The Miraculous Medal is a bestseller at religious goods stores worldwide, and has been for more than a century. Everyone from the Polish martyr of Auschwitz Maximilian Kolbe to the famous Albanian nun of Calcutta Mother Teresa to the Haitian sprinting great Usain Bolt has worn one.
The medal even has its own feast day — November 27, the day before the November 28 feast of St. Catherine Labouré, the Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul whose visions led to the medal’s creation.
You can see the medal’s attraction in the lives of two saints from vastly different backgrounds who united in a shared spirituality — St. Catherine Labouré and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Elizabeth Ann Seton never had a miraculous medal; there was, in fact, no such thing until years after her death. Her life barely overlapped with St. Catherine Labouré, so they, of course, never met.
The two were not alike at all in several respects. Elizabeth was born the second and last child of her mother in a well-to-do city family; Catherine was born the ninth of 11 children on a farm. Elizabeth grew up in the fledgling United States of America, a short remove from colonial times; Catherine grew up in the Burgundy region of France with roots in the Gallic Celt tribes Roman conquerors found when they incorporated the area into the Roman Empire.
Elizabeth’s mother was the daughter of an Episcopal priest, and she grew up reciting Protestant prayers; Catherine was immersed in the rich Catholic culture of France and grew up having visions and mystical experiences. Elizabeth was married when she was young and began having children; Catherine entered religious life.
But both lost their mother in childhood. The story is told of St. Catherine that she kissed a statue of Mary after her mother’s death and said, “Now you will be my mother.”
Elizabeth found that same maternal presence in the Blessed Mother and the Church after losing her husband. “The glory and happiness of the Catholic Church is to sing the praises of Mary,” she wrote, “the striking proof she is the true spouse of Christ since she best loves, honors, and cherishes her whom Jesus Christ himself so much honors, loves and cherishes.”
The miraculous medal, too, puts a mother close to our hearts — which is especially comforting to those who have lost theirs.
Also, the medal emerges from the spirituality of the Daughters of Charity, a spirituality that St. Elizabeth Ann and St. Catherine Labouré shared.
Though she never saw one, Elizabeth would have loved the Miraculous Medal. We know she liked medals. She made a plea to Father Simon Bruté for instance, to bring certain medals for her students on his next visit to her house in Baltimore, adding “be sure to remember.”
Elizabeth entered religious life after losing her husband, and like Catherine was drawn to the spirituality of Saints Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac who together founded the Daughters of Charity in 1633, a congregation of sisters who were not cloistered, but rallied behind the motto “The charity of Christ impels us!” and served the poor.
In fact, when Elizabeth wrote about the final stages of her embrace of the rule of the Daughters of Charity, she used words that Catherine would have understood. “Now it is to be done that I may become a Sister, and be numbered among the children of the blessed St. Vincent,” she wrote. “O qui il est bon—qu’il est bon bon bon.” It is good, it is good, good, good.
The medal is struck with images that find their origin in visions St. Catherine had in 1830, starting on July 18, the eve of the feast of St. Vincent de Paul.
“While making my meditation in profound silence,” she explains, “I seemed to hear on the right hand side of the sanctuary something like the rustling of a silk dress. Glancing in that direction, I perceived the Blessed Virgin standing near St. Joseph’s picture. Her height was medium and her countenance, indescribably beautiful.”
The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the medal matches what St. Catherine saw: “She was dressed in a robe the color of the dawn, high-necked, with plain sleeves. Her head was covered with a white veil, which floated over her shoulders down to her feet. Her feet rested upon a globe, or rather one half of a globe, for that was all that could be seen.”
Mary appeared in an oval frame on which were written in letters of gold the words: “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee.”
Catherine heard a voice instruct, “Have a medal struck upon this model. All those who wear it, when it is blessed, will receive great graces especially if they wear it round the neck. Those who repeat this prayer with devotion will be in a special manner under the protection of the Mother of God. Graces will be abundantly bestowed upon those who have confidence.”
But there is another side to the story of Mary, dispenser of graces. The image of Our Lady she experienced had rays flowing from her fingers, but with some rays missing.
St. Catherine says that these are the graces no one asked for. She reports the words she heard from Our Lady: “I feel so happy to be able to help the children who beg me for protection. But so many do not ever come to me.”
Mother Seton knew the pain of those who missed out on graces that could have been granted. She told a priest about one member of her congregation who clung to her saying, “0 my Mother” and uttered “broken words about ‘graces lost, and graces he would have given’…”
The Memorare was one of Elizabeth’s favorite prayers, and so she often spoke of the assurance offered to “those who have recourse to thee.” She said, “Jesus delight[s] to receive our love embellished and purified through the heart of Mary — how unhappy they who deprive themselves of such happiness!”
The medal features the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary, comfort to those in pain.
Mother Seton once described how she prayed at the bedside of a sick daughter, “O my Mary, how tight I held my little picture as a mark of confidence in her prayers, who must be tenderly interested for Souls so dearly purchased by her Son and the crucifix held up as a silent prayer which offers all his merits and sufferings as our only hope.”
At her own death, she turned to the Sacred and Immaculate hearts again, saying repeatedly, “blood of Jesus, wash me” and “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, assist me in my last agony.”
St. Catherine Labouré took comfort in the same place. She said she wasn’t afraid of dying. “Why should I be afraid? I am going to see Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin and St. Vincent.”
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: Detail of Catherine Labouré and the Virgin Mary in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Paris