ave Maria Catherine took out her purse and gave the delighted Sister one of the first Miraculous Medals; then she invited her to accompany her to the infirmary to visit Marie Louise, who was ending her days there.
So great a show of favor on Catherine’s part was too much for the poor Sister. She lost her head. On the way to the infirmary and during the visit she showered Catherine with attention, running ahead to open doors, getting her a chair, bowing and scraping in every way.
On the instant, Catherine changed from the smiling Sister of a few minutes before. Her face froze in stern lines, her whole body stiffened. “She looked at me coldly,” Sister Darlin lamented, “as if to say: ‘Are you finished with your attentions and reverences?’ She practically turned her back on me. Knowing I had offended her, fearing I had offended the Blessed Virgin, I burst into tears and fled from the room.”
The incident, with its mixture of the supernatural and the human, is a graphic picture of the personality of a saint, a scant two years before her death.
Meanwhile in 1841, Catherine had complied with the wishes of Father Aladel, and written out her first complete account of the Apparitions. Hard on the heels of this document, she sent him an insistent note (unsigned, as were all her communications to him; Catherine took no chances of some other eye than Father Aladel’s falling upon her name).
For ten years, I have felt myself driven to tell you to have an altar erected to the Blessed Virgin on the spot where she appeared. At this moment, more than ever, I feel myself pressed to tell you this, and to ask of you a Communion, by the entire Community, every year. Every indulgence will be granted. Ask, ask; everything you ask will be granted.
I ask you to do the same in memory of the heart of St. Vincent. I have spoken of this to you several times, and now I remind you again—a Communion please.
I believe that the good God will be glorified and the Blessed Virgin honored; it will give new fervor to all hearts.
I beg you to request this of our Most Honored Father. I am, in the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, your faithful and submissive daughter.
There could be no more agonized cry of Catherine’s heart than this letter. It becomes the more poignant, to know that it went unheeded. Catherine was extremely naive, to look for the erection of the altar by the “Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent.” She desired this with special fervor, because the year 1841 was the first since 1830 when the anniversary of the great Apparition of November 27 would fall on the very day it had occurred, the Saturday before the beginning of Advent. The altar Catherine pleaded for was not erected until 1880, four years after her death.
At this same time, Catherine reminded her confessor by word of mouth that the Blessed Virgin had asked for a commemorative statue of the first phase of the Great Apparition depicting Our Lady with the golden globe in her hands, and offering it to God. Father Aladel made some start on this project in 1841, for certain tentative designs for the statue were found among his papers. The project was abandoned, however, for reasons which are not very clear; one reason given was that “the origin of the statue would have to be explained”—a preposterous excuse indeed! Catherine was to call the failure to make this statue “the torment of my life,” and had actually to break her silence of forty-six years to have the statue made. It was not completed until after her death.
To make matters worse, in 1854 the French Government made a present to the Community of two magnificent blocks of marble, in gratitude for the nursing services of the Sisters during the cholera and the Crimean War. It was noised abroad that Father Etienne, the Superior General—certainly in consultation with Father Aladel, who was then Director of the Sisters of Charity—had decided to use the marble for an altar and statue to be placed in the chapel of the rue du Bac. Catherine, hearing of it, must have felt that, at last, her desires would be realized. Her hopes were soon dashed. The altar erected was a new high altar for the chapel—not the altar “on the spot where she appeared,” which Our Lady had asked for. The statue made, and placed over this new high altar, was of Our Lady as she appears on the Medal—not the “Virgin of the Globe” which, again, Our Lady had asked for.
Catherine was dead many years when the commemorative Communions she asked for in 1841 were finally decreed by the Superior General.
It is hard not to blame Father Aladel in all this. In fairness it must be admitted that he was not a free agent, that he, too, had superiors, both in the Community and in the larger world of the Church. On the other hand, the requests were from the lips of the Mother of God. Catherine did all in her power to have them fulfilled. It was very unpleasant for her to dun her confessor so constantly, to battle with him, for their fulfillment. The question may be justly asked whether Father Aladel, for his part, did all in his power to move his superiors toward fulfilling exactly the requests of the Mother of God.
Father Aladel had been hard at work, however, in spreading the story of the Miraculous Medal, and the wonders it had worked. In 1834 he published an account of ninety pages, which he called The Miraculous Medal. The book went into four editions before the year was out, and had grown to 270 pages. New editions appeared in 1835, 1836, and 1837. The eighth edition, of 608 pages in length, was published in 1842. When this eighth edition was being readied for the printer, Catherine told Father Aladel she would not see another edition. Her prophecy came true. The ninth edition of The Miraculous Medal was not published until 1878, and Father Chevalier, Catherine’s last confessor, was its editor. Catherine renewed her prophecy in 1876, telling Father Chevalier that she would not see his edition in print. He laughed at her, saying that it was ready for the press.
