In this time of pandemic and uncertainty, we could all use a miracle. A very special devotion may help.
On the evening of July 19, 1830, just before retiring for the night, a young novice nun named Catherine Labouré prayed to St. Vincent de Paul, asking for his intercession on a particular matter. More than anything in the world, Catherine wanted to see and converse with the Virgin Mary.
That was a pretty bold thing to request, and not an easy petition for any saint to satisfy. After all, the Blessed Mother had passed from this earth almost 1,800 years earlier. And yet, with God, all things are possible.
Just before midnight, Catherine awoke to the sound of someone calling her name. She opened her eyes. Standing before her was a child of about five years old bathed in light as if radiating phosphorus. “The Virgin Mary is waiting to see you,” said this little messenger.
The child, whom the young nun believed to be her guardian angel, led Catherine down a hallway to the convent’s chapel. As she entered, there before her was her heart’s delight: the Blessed Virgin, flooded in even more light than the angel by Catherine’s side.
Young Catherine, shaking at the knees, breathless, gazed upon the vision before her as if she had just been born and was seeing her own mother for the first time.
Mary spoke to Catherine, the young nun hanging on every word of this celestial mother-daughter talk. The vision of grace implored Catherine to be obedient to her superiors and to be humble. Mary hinted that a great and important destiny — Catherine’s life’s purpose — would be revealed to her in due time. The young woman just needed to have patience.
The child escorted Catherine back to her room. Warmed by her words and inflamed by the Virgin’s presence, Catherine pondered these things in her heart, finally falling asleep.
Four months later, on Nov. 27, 1830, the Virgin Mary came again to visit with Catherine in the night, a bright star in the darkness. This time, in what we might today call a hologram, Mary stood on top of a small planet, crushing a snake beneath her feet. In one hand, she held a small globe; rays of light emanated from the other.
The small globe, the Virgin Mary said, symbolized the earth, and the rays represented the love and grace she shines on all who seek her help. Near Mary, Catherine could make out a series of words floating in the air: “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.” The Blessed Mother then spoke these words: “Have a medal made according to what I have told you. Those who wear it will be blessed with many graces.” The vision before her turned, and Catherine saw Mary’s plan for the back of the medal.
On this side, she saw the letter M crowned with a cross, which represented the connection between Jesus and Mary; and two hearts, one surrounded by thorns and the other pierced with a sword, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Around this image were 12 stars, which Catherine was told represented the 12 apostles.
Her young mind racing, her heart inflamed, Catherine went off and thought and prayed about these experiences — the symbols pregnant with meaning and prophecy — and soon shared her visions with her spiritual adviser and Mother Superior.
Though the process wasn’t easy, and there were numerous obstacles along the way — there were many who wondered if Catherine was crazy — the archbishop, after much deliberation, approved plans for the medal. It was designed and struck in 1832 with an initial printing of 1,500 medals.
Within seven years, more than 10 million medals were distributed. By 1876, the year Catherine died, there were estimated to be more than 1 billion of these medals worn by believers all around the world. To this day it is one of the most popular devotions among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
I first came across the Miraculous Medal when I was on pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, the holy shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the miraculous events that happened there in the mid-19th century.
There, in the red hills of southern France, where the autumn air was cold and the streets always seemed to be wet with rain, I purchased one of these medallions at a local souvenir shop. It was just a small pewter pendant that hung from a thin piece of leather string.
I didn’t know much about the object at the time, just that it looked kind of cool. Not to mention the store seemed to have hundreds of them — a bestseller, I surmised.
I placed the medal around my neck and walked in the rays of the setting French sun to the grotto to pray. The grotto, a sort of natural indentation on the side of a mountain, was where, in February 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous had the first of 18 visions of the Virgin Mary.
It was during this time that the Blessed Mother revealed to the young girl her desire for the world to experience the love of her son and to partake in the life-saving waters that flowed in a stream beneath this half cave.
Since that time, this remote area has become a meeting place and respite for pilgrims, sinners, castaways, and the sick and infirm, in search of the miraculous healing waters that were blessed by the Virgin Mary so many years ago.
It was evening. The ground was wet, the sky a mix of indigo and clouds the color of cigarette ash. I really wasn’t expecting a miracle; I was just wandering in curiosity, uncertain about what I would see or feel, though, of course, secretly I was hoping to experience an apparition of Mary before my eyes.
I didn’t receive a vision that evening, but I may have been given something nearly as special.
As I entered the grotto area, I dropped to my knees and lifted my eyes to a statue of the Virgin Mary, maybe 6 feet tall, set high above me in the recess of the mountain, cloaked in white and cornflower blue, her eyes turned toward heaven.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and prayed. I was vaguely aware of the hushed murmurs and shuffling footsteps of dozens of other pilgrims just like me approaching the site in reverence. People were singing like a roaming choir of angels. I entered a state of meditation somewhere between sleep and wakefulness.
I don’t know how long I was praying, but it must have been for a very long time. At some point, I opened my eyes and looked around me.
I saw in the distance what had to be at least a thousand wayfarers holding flickering candles in the darkness as they made their careful pilgrimage from the grotto to the church, the Basilica of the Rosary, in another part of the mountains.
In the glow of this sacred fire, I saw old and young walking hand in hand. I saw men and women in wheelchairs, people struggling along on crutches. There was a gurney on which lay a man, his nurse by his side.
All those faces, those hobbled bodies, the collective faith of all these people made me feel like I was floating on my knees, not necessarily levitating, but the feeling of having my heart lifted inside me. I started to cry, great sobs that came from somewhere deep inside a part of me that I didn’t even know existed.
And it seemed as if I somehow became connected with all of these wanderers searching for their miracles. I touched the medal around my neck. I closed my eyes. I gave thanks to God, Jesus, and the Blessed Mother for delivering me to this moment.
The day after that experience, I went back to the gift shop where I had purchased the medal and found a little booklet that contained the Miraculous Medal Novena. In honor of that moment, I prayed it over nine days, during my final days in France and on the plane ride home.
Some years ago, I misplaced the booklet and have not seen it since. But it’s a devotion that has been around for many years. You might guess at how precious that prayer was to me as I pondered in my heart the experience I had that night.
Now, as we journey through these seemingly unprecedented and uncertain times, let’s join together in praying this prayer, for healing, for a miracle, for ourselves, and for the whole world.
The Miraculous Medal Novena
Recite alone or with a group over nine days.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Come, O Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth. Let us pray. O God, who did instruct the hearts of the faithful by the light of the Holy Spirit, grant us in the same Spirit to be truly wise and ever to rejoice in his consolation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you. (Repeat three times.)
O Lord Jesus Christ, who has vouchsafed to glorify by numberless miracles the Blessed Virgin Mary, immaculate from the first moment of her conception, grant that all who devoutly implore her protection on earth, may eternally enjoy your presence in heaven, who, with the Father and Holy Spirit, live and reign, God, forever and ever. Amen.
O Lord Jesus Christ, who for the accomplishment of your greatest works, have chosen the weak things of the world, that no flesh may glory in your sight; and who for a better and more widely diffused belief in the Immaculate Conception of your Mother, have wished that the Miraculous Medal be manifested to St. Catherine Labouré, grant, we beseech you, that filled with like humility, we may glorify this mystery by word and work. Amen.