Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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May 31, 2000
Month of Mary

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Towards the end of the year 1841, Alphonse Ratisbonne, a young Jewish banker from a distinguished family in Strasbourg, stopped in Rome during a trip to the Orient. His religious attitude was very hostile to the Catholic Church, especially since his brother, Theodore, had converted to Catholicism and had been ordained a priest. In the Holy City, he went to the house of a friend, Gustave de Bussière. In the absence of de Bussière, the host's brother, Theodore de Bussière, a fervent Catholic, received him. In the course of the conversation, Alphonse allowed his animosity towards the Catholic faith to explode, and asserted his unwavering attachment to Judaism. Under the inspiration of grace, Mr. de Bussière offered him a Miraculous Medal, saying, «Promise me that you will always carry on yourself this little gift, which I beg you not to refuse.» Alphonse accepted it out of politeness.

Several days later, on January 20, 1842, the two friends went to the church Saint Andrew delle Frate. Mr. de Bussière left Alphonse for a moment in order to speak with a priest. When he returned, he found the young man in the Saint Michael chapel, bowed low in deep meditation. After a moment, Alphonse turned towards him a face flooded in tears. «I had been in the church for a moment,» he would say later, «when all of a sudden I felt myself seized with an inexpressible agitation. I lifted my eyes; the entire building had vanished from sight; just one chapel had, so to speak, concentrated all the light, and in the middle of this radiance appeared, standing on the altar, great, brilliant, full of majesty and gentleness, the Virgin Mary, just as she is pictured on the medal; an irresistible force pushed me towards her. The Virgin motioned me with her hand to kneel, and she seemed to say to me: 'Everything is all right!' She didn't speak a word to me, but I understood everything.» On January 31, Alphonse received Baptism. Later, he would become a priest. Meanwhile, having made inquiries about the origin of the Miraculous Medal, he hoped to meet Sister Catherine Labouré, the nun who had received the revelation about it. But he did not reckon on the profound humility of the latter, who wished to remain unknown and refused to meet.

Where to find the strength?

The nun so discreet who also had seen the Most Blessed Virgin, and whom Pope Pius XII would call the Saint of silence, was born May 2, 1806 in the village of Fain-les-Moutiers, in the region of Burgundy. She received the name Catherine at her Baptism the following day. Her father, Pierre Labouré, was a well-to-do farmer. Catherine was the eighth of ten children. She was just nine years old when her mother died at the age of 46, on October 9, 1815. Catherine climbed onto a chair, raised herself on her tiptoes, reached the statue of the Most Blessed Virgin which towered above on a piece of furniture and, in tears, begged her to take the place of her mother. Monsieur Labouré called back the eldest of his daughters, Marie-Louise, 20 years old, who was staying with an aunt in Langres, to replace her mother on the farm.

January 25, 1818, Catherine made her First Communion with much fervor. Marie-Louise, noting her sister's precocious maturity, introduced her to the household chores so as to carry out without further delay her plan to give herself to God. In a determined tone, Catherine said at that time to Tonine, her younger sister, «It is up to the two of us to run the house.» It was thus that Catherine ruled in this large farm. She was the first one to rise in the morning. Her main duty each day was to prepare and serve the three meals. The woman farmer is a servant; she gives of herself more than anyone else. It is also her responsibility to take care of the animals. Catherine milked the cows, in the morning and at night; she gave out the fodder and led the herd to the town watering place. She poured a thickened soup to the pigs, gathered the eggs in the henhouse, looked after the 700 to 800 pigeons that landed familiarly on her when she threw them grain generously. In spite of all that, she went to draw the water from the well, did the washing, kneaded the flour in order to make the bread, went 15 kilometers to the market in Montbard on Thursdays, etc. During the long winter nights, the evening gathering was made before the fire in the fireplace: news, memories, tales, then evening prayer. On Sundays, Catherine visited the poor and the sick.

Where did this capacity to assume an overwhelming task come from? Her secret was hidden in her escapes from the farm. She would disappear for a while each day to go to the church, very close to the farm, to pray at length on the cold flagstones. The tabernacle was empty, for the village had been without a priest since the Revolution. But the Presence of the Lord revealed itself to the depths of the young girl's heart. It was there that she found the strength to put a brave face on things and serve well. «Prayers don't move the work forward, it's wasted time,» the neighbors sometimes said. Catherine hardly cared about what they said; she prayed, and the work was done in time. Her intense desire was to become a nun.