“You will see,” she replied, smiling back.
The edition was not published until 1878 and was the first to contain a biography of Catherine, who had died on December 31,1876.
Not the slightest hint of the turmoil and frustration in Catherine’s life showed to others. She went about her duties quietly and methodically; interiorly she continued to grow in the love of God. The Sisters who lived with her noted her piety, but failed to see in it anything but the holy life of an especially good religious. Only after her death would they remember things that should have given them clues to her identity and her heroic sanctity.
In chapel, she always knelt up straight, completely absorbed, her fingertips scarcely touching the pew in front of her, certainly not enough to give her any support. So absorbed was she, indeed, that from time to time, other Sisters would turn toward her to bolster their own devotion by the sight of one so lost in prayer—but these were intimate, unconscious actions that they would not speak about among themselves. Years later, when the Sisters had heard that she had enjoyed the vision of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament throughout her seminary, they would remember her habitual attitude in chapel, and several of them were led to wonder, very seriously, whether she had not enjoyed this privilege throughout her entire lifetime.
The Sisters were permitted, at this time, to receive Holy Communion only three times a week. Catherine would prepare for each Communion by endeavoring to perform each action of the day before as perfectly as possible. As she grew older, she enjoined this practice on the younger Sisters.
She made visits to the Blessed Sacrament as often as her duties allowed her, even as she had slipped away between household tasks in Fain to pray in the village church. Sister Cosnard had a fond recollection of these visits:
“Whenever possible, she would go to the chapel and, having removed her white apron before entering, make a profound and respectful bow to the tabernacle (women did not genuflect at this time) . Then she would cast a look of filial devotion toward the statue of the Blessed Virgin, and kneel to pray. After a moment she would leave, her face radiant, and don her apron and return to her work. It was most impressive. Several times I have seen her enter the chapel with tears in her eyes. When she left, the tears were gone, and her face was shining.”
Catherine’s act of turning toward the statue was so habitual that the Superior got to wondering whether it were indeed an act of devotion, or merely a habit. To satisfy her curiosity, she had the statue moved one day to another position in the chapel. She watched carefully as Catherine entered. Catherine made her usual profound reverence to the Blessed Sacrament, then turned her gaze on the statue of Our Lady in its new position. There was no fooling her; her relationship with Mary was genuine and deep.
In 1840, Our Lady came again to the house on the rue du Bac, to reveal her Immaculate Heart to a novice named Justine Bisqueyburu. Sister Justine had entered the novitiate on November 27, 1839, the ninth anniversary of the Apparition of the Medal. Toward the end of January she entered upon her retreat in a prayer hall, behind the Chapel of the Apparitions. This prayer hall contained a miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin, which was very old and which had figured several times in the supernatural protection of the Sisters and their house. During the exercises of retreat, the Blessed Virgin appeared suddenly to Sister Justine, on January 28, 1840. She wore a long white dress and a blue mantle. She was barefooted and bareheaded, her hair falling free to the shoulders. In her hand she held her Immaculate Heart, pierced with a sword, and surrounded with flames. This vision was repeated several times as the retreat continued, and later on the principal feasts of the Blessed Virgin. On September 8. 1840, the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity, the vision took on an added detail. The Virgin carried the Immaculate Heart in her right hand, and, suspended from her left hand, a kind of scapular of green cloth. On the face of the scapular was a representation of Mary as she had appeared in the preceding apparitions, and on the back “a heart all burning with rays more brilliant than the sun, and as transparent as crystal; this heart, surmounted by a cross, was pierced with a sword, and around it were the words: “Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” The Green Scapular, as this sacramental is popularly called, is not really a scapular, but rather a “cloth medal,” for it consists of only one piece of material, and is worn about the neck as a medal would be worn. Sister Justine confided her vision to Father Aladel, as Catherine Laboure had done, and she found the same difficulty in having the scapular made as Catherine had encountered with the Medal. It was not until 1846, after Our Lady had complained several times that her gift to the Community was not appreciated, that the approbation of Monseigneur Affre, Archbishop of Paris, was finally sought and obtained for the distribution of the scapular.
