Miraculous Medal Turns 175

PARIS — It's small and inconspicuous. It has power unknown to most people. If used properly, it could have a positive effect on this French capital, where it originated and which is recovering from recent rioting.

“It” is the Miraculous Medal, worn on a chain around many Christians’ necks for nearly 175 years — from peasants to great saints like Maximilian Kolbe.

Nov. 27 is the 175th anniversary of the apparition of Mary to St. Catherine Labouré that led to the creation of the medal. The Blessed Virgin, who had been appearing since July of that year to the young novice of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, asked her to have a medal struck that would bring great graces to those who wear it “with confidence.”

The first Miraculous Medals were struck two years later, and ever since then, the sacramental has taken on a history of its own. It is a powerful means of devotion to Christ and the Blessed Mother, a great source of graces, and a heaven-revealed route for numberless conversions, healings and favors granted.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta handed out Miraculous Medals to everyone, from devout Catholics to those with no religion.

“She would say to everyone, ‘Pray to Our Lady — here is a Miraculous Medal,’” said Missionary of Charity Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator of the cause for her canonization.

When, for example, women told Blessed Teresa they were having difficulty getting pregnant, she'd answer, “Here is a Miraculous Medal. You pray.”

“And Mother Teresa's prayer,” said Father Kolodiejchuk, “was very simple and direct: ‘Mary, Mother of Jesus, give us a child.’” Many women soon found themselves happy mothers.

There's no end to the “Thank Yous” for favors and blessings received that pour in to the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville, Mo., and to Mary's Central Shrine in Philadelphia (see Travel, page 13).

Based on the people who visit the Perryville shrine or write in, Vincentian Father Henry Grodecki, president of the Miraculous Medal Association, knows there are plenty of people having difficulties. But he notices “a certain sense of serenity about them, and peace in the midst of difficulty.

“It's almost more important than the favors they're receiving,” he said.

Donna Masek of Sandy, Utah, experienced this peace in a deep way. When she and husband, John, first came to Utah, where Catholics are a minority, she was afraid to wear her medal on the outside. Mary helped her overcome that fear, she believes.

But two days later, she had a miscarriage. Throughout the experience, the refrain, “The angels will take you to paradise,” stayed with her.

“In my heart, the angels were ready to take this child back to heaven,” she said. “‘Don't be afraid,’ I thought.”

Masek sees the Miraculous Medal as a sign of Our Lady and her role in our lives. “There's nothing that we should be afraid of,” she added. “The medal helps us remember that there's a very real woman attached to it.”

Father Grodecki finds many miracles aren't of the grandiose Cecile B. De Mille variety.

“They're sort of quiet,” he says. “People pray for their children to come back to the Church, and they do. People pray operations go well, and they do. People have remission from cancer. It seems Mary's care through the ordinary stuff of life, the little miracles, so often seems to come that way.”

Her never-ending care through this sacramental she herself designed began shortly after she revealed it to St. Catherine Labouré on Nov. 27, 1830, in the convent of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul on Paris’ Rue du Bac. “Have a medal struck after this model,” the Blessed Virgin told her. “All who wear it will receive great graces; they should wear it around the neck. Graces will abound for persons who wear it with confidence.”

People immediately took the Blessed Mother at her word. By 1834, it was called the Miraculous Medal, as countless conversions took place and favors were granted.

The medal was initially called a medal of the Immaculate Conception. This was years before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was declared, Father Grodecki said.

The front of the medal, in fact, shows Mary in the now-familiar image of 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.”

Father Grodecki finds this key message and the devotion it generates an antidote to some of today's attitudes, especially in American culture's strong emphasis on the self-made approach to life.

“But that rugged individualism,” he concludes, “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.”

History of Conversions

Wearing the Miraculous Medal is not a magical thing to make God or Mary act for us, said Father Grodecki. Rather, it's a pledge to be open to her working in our lives.

“Putting on my habit in the morning reminds me of who I am called to be,” explained Conventual Franciscan Father Stephen McKinley, guardian at Marytown in Libertyville, Ill., the national center of the Militia of the Immaculata, which was founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe. “Wearing a medal or a scapular reminds us who we are called to be and act as a child of God. It's a powerful concrete reminder that helps us get our priorities straight.”

For example, when people confess to him that they are visiting immoral websites, he has them tape the Miraculous Medal to their computer. “See if you can go places you shouldn't with Our Lady looking at you,” he tells them.

Father McKinley notes that many conversions were associated with this medal. In fact, St. Maximilian Kolbe became a great promoter of the Miraculous Medal after he read the story of the conversion of a wealthy French Jew, Alphonse Ratisbonne in 1842.

Strongly anti-Catholic, Ratisbonne accepted the medal from a Catholic convert friend and agreed to wear it and say the Memorare twice a day as “an experiment.”

A week later, Ratisbonne found himself in a Rome basilica where Our Lady appeared to him looking like the Miraculous Medal image. He immediately knew about his spiritual state and the Catholic faith. He converted, became a priest and spent his life in the Holy Land converting others.

“Maximilian thought: If Our Lady could do that with one soul, why couldn't she do it with the entire world to bring them to Jesus?” Father McKinley said. “He passed the medals out left and right and called them his ‘little bullets.’”

Father McKinley told this story to fifth graders at Holy Family Parish in Peoria, and the students were eager to pass them out everywhere.

“I would give them tons of medals,” he explained. “One little boy said he left them on the cans of soup in the supermarket so someone who needs them would find them. That's in the spirit of St. Maximilian. He believed if you can get them in the hands of the people, then Our Lady will do the work through that powerful sacramental.”

In the Miraculous Medal's 175 years, she's proven it in billions of ways.

Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.