A dream came to confirm her in her vocation. She saw an elderly and very good priest who looked at her insistently… then she found herself, still dreaming, at the bedside of a sick person. The old priest, still present, said, «My daughter, it is good to care for the ill… One day you will come to me. God has plans for you, do not forget it.» Yet in order to become a nun, one needed to know how to read and write. A cousin offered to take Catherine to Châtillon-sur-Seine, to a renowned boarding school she ran. Tonine, who was 16 at the time, was capable of taking on the duties of the farm. Despite his reluctance, Mr. Labouré allowed Catherine to leave.

«I have not changed my mind!»

At Châtillon-sur-Seine, the young woman visited the Daughters of Charity, and in a portrait, she recognized with astonishment the priest who had appeared to her in a dream. «Who is he?» she asked. «It's our good Father Saint Vincent de Paul,» a nun replied. She kept silent; but this time she was sure that God wanted her to become a Daughter of Charity. When she reached the age of majority of the time, 21 years, she announced to her father her decision to devote herself to God. Mr. Labouré formally opposed it: he had already given a daughter to God, and that was enough. And besides, Catherine was useful, she was cheerful, she didn't disdain the festivals of the surrounding villages, and she had even been asked for in marriage. But the young woman was determined: «I do not want to get married.» Tonine persisted, and Catherine answered her, «I have told you, I will never get married. I am engaged to Our Lord.»—«You have not changed your mind, then, since you were twelve?»—«No, I have not.»

After having waited several months, Catherine finally received her father's consent. On April 21, 1830 she went to Rue du Bac, in Paris, to begin her novitiate at the Daughters of Charity. From the first months of her religious life, she was favored with special graces: Jesus revealed Himself to her in the Blessed Sacrament during Mass; the Heart of Saint Vincent de Paul appeared to her; she had the presentiment of a Revolution that was quite near. She recounted everything to her confessor, Father Aladel, a Lazarist priest who, full of doubts, suggested she be calm and forget these things.

During the night of July 18-19, Sister Catherine was awakened by a call: «My Sister! My Sister!» A little child 4 or 5 years old, dressed in white, was there: «Get up quickly and go to the chapel, the Blessed Virgin is waiting for you!»—«But the others will hear me!»—«Don't worry, it's 11:30, everyone is sleeping.» She got dressed and followed the child, who gave off rays of light everywhere he went. In the chapel, all the candles and torches were lit. After a moment, Sister Catherine saw a great Lady who, after having prostrated herself before the Tabernacle, came to sit in an armchair. In one bound she was next to her, on her knees, her hands resting on the knees of the Blessed Virgin. «My child,» Mary told her, «God wishes to entrust to you a mission which will give you a great deal of suffering… You must tell your confessor everything. Tragedies will swoop down on France… Go to the foot of this altar. There, graces will be poured out on all those who ask for them with confidence and fervor. People will believe all is lost. But I will be there with you. Have faith, you will have my visit and the protection of God and that of Saint Vincent on your communities.» When Mary left, around two o'clock in the morning, it was like a light which had gone out. Sister Catherine returned to her bed, led by the little child. She did not go back to sleep: this proved that she had not dreamt it. Father Aladel, once informed, saw in all of it nothing more than «illusion,» and «imagination.» The prophecy of a new revolution seemed to him unbelievable: France was prosperous and peaceful. But the revolution broke out suddenly, July 27 and 28. Rioters hounded priests and nuns. However, the violence stopped at the door of the Houses founded by Saint Vincent de Paul.

The following November 27, during evening prayer, Sister Catherine saw a tableau appear, representing the Blessed Virgin: Mary stretched out her arms towards her, and from her hands went out rays of light of a ravishing brilliance. At the same time, a voice was heard: «These rays are the symbols of graces that Mary obtains for men.» Around the tableau, Sister Catherine read, in gold letters, the following invocation: «O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.» Then the tableau turned around, and on the reverse side appeared the letter «M,» the initial for «Mary,» capped with a cross and, at the bottom, the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The voice stated very distinctly: «A medal must be stamped after this model, and the persons who will wear an indulgenced one and who will say with piety this short prayer, will enjoy a very special protection from the Mother of God.» Sister Catherine related everything to Father Aladel who received her most angrily: «Pure illusion! If you want to honor Our Lady, imitate her virtues, and keep away from the imagination!» Maintaining self-control, the Sister withdrew with calm, and without worrying about it further. But the shock had been rude.