In spite of the slowness of the authorities to act, heaven continued to lavish its treasures on the Community of St. Vincent. Throughout the year 1845, another Sister or Charity, Sister Appolline Andreveux, stationed at the Hospice de Saint Jean in Troyes, received several visions of Our Lord in His Passion. On July 26, 1846, Christ appeared to Sister Appolline, holding in His hand a red scapular. One piece of the scapular bore the image of Christ on the Cross, surrounded by the instruments of the Passion, and the words: “Holy Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, save us.” The other piece bore representations of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, surmounted by a cross, and the words: “Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, protect us.”
Sister Appolline was to meet with prompter action than either Sister Catherine or Sister Justine. Sister Appolline had confided her visions, in writing, to Father Etienne. and the Superior General sought and obtained approbation for the making of the scapular from Pius IX in 1847, during the same audience in which the Pontiff approved the Children of Mary.
Strangely enough, there is no record of what Catherine had to say about these visions. Certainly she recognized in them a connection with her own, in the Hearts of Jesus and Mary and the Cross.
The year 1842 had scarcely begun when an event occurred which brought the Miraculous Medal to the notice of the world outside the Church and resulted in the official recognition of the Medal by Rome itself. The event was the Conversion of Alphonse Tobie Ratisbonne. Ratisbonne was a citizen of the world in every respect. Scion of an old and wealthy Jewish family of Strasbourg, he was a lawyer by education and a banker by trade. At twenty-eight, he was in the prime of life, good-looking, good-humored, a man of charm and of countless friends. His friends included even many Christians, of the Protestant persuasion, however, for he had an almost uncontrollable hatred of Catholicism. This hatred had been increased by the conversion and subsequent ordination to the priesthood of his older brother, Theodore. Alphonse had never known Theodore very well—but, as a proud Jew, Alphonse could not forgive the older brother’s defection to the camp of the enemy.
In 1841, Ratisbonne became engaged to an aristocratic Jewish girl of seventeen. Since the marriage was not to be celebrated immediately, he decided to while away his last months of bachelor freedom by wintering in Malta. He left Strasbourg on November 17th and, traveling in slow stages, arrived in Naples in December where he was warmly received in Jewish circles, especially by the Rothschilds.
The Mongibello, the ship on which Ratisbonne w as to sail for Malta, kept delaying her departure from day to day. In a fit of restlessness, Alphonse decided to go a different route, by way of Palermo, and set off for the ticket office. By mistake, he found himself at the window for the Rome coach. Now one boast Ratisbonne had made before leaving home, was that under no condition would he so much as pass through Rome, the center of Christendom. Finding himself at the Rome ticket window proved to be the last straw piled on top of his restlessness and the delay of the ship. In a fit of temper he booked passage on the Rome coach and sent a message to friends that he would return to Naples on January 20th.
Ratisbonne arrived in Rome on January 6, 1842 and checked in at the Hotel de Londres. By chance he met an old friend, Gustave Bussieres. Through his friend, Ratisbonne met his brother, Baron Bussieres, a recent convert to Catholicism, who was to change Ratisbonne’s whole life.
Ratisbonne proceeded to “do” Rome, like any tourist: St. Peter’s, The Coliseum, the Forum, and so on. He soon became bored, the more so because, just as he had anticipated, the Eternal City filled him with even deeper disgust with the Church, and he booked passage on the Naples Coach for January 17.
Ratisbonne was a punctilious man, and returned the visits and kindness shown him by calling at his friends’ houses, as the custom was, and leaving his card. His courtesy was his undoing, for, at the home of Baron Bussieres, the Italian footman misunderstood his intention and ushered him into the presence of his master. The Baron, learning of his imminent departure, with all the over-zealous aplomb of certain new converts, launched into a last-stand effort to bring Ratisbonne to the knowledge of the truth. Ratisbonne was speechless with rage, and threw back in Bussieres’s face the treatment of the Jews in the Ghetto of Rome, which misery Ratisbonne blamed on the Church.
At the height of the argument, the Baron produced a Miraculous Medal. Here was one of those Roman superstitions Ratisbonne ranted about. Did he dare to wear it and to recite the Catholic prayer to Our Lady known as the Memorare? If it were all mere superstition, it could do him no harm. Driven into a corner and appalled at the “ridiculous” turn of events, Ratisbonne acquiesced and even allowed Bussieres’s little daughter to place the Medal on a ribbon around his neck. Bussieres further asked Ratisbonne to copy the prayer out and return it to him, since it was the only copy he had. This was probably a delaying tactic, for certainly the Baron could have easily come by another copy of so familiar a prayer as the Memorare. Ratisbonne was a man of his word. He copied out the prayer in his own hand. No sooner had he done so than the words continued to ring in his head, as he later said, “like one of those airs from an opera which you sing without thinking of them, and then feel annoyed at yourself for singing it.
