The Word Among Us

Lent 2010 Issue

Have You Got Enough?

Catherine Labouré and the Miraculous medal

By: Ann Bottenhorn

Have You Got Enough?: Catherine Labouré and the Miraculous medal by Ann Bottenhorn

One of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time asks its audience, "Got Milk?"

Its popularity stretches across barriers of language, politics, and culture. In the two decades since it was first released, it has been copied widely in takeoffs such as "Got Freud?" and "Got Joy?" The campaign’s success is generally attributed to its simplicity: Two short words and a photo of a peanut butter sandwich missing a single bite, or a celebrity with a white milk mustache. It appeals to people everywhere, addressing body, mind, and heart.

In the early 1800s, God launched a similarly holistic appeal to a world struggling with war and revolution, dramatic economic and cultural upheaval, and widespread loss of faith. His campaign, bigger than the milk industry’s, was carried out through an insignificant Daughter of Charity who for years was known mainly for her trademark question: "Have you got enough?"

The Call. On a bright spring day in April 1830, a young country woman stepped down from a horse-drawn cart and into the courtyard of 132 rue du Bac, the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in Paris. Her journey had been long—much longer than the two hundred miles between this convent and her family home in Burgundy.

To pursue her religious vocation, this determined novice had resisted her brother, who wanted her help in his restaurant. Her father had objected, too: He needed her to run the family farm. Besides, one of his daughters was already a nun. Wasn’t that enough?

But one night, Catherine Labouré had a dream. In it, an old priest beckoned to her and said, "My daughter, it’s good to care for the sick. . . . One day you’ll be happy to come to me. God has plans for you. Don’t forget it!" Her pastor thought the old priest might be St. Vincent de Paul. This was confirmed not long afterward, when Catherine visited a Daughters of Charity convent and was surprised to see, in a portrait hanging on the wall, the old priest of her dream.

One by one, the obstacles had fallen away. Her family became reconciled to Catherine’s vocation and even came up with the necessary dowry. She learned to read and write (though convent records characterized her spelling as "bizarre"). At the Paris convent, she did well, without standing out. Her superior evaluated her as "Strong. Medium build. . . . Not outstanding in intelligence or judgment. Devout." In other words, nothing special.

The Mission. Within days of her arrival in Paris, though, Catherine was again having dreams and visions. Some seemed to warn of civil uprisings and the downfall of the monarchy; others suggested unity, increased love, and renewal within her religious community. Most were highly symbolic and provoked strong emotional responses in Catherine. Her confessor, a priest barely older than herself, cautioned her to put aside these "dreams and fancies," and remain calm and humble in her duties.

One July night in 1830, Catherine had a dreamlike encounter with Our Lady, who said that God wanted to give her a special mission. Then on November 27, while in silent prayer with the other sisters in the convent church, Catherine saw a picture of Mary, dressed in white, with a blue mantle and a veil "the color of dawn." Glittering rays streamed from her hands, and Catherine heard a voice saying, "These rays of light are a symbol of the graces that Mary obtains for all people." Framing the picture were the words: "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee." Then Catherine saw the reverse side of the image. It showed a cross standing over the letter M, with the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary underneath.

Finally, Catherine was told to have a medal made, using these pictures as a model. Everyone who wears it and prays its words devoutly "will enjoy the special protection of the Mother of God," the voice promised her.

"Pure illusion!" exclaimed Catherine’s confessor when she told him of the vision. He told her "firmly" never to speak of it again. A month later, she saw the same picture and heard Mary say, "You will not see me any more, but you will hear my voice during your prayers." Catherine was in a quandary: How could she both obey her confessor and carry out the mission communicated by Mary?

Guided by the Holy Spirit, she chose to obey her earthly advisor. After all, Mary had not commissioned her strictly, while her confessor had insisted on silence. And so, Catherine said nothing. Modest and composed, she went about her tasks just like any other Sister, never letting on that she had experienced anything like visions. God supplied her with enough wisdom, faith, and self-control to do this.

