She worked at a bar. Men made inappropriate comments and gestures at her. In 1830s Paris, Catherine wanted to be a nun but her father disapproved, so she was sent off to work in her brother’s pub as a distraction. In her spare time Catherine visited the Sisters of Charity, housed in a side street convent, to volunteer and to serve the poor. On her first visit, while waiting in the parlor of that convent, she saw him.
A large portrait of an old priest hung on the wall; she immediately recognized the face as one she had seen in a dream years ago. In her dream, she was assisting him at Mass; he kept holding her gaze, making her feel uncomfortable. She eventually ran from the church, and stopped at the home of an infirm. The old priest was there also, and he said to her “You flee from me now, but one day you will be glad to come to me.” In the convent parlor she calmly asked a sister servant the name of the priest in the portrait, to which she replied: “Why my child, that is our Holy Founder, St. Vincent de Paul!”
Catherine eventually joined this order; a strong and thriving community of sisters dedicated to serving the many poor people in Paris. She took their costume-like habit, which to modern eyes looks more like a funny, white, winged newspaper-hat. The Sisters of Charity had such a visually and affectually strong presence in Europe at that time that even the Muslims had a tenderness towards them, calling them “the swallows of heaven.”
Then, the visions started. First of St. Vincent’s heart in varying colors — which is no small matter, that a saint loved her, chose her, and gave her his heart. Secondly, a mysterious and seemingly political vision of Christ the King. And finally, the great visions of Our Lady.
At the age of 9, Catherine lost her earthly mother. When she thought no one was looking, she pulled a chair up to where she could reach the family statue of Mary. She threw her arms around the statue, and exclaimed “Now you will be my mother!”
As a sister in the convent, Catherine told her patron St. Vincent of her strong desire to see the Blessed Virgin with her own eyes. One night, she was awakened by a small child, who led her to the chapel. “It was lit up like Midnight Mass,” Catherine recalled, and the child stopped in front of a director’s chair used for conferences. Instinctively, Catherine knelt. She waited, then heard the sound of swishing silk as a lady approached and sat in the chair, and the child instructed, “This is the Blessed Virgin.”
Of all the privileged humans to see Our Lady, from Juan Diego to Bernadette, Catherine is the only one known to have touched her. She knelt beside her chair and put her hands and head in her lap, and poured her heart out with tears of a little girl. Our Lady listened, and offered words of wisdom and strength for all that Catherine would have to undergo, and warnings of the future of the world, and France in particular.
“Come to the foot of the altar. There graces will be shed upon all, great and little, who ask for them. Graces will be especially shed upon those who ask for them.”
The next time Catherine saw Our Lady, it was during her daytime prayers. Mary was in the sanctuary, shining like the morning rising, and Catherine stayed on her knees noting every detail in bliss. Her robe was silk, and white like the dawn. She wore a long white veil with a lovely lace head wrap beneath it. She held in her hands a golden ball which she offered to God; suddenly, her hands were resplendent with rings set with precious stones that shone brilliantly, and the lights coming from them fell upon a white globe at her feet.
“The ball which you see represents the whole world . . . and each person in particular.” As she spoke the rays became blinding.
“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.”
Catherine saw the words “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Mary instructed her to have a medal formed, showing her what the back side was to look like, with 12 stars bordering the hearts of Jesus and Mary, and an “M” with a bar and a cross, and she told her this:
“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.”
Do you wear a miraculous medal? You should.
Even while Catherine maintained anonymity for most of her life, the medal came to be, and gained tremendous popularity throughout Europe and around the world. Originally called “The Medal of the Immaculate Conception,” it soon came to be known as “The Miraculous Medal” due to the astounding number of miracles reported from its devotees.
The story of Catherine Labouré is such a great one, and it tells us at least a few very important things. Firstly, that our relationships with the saints are real. I’ve heard it said that saints have a habit of choosing us. In recent years I have felt that a certain saint was revealing to me his desire to be my patron, and reading the story of St. Catherine Labouré, I’ve come to believe it’s not all in my head. Whether it’s finding a holy card in a random place, having a dream, seeing his or her name on a street sign, these heavenly patrons are longing to tell us that they want our friendship and communion, and like our earthly friends, certain people just “click” with one another.
Secondly, we need to ask for grace! Catherine was known to say to her sisters “Ask, ask, ask! In all things you must ask!” Mary has extraordinary graces ready to distribute to us, for every necessity, but if we don’t ask for them, many will remain in those gems on her fingers from which the rays do not fall. As you want your children to come to you, she wants us to come to her.
Thirdly, and I say this half jokingly, because I know it may be superficial of me to care, but this is just another example of how Mary has great style. As women, we love pretty clothes, jewelry, make-up, and hairstyles. And despite her profound humility, Mary is a woman who isn’t afraid to overwhelm us with her beauty in each apparition. I just love that in this apparition she is wearing rings of dazzling gems (three on each finger!). Always modest, but always stunning, and this time even slightly funky: Mary has a rockin’ style.
Many saints have promoted the Miraculous Medal, but there is one story I’ve read that my children always ask me to retell. St. John Vianney, the beloved French country priest and famous confessor, was hearing a young woman’s confession. At some point during the confession the Curé of Ars, who had the gift of reading souls, said to her:
“You were at a dance last night. There was a handsome man present with lots of young women around him, you wanted to dance with him so badly, but he never asked you to dance, and you were disappointed.” Surprised, she answered,
“That man was the devil. And he couldn’t come anywhere close to you because you were wearing the miraculous medal.”
Does this story mean that by wearing the Miraculous Medal we will be automatically immune to the devil, temptations, and sin? No. But it does mean that it will offer us far more protection from these things than we will ever be aware of.