Rue du Bac, Paris, November 1830, by Donal Anthony Foley
The first major “modern” approved apparition of Mary took place in Paris, to a young religious sister called Catherine Labouré in 1830, nearly three hundred years after the apparitions at Guadalupe in Mexico in 1531. She was a member of the community of the Daughters of Charity, and lived at their convent in the Rue du Bac in Paris.
The first apparition of Our Lady took place at night in July 1830. Catherine was in the chapel at the convent, and heard a sound like the rustling of a silk dress, as she saw a Lady descending the altar steps before seating herself on the director’s chair. Realizing it was the Blessed Virgin, she threw herself at Mary’s feet, put her hands on her lap and looked up into her eyes; Catherine later described that moment as the sweetest of her life. Our Lady then told her that God wished to give her a mission, that she would have many trials and difficulties, but would always have an inner certainty as to what she should do.
With a look of grief on her face, the Blessed Mother continued: “There will be bad times to come. Misfortunes will come crashing down on France. The throne will be toppled. The whole world will be turned upside-down by misfortunes of all kinds ... But come to the foot of this altar. There, graces will be poured out on all those, small, or great, who ask for them with confidence and fervor. Graces will be poured out especially on those who ask for them.”
The Blessed Virgin then told Catherine not to be afraid, since she would always be protected and granted many graces, before continuing tearfully: “There will be victims ... There will be victims among the clergy of Paris.... My child, the cross will be held in contempt. It will be thrown to the ground. Blood will flow. Our Savior’s side will be opened anew. The streets will run with blood. Monsignor the Archbishop will be stripped of his vestments ... My child, the whole world will be plunged into gloom.”
Catherine wondered in her own mind when all this would happen and immediately understood interiorly, forty years, before the Blessed Virgin faded from her gaze, and she returned to her dormitory.
She repeated all this to Fr. Aladel, her confessor, but he was somewhat skeptical. This skepticism quickly vanished, though, when just over a week later, on 27 July 1830, the prophecies were fulfilled as the revolution began in Paris, and after a few days Charles X was overthrown. The Church, unhappily, was implicated in his downfall, as bishops, priests, and religious were imprisoned, ill-treated, and in some cases killed. Churches were desecrated and the cross was trampled underfoot as foretold.
Later in the same year, on Saturday 27 November, the date which is now the feast of the Miraculous Medal, Catherine was in the chapel at 5:30 in the evening for the community meditation, when she heard the same sound, like the rustling of silk. She then saw a radiant apparition of Our Lady in the sanctuary, standing on a globe. Mary wore a white silk dress with a white veil that fell to her feet, and in her hands held a golden ball; her lips moved silently in prayer as she turned her eyes to heaven. Catherine noticed rings on her fingers with precious stones which glittered and flashed with light. She then heard an inner voice: “The ball which you see represents the whole world, especially France, and each person in particular. 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.”
The golden ball then vanished, and the third apparition began. Mary stretched out her arms and from her fingers rays of light fell upon the globe at her feet. An oval frame then formed around her with golden lettering that read: O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. Catherine again heard the voice speaking: “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 whole apparition then revolved and Catherine saw a large “M” surmounted by a bar and cross, with two hearts beneath it, one crowned with thorns, the other pierced with a sword, all encircled by twelve stars. This indicated the design for the reverse of the medal. This tableau then vanished.
Fr. Aladel submitted the design of the medal to an engraver in 1832, and went with a fellow priest to see Archbishop de Quélen. After asking many questions, he gave his permission for it to be struck. Catherine told her confessor: “Now it must be propagated.” Word of the new medal spread very quickly, with widespread reports of miracles of grace and nature.
The accounts led the Archbishop to investigate the results of the propagation of the “Medal of the Immaculate Conception,” which by now was known simply as the “Miraculous Medal.” These investigations were favorable, and led to a canonical inquiry, which met in February 1836 to interview witnesses, including Catherine. But she was determined to remain hidden and the inquiry reached its conclusions without her direct assistance. It concluded that she was of good character, that her apparitions were to be accepted as reliable, and, most importantly, that the Medal was supernaturally inspired and responsible for genuine miracles.
By that year, too, the original engravers had produced several million medals, and eleven other Paris engravers were working hard to meet a growing demand. The Medal had become an icon for the poor, a sign of Mary’s presence and concern, and it was an important factor in re-rooting the people in the Catholic religious tradition upset by the French Revolution and its consequences. The fact that the inquiry had been so thorough and positive meant that the way was clear for approval of the Medal by Rome, which also allowed Archbishop de Quélen to propagate devotion to the Immaculate Conception with enthusiasm within his own diocese.
From then on, the Miraculous Medal became an important sacramental, and was responsible for numerous conversions, including that of the Jewish banker Alphonse Ratisbonne, in 1842. It also prepared the ground, spiritually, for the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.
In 1870, the prediction of further upheaval came true, as the Communards began a revolution in Paris, although this was put down in 1871. Catherine died on 31 December 1876, but when her body was disinterred in May 1933 at the time of her beatification, it was found to be incorrupt. She was canonized in 1947, and Pope John Paul II visited the Rue du Bac convent in May 1980, to pray before the statue of the Virgin with the globe.
This article appeared initially in the Wanderer.