Mysterious gems

In December 1830, Mary appeared a third time to Sister Catherine and showed her the tableau representing the medal. On the fingers of the Most Blessed Virgin shone precious stones, from which luminous rays went towards the earth. But certain stones did not give off rays: «These gems which do not give off light are the graces which people forget to ask from me,» said the Virgin Mary. Then she added, «You will not see me again, but you will hear my voice during your prayers.» Sister Catherine found herself caught between the renewed request of the Blessed Virgin and obedience to her confessor, who did not want to hear again of these «imaginings.» Since Our Lady had not expressed urgency, Catherine opted to be silent.

On January 30, 1831 she took the habit and was sent to the home for the elderly in Enghien, in a suburb of Paris. There she felt herself at home, assigned to the henhouse, the garden, the pigeons, and later the cows. But the interior voice pressed her to have the medal stamped. Father Aladel, approached again, submitted the «case» to a confrere. They together related everything to Archbishop de Quélen of Paris. The apparition of Mary in the mystery of her Immaculate Conception evoked profound interest from the prelate: «There is no risk in having the Medal stamped; it is entirely in accordance with faith and piety. There is no need to prejudge the nature of the vision, or to reveal the circumstances surrounding it. Simply let the medal be distributed. And the tree shall be judged by its fruits.»

Ten million medals

Reassured, Father Aladel commissioned a Parisian engraver to make the medals, and he spread the story of the Apparitions, without naming the Sister who had been favored with them. The first 1,500 medals were delivered June 30, 1832. Quite quickly, miracles were occurring everywhere, to the point that, starting in February 1834, the Medal was commonly described as «miraculous.» In 1839, more than 10 million medals had already been circulated. Stories of cures came from the United States, from Poland, from China, from Russia… Sister Catherine was in a state of thanksgiving, for the good news announced by Isaiah had become current again: The blind shall see, the lame walk, the poor shall hear the good news. The Medal is a «Bible» of the poor, the sign of a presence, that of Mary, in the light of Christ, in the shadow of the Cross. The benefits of Mary's protection made themselves felt in a very special way in the religious families founded by Saint Vincent de Paul, particularly by the flood of vocations.

The incomparable success of the Miraculous Medal manifests the pleasure that Our Lord takes in seeing His Mother honored. On the day of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel greeted her as full of grace (Lk 1:28). In the expression full of grace, which has nearly the value of a name, the name that God gives to Mary, the Church has recognized the privilege of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma solemnly proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854: «We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her Conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful» (Bull Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854).

Since the fall of Adam, sin, the greatest of all evils, has carried humanity away like a torrent; yet it stops before the Redeemer and his faithful Collaborator, Mary. But there is a notable difference: Christ is completely holy by virtue of the grace which, in His humanity, derives from His Divine Person; Mary is completely holy by virtue of the grace received by the merits of Jesus Christ. She who was to become the Mother of the Savior and Mother of God had to be pure of all stain. Thus, Mary was redeemed in a wonderful manner: not through liberation from sin, but through preservation from sin. Exemption from original sin carries with it as a consequence immunity from concupiscence, a disordered tendency which comes from sin and pushes one to sin. The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, faithful to the grace of her Immaculate Conception, did not cease to grow in holiness, without ever falling into one fault, even venial. «This is why Mary represents for believers the luminous sign of the Divine Mercy and a sure guide towards the high summits of evangelical perfection and holiness» (John Paul II, June 19, 1996).

The precautions of humility

The ascent towards the «high summits of perfection» presupposes the virtue of humility, so dear to the Virgin Mary. In the face of the torrent of graces obtained by the Miraculous Medal, Sister Catherine also behaved like a true daughter of Saint Vincent, with disconcerting humility. Archbishop de Quélen had discreetly authorized the circulation of the Medal. But soon, he decided to open an official process so as to support the movement of graces which was produced. However, when he asked to see Sister Catherine, be it with her face covered, he received a refusal which he bowed before. «The Sister's reluctance to appear is the result of her singular humility,» said Father Aladel. The world had to content itself with testimony from her confessor, himself authorized by the visionary to reveal the facts. As for Sister Catherine, she strove her entire life to remain incognito, doing her best with her farmer's shrewdness to elude indiscreet questions.