In the meantime, the Baron had met an old friend, the Comte de la Ferronnays, at a dinner at the Palazzo Borghese, and told him of giving the Medal and prayer to Ratisbonne. De la Ferronnays, who had been a diplomat under the Bourbons but now lived in retirement in Rome, promised to pray for Ratisbonne. True to his word, he went to the basilica of S. Maria Maggiore, where, he told his wife, he recited more than twenty Memorares. Shortly after returning home, he suffered a heart attack and died.
All was prepared. The conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne had begun. During the night of January 19-20, Ratisbonne was confronted with a vision of a plain, bare cross, which gave him no peace. On the afternoon of the following day, Ratisbonne set out to finish up his farewell calls, in an effort to shake off the disturbing vision. He met Baron Bussieres, who was on his way to the church of S. Andrea delle Fratte to make final arrangement for the funeral of his friend Comte de la Ferronnays. When he had told Ratisbonne of the Comte’s promise to pray for him, Ratisbonne agreed to accompany him to the church. Arriving at S. Andrea’s, shortly after noon, Bussieres asked Alphonse to wait for him in the carriage, but Ratisbonne said he would go inside and look around. The Baron went directly to the sacristy, and Ratisbonne began idly to examine the architecture of the place, when suddenly a huge black dog appeared from out of nowhere and began to frisk in front of him, but in a menacing way, as if to bar his path. The dog disappeared as suddenly as it had come and Ratisbonne’s eyes were drawn by a great burst of light, streaming from the little chapel of the Guardian Angels on the left-hand side of the nave. He raised his eyes and gazed into the calm and compelling eyes of the Virgin Mary. She appeared exactly as she was represented on the Medal, arms extended and hands bent down with the rays of grace which streamed from them. Ratisbonne saw her face for only a moment, for it was of such blinding beauty that he could not bear to look on it, but could raise his eyes only to the level of her hands, which, he said “expressed all the secrets of the divine pity.” Our Lady did not speak, but Ratisbonne “understood all.”
It was over in a moment. Like that fire-breathing Jew, Saul of Tarsus, Ratisbonne was struck to his knees and converted on the instant. Returning from the sacristy, Bussieres found Ratisbonne on his knees, and as he raised him up, Alphonse whispered:
“Oh, how that gentleman has prayed for me! ”
Back in his hotel, Ratisbonne sent for a priest, told him all that had happened, and begged for immediate baptism. That night he kept vigil by the body of Comte de la Ferronnays in the church of S. Andrea della Fratte. Immediately after the funeral, Ratisbonne entered upon a ten-day period of retreat with the Jesuits and received instructions in the faith from Father de Villeforte.
Ratisbonne’s reception into the Church at the Gesu was a ceremony of international significance. Everyone who was anyone in Rome attended. Cardinal Patrizi, the Vicar of Rome, received Ratisbonne’s abjuration of his errors, baptized him, confirmed him, and gave him his first Communion.
News of the “Madonna del Ratisbonne” and his miraculous conversion had Rome agog, and quickly fanned out through all Europe, especially in diplomatic and financial circles, where Ratisbonne and Bussieres and De la Ferronnays were widely known. Interest centered especially on the Medal which, until this time, had only the approbation of the Archbishop of Paris. Rome immediately instituted an official inquiry into the circumstances of Ratisbonne’s conversion. Cardinal Patrizi was put in charge of the inquiry, and twenty-five sessions were held between February 17 and June 3, 1842. The findings of the court “fully recognized the signal miracle wrought by God through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the spontaneous and complete conversion of Marie Alphonse Ratisbonne from Judaism to Catholicism.” It was a major triumph of the Miraculous Medal.
Ratisbonne entered with the Jesuit Fathers to study for the priesthood and spent ten years in the bosom of the Society. When, however, his superiors repeatedly turned down his request to go to China, he left, for, as he put it, his true vocation was to be an apostle, “not a sixth-form master.” He joined his brother, Theodore, who had founded the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion for the evangelization of the Jews, and spent more than thirty years in the Holy Land as a missionary to his own people.
Ratisbonne made several attempts to converse with the unknown Sister who had been given the Miraculous Medal in 1830, but he never got beyond Father Aladel, who told him regretfully that the Seer insisted on remaining unknown. The Holy Father himself, Gregory XVI, became intensely interested, and wanted to converse with the Sister, but Catherine was adamant. Had the Pope commanded her to come forward, there would have been an interesting development, for it would seem that she would have had to obey the Vicar of Christ. As it was, Gregory did not insist, but he left her in her silence.