In a Time of Pandemic and Upheaval, Our Lady Gave Us the Miraculous Medal
In the wake of Saturday’s feast of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, we’re reminded of the strong parallels connecting the times of St. Catherine Labouré and our own.
Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal appeared in 1830 at a time of civil unrest and an approaching pandemic. That summer, Paris was greatly suffering. The French Revolution had brought on much misery. People were suffering. France was suffering. The Church was suffering. There was growing political unrest and unemployment, and food shortages. The atmosphere was ripe for revolt.
Then on July 18, in powerful contrast, our Blessed Mother appeared to Sister Catherine Labouré, a young novice with the Daughters of Charity in Paris. Our Lady walked over to the chair which the community’s director used, and then sat in it. Gazing in awe, Catherine approached and knelt by her. It was not yet the day of the Miraculous Medal.
“Short days later, the political and economic situation and discontent exploded again. The end of that month was the beginning of les trois glorieuse(the “three glorious days”) which took place July 27-29,” explains Vincentian Father Patrick Griffin, executive director for the Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John's University. “It was the second wave of the French Revolution.”
Help on the Horizon
Then, on Nov. 27, Our Blessed Mother again appeared to Catherine Labouré that same year, in the convent on Paris’ Rue du Bac. This time she brought the message of her never-ending care through a sacramental she herself designed and revealed to the future saint.
“Have a medal struck upon this model,” the Blessed Virgin told her. “Those who wear it will receive great graces, especially if they wear it around 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.”
The medals were not made until the archbishop in Paris approved. In June 1832 the first 2,000 medals were minted.
That same year a pandemic was sweeping across much of Europe. Cholera was killing tens of thousands. Paris alone saw 20,000 die — more than 3% of the population. Throughout France, the toll was 100,000. In London, more than 6,500 died. The cholera pandemic spread to the United States and Washington, D.C. was hit.
When the first medals were minted, the Daughters of Charity began to wear them. They gave them to the sick and elderly to wear. People immediately took the Blessed Mother at her word.
“Almost immediately, miraculous healings, cures, and conversions occurred; people began clamoring for the medal of the Immaculate Conception (as it was originally called),” the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal in Philadelphia records.
“The Medal quickly spread throughout France and then the world. Before long, people were calling it the Miraculous Medal; everyone wanted the medal Mary had brought from Heaven.”
From poor to prelates asked for them. The archbishop of Paris wanted one. Even Pope Gregory XVI received one.
To meet the ever-growing requests for the Miraculous Medal, between 1932 and 1836, more than 2 million medals were made and distributed, all according to the exact pattern given by Our Lady.
The front of the medal shows Mary in her familiar image as the Immaculate Conception. She stands on a globe as Mother and Queen of mankind. Rays flow from her hands. Mary told St. Catherine, “These rays symbolize the graces I shed upon those who ask for them.” Precious jewels on Mary’s fingers shed the rays. Those shedding no light represent graces that people forget to, or do not, ask for. In an oval around the Blessed Mother appear the words, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
The Central Shrine of the Miraculous Medal called it a “condensed catechism on Mary. On it we see her as the woman who crushes the serpent’s head in Genesis (3:15) and the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation (12:1). We see the Hearts of Jesus and Mary united at the Cross. The wording confirming Mary’s purity circles around her, and the rays from her hands depict her as the dispenser of God’s graces.”
The medal is a reminder of Our Lady’s powerful intercession.
“Mary and her Miraculous Medal are just as important today as they were back in 1830,” says the shrine in their 2020 magazine. “They’re the solution to all the difficulties we’re facing. Now more than ever, we need our Blessed Mother’s comfort and protection. Now more than ever, we need to discover her peace. Now more than ever, we need to know that our Mother is with us. And she is.”
Times Like Our Own
Today we see much discontent around the world. Economic, political and sociological turmoil. Movement away, not toward, the Lord. In France, fewer than 10% of Catholics attend Mass regularly. In the United States, two-thirds of Catholics don’t believe our Church’s teaching about the real presence of Christ in the Holyy Eucharist. Another pandemic has swept globally.
Vincentian Father Griffin helps us to see some parallels between these days and those 1830-32 events.
“What is clear from the period in which the Miraculous Medal was given is that it was a time of political upheaval (1830) and cholera outbreak (1832),” he notes.
“First of all, the unsettled character of the government has some relation to what’s going on now. There was difficulty between the different groups in France. What’s more, the cholera epidemic broke out in 1832. The Miraculous Medal was not minted until some months after the breakout. The first minting of the Miraculous Medal happened in June 1832” and then “immediately distributed. A lot of the people who had the Miraculous Medal recovered.” He saw the medal “associated with the cholera epidemic and also the deepening of the peoples’ faith. It brought the Blessed Mother strongly forward. It was a blessing for the Vincentian family itself. It formed the Vincentian community particularly around the Miraculous Medal.”
As a side note, he says that Victor Hugo memorialized the rebellion in his novel Les Misérables, set in 1830, and in it mentions the death of Fantine and the ministry of the Daughters of Charity: “The two nuns attending the infirmary, Lazarists as all these Sister of Charity are…”
Father Griffin, who lived in Paris for three years — his office was by the Rue de Bac shrine where he said Mass hundreds of times — continued, “The connection to today to the Blessed Mother and the medal is a reminder. It causes the person who wears it to remember the Blessed Mother and her love for us.”
He points out the way the medal influences the people seeking the graces from the Blessed Mother, who has beams coming from her hands.
“The point is, in the current pandemic one turns to the Blessed Mother and seeks her help to avoid the unnecessary sickness and bring healing into people’s lives. The connection is rather clear. The heart of it is not that a miracle happens when one wears the Miraculous Medal, but it changes peoples’ faith, it helps people put greater confidence in the Blessed Mother.” It was used as a religious symbol during the cholera epidemic.
During the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal distributed more than 3,500 Miraculous Medals to 18 hospitals and healthcare facilities as well as frontline workers.
Years ago, another Vincentian priest at a different Marian shrine found a key message of the medal and the devotion it generates an antidote to many of today's attitudes, especially in the strong American cultural emphasis on the self-made approach to life.
“But that rugged individualism,” he concluded, “sometimes gets in the way of allowing God and Our Lady to work in our lives. And her basic message is to cast your cares on her, to be dependent. That's where the sense of well-being comes from for so many of the people who pray to her.”
From 1830 to the present day, as billions of Miraculous Medals have been minted over these last 191 years, and people have worn them with proper devotion, our Blessed Mother continues to prove her love and help for us in billions of ways. What a heavenly gift, along with the Rosary, is the Miraculous Medal.