In the meantime, she carried on with her work, transforming little by little the Enghien house's garden into a small farm. She also served in the kitchen, then in the laundry and as porter, receiving the poor with great thoughtfulness, caring for their bodies but also for their souls, according to Saint Vincent's recommendation. However, her principal duty was to take care of the elderly men. The task was certainly not easy, for it was necessary to stand up to former gamekeepers, valets, butlers, and porters, nostalgic for their liveries of gold. She took pains above all to love these elderly men, allowing to appear a certain preference for the most disagreeable, as if they had a right to special attentions.

In 1860, a new, young superior, Sister Dufès, was appointed to the Enghien home. She harbored great plans that she implemented with vigor in order to come to the aid of the immense poverty of the area. Her enterprising youth left the community breathless and rushed, but Sister Catherine calmed the discontented Sisters. Nevertheless, Sister Dufès did not treat her considerately, making reproaches to her easily. This severe attitude spread, and many nuns thought little of this uncultivated Sister whose accent and apron «smelled like the stable.» Sister Catherine kept humbly silent, even though the interior struggle was sometimes rough. But her humility did not rule out courage or even boldness. In 1871, after France's defeat against Prussia, the Commune of Paris revolted against the social order. The Virgin Mary had told Sister Catherine: «The moment will come when the danger will be great. People will believe all is lost… but have faith.» One day, the rebels demanded that the Sisters deliver over two wounded policemen that they had received and that the insurgents wanted to execute. Sister Dufès, who refused, was threatened with prison. She left the house discreetly and took refuge in Versailles. Sister Catherine, who stood in for her in her absence, went to the Communards to plead the cause of her Superior. The interview was turbulent and the commandant of the detachment even nearly went to the point of brandishing his sabre at her. But finally, she won the case and went freely back to the home.

«Nasty little woman!»

After these tragic events, Sister Catherine took up her modest tasks again. But she was getting old and her infirmities obliged her to slow the pace of her activities. All her life she had suffered from arthritis and rheumatism, accepting these pains with great faith: «When the Blessed Virgin sends suffering, she is sending us a grace,» she would say. Now, worn by work and by age, she was at the end of her strength and her heart was weakening. One profound difficulty remained: the Blessed Virgin had asked her to have a statue sculpted representing her holding a globe in her hands. Her confessors had not wanted to take this request into consideration, and Father Aladel even spoke of her as a «nasty little woman» when she was insistent that her wish be granted. Sister Catherine then begged Mary to know if she should tell «her secret» to her Superior; she perceived a «yes» in the depths of her heart and related everything: she expressed herself with such clarity and facility that her Superior was won over, and soon the statue of the Virgin with the globe was executed.

Sister Catherine awaited death with serenity from then on. Many times, she had told her Sisters that she would not see the year 1877. Indeed, on December 31, 1876, towards 7 o'clock in the evening, after having recited the prayers for the dying with her community, she appeared to sigh. Soon it was realized that gently, without a sound, just as she had lived, so she died—her soul was taken to Paradise by the hands of the Blessed Virgin. «Hardly could we notice that she had ceased to live,» Sister Dufès would say later; «I have never seen a death so calm and so gentle.»

«It is indeed something worthy of the greatest admiration when we see the august Mother of God appear to the humble young girl,» said Pope Pius XII during the canonization of Saint Catherine Labouré (July 27, 1947), «but even more worthy of admiration are the virtues which adorned this daughter of Saint Vincent.» Let us ask the Most Blessed Virgin Mary for the graces we also need in order to become like Christ, for, as Alphonse Ratisbonne testified, «There are no words to render what the hands of our Mother contain, and to repeat the inexpressible gifts which come from them… It is goodness, mercy, tenderness, the gentleness and riches of Heaven which spill by torrents to flood the souls that she protects.»

God the Father sent His Son into the world through Mary; it is also through Mary that men approach Jesus, obtain pardon for their sins and bring to a good end the work of their sanctification. We pray to the Most Blessed Virgin as well as to Saint Joseph, for you and all those dear to you, living and deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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