By Dave Kopel. More articles by Kopel on Catholic Saints
Zoe Laboure was responsible for one of the most significant religious icons of all time, even though she lived all her life in complete obscurity. Born in 1806 as the 9th of 17 children, Zoe lost her mother at the age of eight, and took charge of running the household and raising her younger siblings.
Shortly after joining the Sisters of Charity at age 24, she replaced her given name, Zoe, with the name by which we know her today, Catherine Laboure. Catherine had not been at her Parisian convent long when she began seeing visions of Mary in the chapel.
In November, she had her second vision, in which she saw Mary standing on the globe, with rays of light streaming from her hands. In letters of gold, appeared the words "Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you." The apparition eventually began to recede, and was replaced by the letter "M" on a cross, which was placed on top of the hearts of Mary and Jesus.
Mary then instructed Catherine: "Have a medal struck on this model." Catherine shared the vision with her confessor, who obtained the archbishop's permission to have copies of the vision produced. The first of what would be millions of imprints of the Miraculous Medal were struck in 1832, and the medal soon spread worldwide in popularity.
Items such as the Miraculous Medal, like every other manifestation of the sacred, are not infrequently misunderstood. To some persons, the Miraculous Medal evokes only a simplistic, almost superstitious Catholicism of previous generations, in which the physical object of the medal is ascribed magical powers. Or the Medal may be seen as simply a kind of shorthand, expressing through pictures something which could have been didactically stated just as well in language. But, argues the Dictionary of Symbols (Paris: Chevalier, 1947), the Miraculous Medal is a symbol, something whose power derives from its expression of that which cannot be expressed in words, something that may "reveal the secrets of the unconscious, lead to the most hidden resources of activity, and open the spirit to the unknown and the infinite."
The light streaming from Mary's hands, suggests the Dictionary of Mary, symbolizes the graces which Mary transmits. The Miraculous Medal portrays Mary "ever disposed to receive the divine fecundity because she was totally open," symbolizing "the earth oriented toward the sun, so that it then becomes a transfigured earth, an earth of light."
One theologian describes the medal as showing "The triumphant Virgin, who offers and integrates the whole universe in this offering, represents the soul of the cosmic scientist who offers to God the whole cosmos integrated by the Risen Christ."
Even as the medal became world-famous, Catherine kept the secret of the medal's origin to herself and her confessor, until a few months before her death. She spent her years a menial servant at the Hopsice d'Enghien. Having vividly encountered the dynamic essence of the infinite, Catherine Laboure apparently saw her own reality in performing humble work for the destitute men of a hospice. Canonized in 1947, St. Catherine Laboure is celebrated on November 28.
For more: Biography by St. Catherine Church; Middleton, NJ.
To receive a free Medal as a gift.
The Miraculous Medal and the Militia Immaculata movement.
Purchase high-quality medals from St. Catherine's Metalkworks.Visit Kopel's MaryLinks website for links to websites on the Miraculous Medal, and for a daily calendar of Marian feasts, history, devotions, and events.