Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal
This 19th century statue of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal stands above the main altar in the sanctuary at Rue du Bac in Paris.
You may ask why I have leaped 14 centuries from the Council of Ephesus in 431 to the apparition at the Rue du Bac in 1830. I choose Rue du Bac for three reasons: first, it can be representative of other apparitions because it shares significant common elements with them; secondly, the Miraculous Medal has million of devotees throughout the world; third, it has had a very prominent place in the heritage of our own Vincentian Family.
One must, of course, be very cautious about apparitions. Reports of these are abundant. In France alone, Mary was alleged to have appeared in at least 21 locations between 1803 and 1899; many of these appearances have long been forgotten. Between 1928 and 1971, there were 210 claims of apparitions at various places throughout the world. The Church’s experience has taught us to be very slow about paying undue attention to such events. But some, like the devotions centered at Rue du Bac, Lourdes, and Fatima, have received a form of official approval and encouragement.
With all apparitions, believers should be very aware of two basic principles:</span>
- Only the Scriptures, as interpreted in and by the Church, are God’s public revelation; apparitions do not add new revelation necessary for our salvation. The heart of
Christian faith always lies in listening to the word of God, as revealed in the Scriptures, and acting on it, as did the Virgin Mary.
- Apparitions, the messages they bear, and prayers evoked by them belong to the realm of private devotion. They are a way of concretizing and expressing our faith. As private devotion, the more closely related they are to the central mysteries of our faith, the more helpful they are.
Often, apparitions state, in popular form, a message that concretizes Christian faith or morals as rooted in the Scriptures. They say dramatically: be converted, seek peace, contemplate the suffering love of Jesus, pray faithfully and mightily, imitate Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Of course, all those messages are already stated clearly in the Scriptures. In that sense, apparitions are not necessary for our salvation. No one is bound in faith to believe in them. Their popularity waxes and wanes. But they occur repeatedly because the popular imagination needs to be captured and all of us need to be reminded.
St. Catherine Labouré’s visions in 1830 gave popular expression and powerful impetus to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception which Pius IX proclaimed two decades later in 1854. Surely without Catherine Labouré Christians throughout the world would never have prayed so often: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Rue du Bac continues to draw believers ─ millions of them annually in fact ─ to reflect on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, on her graced union with the Lord, and to ask Mary, the first among the saints, to pray with us in our need.
The medal, moreover, has always had a special appeal for the poor, the humble. More than one billion medals were made even in St. Catherine’s lifetime, spreading to the remotest corners of the world. The people themselves gave it the name “Miraculous Medal.” Born in an era of rationalism, the medal proclaimed the need for symbols to express faith, love, commitment. Struck in an age that sought scientific explanations for everything, the medal proclaimed God’s provident loving care for all human persons. The symbols on the medal were, in fact, a graphic catechesis about God’s love and concern for his people.
What does this fourth Marian face teach us? It reminds us that Mary is free from sin, the most perfectly redeemed of God’s creatures. She is the first among the saints. And it encourages us, within the communion of saints, to unite our prayer with hers in our need, trusting deeply in God’s provident love for us. In a special way, it is a symbol for the poor, evoking their trust that God listens, even if the world does not. Apparitions like that of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal remind us that God’s loving concern needs to, and continues to, find popular human expression in the world, especially through the mystics and the saints.