The Medal. In the end, Catherine’s response is what convinced her confessor that she was not over emotional, deluded, or a liar. Eventually, he mentioned the medal to the archbishop of Paris, who found it entirely in line with the faith of the church and thought it might even encourage people to honor God. Indeed, he declared that he wanted to be the first to receive one! And so, two years after Catherine first related the vision, fifteen hundred copies of the medal were made—but without anyone else knowing its history.

Sr. Catherine received one of the medals and said she would wear it "with veneration," but that the important thing was to spread its call to trusting prayer. With France still reeling from aftershocks of the Revolution, the message was sorely needed. It was the Age of Enlightenment, glorifying reason, common sense, and the rights of individuals, while questioning—even rejecting—Christian values and morals, the church, and even God. Governments rose and collapsed about once a decade, fueling opportunism, confusion, and instability. A cholera epidemic ravaged Paris, killing upwards of twenty thousand people there. Suffering—physical, emotional, and spiritual—was rampant.

No wonder then, that within two years, six million of the medals had been distributed throughout Europe. Stories of healing, conversion, and spiritual transformation soon began to circulate. When cholera broke out, numerous complete recoveries were associated with the medal. There were reported cures of other serious illnesses and conditions, too—insanity, leprosy, tuberculosis, paralysis, fractures, epilepsy, tumors. The physical healings led many people who had fallen away from God to return to the sacraments; others experienced conversion for the first time in their lives.

Catherine’s confessor began keeping track of such cases, reporting more than eighty in September 1834. Four or five months later, the number had risen to two hundred and twenty! Seeing how powerfully God worked through it, people soon began calling it the "miraculous" medal.

Church authorities could not help but take notice. In 1836, they launched an official inquiry into the medal and the visions that had inspired it. Catherine refused to participate, insisting that Mary had told her to speak of it only to her confessor. In the end, the inquiry found no evidence of anything fake or "fantastic" and concluded that the devotion was "worthy of credence."

Years of Toil and Tedium. Managing to keep her connection to the Miraculous Medal a secret, Catherine spent the rest of her life—forty-six years of mundane labor—working in the Daughters’ home for elderly men. Her tasks were simple: Feed the men, and make sure they were clean and dressed for the weather; make sure they had tobacco in their pouches and a little money in their pockets on days when they went out; take care of them, and coddle them a bit when they were ill.

It was a life of routine and monotony, and the simple work had its challenges. The men could be demanding and querulous, and sometimes Catherine had to scold them and settle their quarrels. But she kept at it for decades, not only addressing their need for life’s physical necessities but also keeping them well occupied and making them feel loved and not isolated in their declining years. She persuaded them to pray and ensured that they received Last Rites as the time of death drew near.

Catherine was completely devoted to these elderly men—only the best would do for them—and they knew it. Once on her feast day, one of them stood up in the dining room and honored her with a revealing little speech: "Sister Catherine, you are very good to us, and at table you always ask us: ‘Have you got enough?’"

Catherine would no doubt have preferred to be remembered only for this question. But almost immediately after her death on December 31, 1876—seemingly from a combination of cardiovascular problems and chronic asthma—word leaked out that she was the sister to whom Mary had revealed the Miraculous Medal.

Crowds hurried to the chapel where her body lay and filed past her bier for two days. Then, carrying the casket on their shoulders, they brought Catherine’s remains from the hospice where she had lived and worked to the sisters’ motherhouse nearby. The escort included hundreds of her sisters, many priests, and a large crowd of men, women, and children from the surrounding area—all of them singing and chanting as if it were a feast day, praying especially the invocation inscribed on the medal: "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee."

"Have You Got Enough?" It is a question posed not just by Catherine Labouré, but by God—posed not just to a group of elderly French men but to people everywhere, in every age. Still today, through the Miraculous Medal, our loving God steps into the misery and suffering of the world and asks each of us: "Have you got enough?" And he invites us to turn to him in trust and allow him to provide for all our needs from his limitless abundance.

What about you? Have you got enough of life’s basic necessities? Have you got enough love and faith, strength and patience to live as God calls you? Do you need more? Go to God, is the message of the Miraculous Medal and of St. Catherine’s life. He will never disappoint.

Ann Bottenhorn lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Information for this article was taken from various sources, including René Laurentin’s Catherine Labouré: Visionary of the Miraculous Medal.