Probably every Catholic is familiar with the “Miraculous” Medal. Few Catholics, I imagine, are familiar with Catherine Laboure, the saint whom the Blessed Virgin instructed to popularize that medal. St. Catherine wanted to avoid public notice. She confided her visions to only two personages.
It wasn’t hard for Catherine to appear ordinary. She was ordinary in most things. Born in France in 1806, Zoe’ Laboure was a member of a large farming family. Circumstances even prevented her, alone among her brothers and sisters, from learning how to read and write. After her mother died, she served as the family housekeeper. In 1830, however, Zoe’ joined the Sisters of Charity, taking the name Catherine. Her novitiate she passed at the motherhouse of the Sisters, on the Rue du Bac, Paris.
Catherine had not been a novice for long when God began to show this prayerful young woman unusual spiritual favors. Her earliest visions were of St. Vincent de Paul, the founder of the Sisters of Charity. Jesus also appeared to her more than once in connection with the Blessed Sacrament.
Most notable of these revelations, however, was a series of three visions in the novitiate chapel. Here the Blessed Virgin carried on long conversations with Sister Catherine and gave her a special mission. On November 27, 1830, Our Lady appeared to her standing on a globe, with light streaming from her hands. Framing Our Lady was a prayer, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Then the picture (for it was essentially that) turned about. On the back side of the vision was a large “M” with a cross above, and below the cross, two hearts, one crowned with thorns and one pierced by a sword. Our Lady told Sister Catherine her mission was to spread Marian devotion through this image in the form of a medal.
Catherine told these things at first only to her confessor. Because she wanted to avoid publicity, she declined even to appear before the board set up by the archbishop of Paris to investigate the apparitions. But Sister Catherine’s confessor, Father Aladel, was highly regarded by the archbishop, so his testimony was accepted as confirming the reports. It was also Fr. Aladel who had the first medals stamped in 1832. From that time on, the devotion spread throughout the world.
The Miraculous Medal gained further credence in 1842. In that year, somebody persuaded Alphonse Ratisbonne, a prominent Alsatian Jew, to wear one of the medals. Ratisbonne reluctantly consented. But when he was visiting the church of S. Andrea delle Frate in Rome, he had a vision of Our Lady in the same pose as on the medal. Deeply moved, he sought baptism, studied for the priesthood, and with his convert brother, founded the Fathers of Sion and the Congregation of Notre Dame de Sion. Both orders are dedicated to bringing Jews and Christians together.
In 1831, Catherine was assigned to the Sisters’ house at Reuilly, Paris. Here she spent the last 46 years of her life. Her mystical experiences continued. Most people saw her, however, simply as an insignificant, rather distant person, busy about ordinary things like tending the door, plucking chickens and serving the aged. Only in her last year, 1876, did she speak of her experiences to a second person. Her superior, Sister Dufes, was anxious to have a statue made according to the design that Our Lady had requested, so she turned to Catherine for details. Catherine supplied them and the whole story as well.
Despite her efforts to remain hidden, when Sister Catherine died, there was an outburst of devotion at her funeral. Shortly afterward, a child crippled from birth was cured instantaneously at her tomb. St. Catherine’s remains (enshrined today in the Rue du Bac chapel of the apparitions) have remained incorrupt. She was canonized in 1947.
Why did St. Catherine struggle so to avoid the limelight? Because she believed that the message is more important than the messenger!
–Father Robert F. McNamara