Catholicism recognizes the possibility that, throughout time, some particularly worthy men and women received the visits from Jesus, the Virgin Mary or a particular Saint.
The story of the Miraculous Medal (or Medal of Our Lady of Graces, or Medal of the Immaculate Conception) relates to such experiences. This veneration object has a powerful symbolism, capable of unexpected healings and prodigious acts, and comes from an apparition, from a moment of divine love turned into flesh and light. It comes from the meeting of a young and humble novice aged twenty-four and the Virgin Mary, a night dialogue that lasted for hours, made not only of words but also of looks, gestures, displays of affections and devotions, and vibrant hope.
The Church in particular considers Mary’s apparitions as interventions from a loving Mother towards her children. They are an act of mercy and love from her, who, so close to God, does not forget those who live the anxieties of an earthly life, too fragile and weak to be able to face problems, adversities, and the many obstacles life gives them on their own. Therefore, Mary occasionally descends and reminds the believers and the faithful of her commitment, of her will to help men and women in their daily life, always supporting their cause in front of the Father.
That is what happened for the Madonna of the Miraculous Medal: on November 27th, 1830 she appeared to the future Saint Catherine Labouré, young nun of the congregation of the daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul in rue du Bac n. 140, Paris.
The story of the Miraculous Medal
Pope Pius XII sanctified Catherine Labouré in 1947; she said she witnessed many apparitions during her lifetime. The first happened when she was a teenager: Saint Vincent de Paul appeared in her dreams and invited her to enter his Congregation of the Daughters of Charity. She received more apparitions during her novitiate: she saw Jesus in the Eucharist beyond the appearance of Bread, and as Christ King crucified, deprived of all of his ornaments. She hid the apparitions for her whole life, telling them at the point of death only to her confessor.
The most famous apparitions Saint Catherine is famous for are the ones involving the Immaculate of the Miraculous Medal. They happened in July and November 1830 in the Novitiate Chapel. On July 18th 1830, Catherine had prayed Jesus with fervor in order to grant her wish to see the Virgin Mary. She woke up at 11.30PM because she heard someone calling her name, and saw a mysterious child in front of her bed, inviting her to get up. “The Virgin Mary is waiting for you” the child told her while emanating rays of light at each step. Catherine identified the child as her own guardian angel. He led her into the Chapel where Mary was waiting for her sitting on the right side of the altar. Catherine said: “Then, I flung myself close to her, falling on my knees on the altar steps, my hands resting in her knees. That was the sweetest moment of my life. It would be impossible for me to say what I felt. The Most Holy Virgin told me how I should behave with my confessor and many other things.”
When asked about the Virgin’s look, Saint Catherine could hardly find the words: “She was average height, and so beautiful that I cannot describe her. She was standing, her dress was sunrise-white silk and “virgin style”, that is, high-necked and with smooth sleeves. A white veil went down from her head to her feet. Her hair was divided and she wore some kind of bonnet with a 3 centimeters wide crochet on it, gently laid on her hair. Her face was quite visible; her feet were upon a globe, or better, a half-globe, or at least I saw half of it.” The Saint said she had kneeled in front of Mary and rested her hands on Mary’s knees as a reverence.
During the second apparition on November 27th 1830 around 5.30PM, the Virgin Mary entrusted Catherine with the forge of the Miraculous Medal. The Virgin said that the medal would be a sign of love, a pledge of protection and source of grace for those who would trust in it. The Virgin herself showed Catherine what the medal should look like. Catherine said that Mary’s feet were upon a half-globe during the apparition, which symbolizes the Earth, and were crushing a green and yellow snake’s head. The Virgin’s hands were adorned with rings and precious stones, which projected rays of light of different intensity and color downwards. Mary explained Catherine that those rays “symbolize the graces I shed upon those who ask for them“.
Catherine saw some kind of oval frame appearing around Mary, and a writing from her right hand to her left hand, creating a semicircle of words written in gold: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee“.
The apparition continued, and the mystic picture seemed rotating in front of Catherine’s eyes, showing her what the reverse side of the Medal should depict: “There was the letter M (first letter of the name Mary) topped by a cross with no crucifix and with the letter I (first letter of the name Iesus, Jesus) as base. Below there were two hearts, one was surrounded by thorns (Jesus’ heart), the other pierced by a sword (Mary’s heart). Twelve stars surrounded the whole picture. Then everything dissolved, as something that is switched off, and I was left there, full of something I don’t know, good feelings, joy, comfort“.
Here is the explanation of the reverse side of the Miraculous Medal: the M for Mary supports the cross without crucifix. The monogram I for Jesus (Iesus) intersects the M and the Cross, and symbolizes the salvation brought by Jesus and Mary, the indissoluble relationship that ties Jesus and his Most Holy Mother, becoming a witness of the Salvation of humankind carried out by his Son Jesus and making her a participant in Christ’s sacrifice. The heart crowned with thorns is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, while the heart pierced by a sword is the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The twelve stars symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles. The Virgin herself is also called Star of the sea in the prayer Ave Maris Stella.
The Virgin spoke again to Catherine, telling her to have a medal forged following that model: “All the people who will wear it will receive great graces especially if they wear it on their neck; graces will be generous for those who will wear it with trust.”
Catherine encountered some resistance, but in the end, the Medal was forged in 1832, in about 1500 pieces, but its power showed immediately through so many healings and conversions that it was necessary to forge a million pieces. Even Popes Gregory XVI and Pius IX used it and the Apparitions Chapel became a place of cult and pilgrimage.
Today we can find billions of reproductions of the Miraculous Medal, in gold, silver and less noble metals.