Apparitions Related to the Immaculate Conception

During the next three centuries, belief in the Immaculate Conception was widespread, if not completely universal in the West. A few decades before the dogma was officially proclaimed in 1854, an apparition was reported in France that some have interpreted as foreshadowing this official pronouncement.

The Miraculous Medal

In 1830, a postulant at a Paris convent for Our Sisters of Charity named Catherine Laboure had a vision of the Virgin Mary. In this vision, the Virgin Mary wore a long white silk gown and stood upon a globe. Near her chest, she held a golden ball, and each of her fingers had three jeweled, luminescent rings upon them. The Virgin Mary explained that that light was a demonstration of the graces that would come to all who asked for them. Some of the jewels on Mary's fingers were darkened, and Mary explained that these were symbolic of the graces that people forgot to ask for. On the ground near her feet was a green and yellow snake.

As Catherine watched, Mary seemed to turn around. Catherine then saw a large M surmounted by a cross. Two hearts were beneath the cross, one wrapped in thorns, the other pierced by a sword. A large oval surrounded Mary and she was encircled by these words, which were written in gold: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”

The Virgin Mary instructed Catherine to have this image printed as a medal, and the image of the “Miraculous Medal” was born. These medals were extremely popular in Catherine's day — more than fifty thousand were given out in 1832 and 1833 and millions more each year after that. The medals were taken by missionaries to other countries, and the apparition gained global recognition. Over one billion miraculous medals have now been distributed. These medals are commonly associated with miraculous healings and cures. During the apparition, the Virgin Mary said of the Miraculous Medal that, “Those who wear it will receive great graces; abundant graces will be given to those who have confidence.”

Pope Pius IX

The widespread popularity of this image may have helped pave the way for the dogma that was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX twenty-four years after the apparition. Pope Pius, who believed that the Virgin had healed him from epilepsy when he was a child, had a lifelong personal devotion to her. His papacy was set against the backdrop of the Enlightenment. During this period, the church was in an increasingly vulnerable position, because more and more people were buying into the ideas of the Enlightenment, which championed science and reason over religion. Pope Pius felt that he might be able to counteract some of this mentality by demonstrating the power of the Virgin within the Roman Catholic Church.

When Pope Pius began to consider proclaiming the Immaculate Conception as dogma, he met with a team of theologians who offered overwhelming (although not universal) support for endorsing the dogma. Pius then contacted several bishops, nine-tenths of whom agreed that he should proclaim the Immaculate Conception as dogma. His actual proclamation took place against a distressing backdrop — Italian nationalists threatened the Church: Massini and Garibaldi were preparing to attack Rome.

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During the French Revolution, numerous ancient statues of the Virgin Mary were destroyed, and revolutionaries put up a statue called the “Goddess of Reason” in Notre Dame. The revolutionaries also sang a mock Ave Maria to the allegorical figure Marianne, “Hail Marianne, full of strength, the people are with thee, blessed is the fruit of thy womb, the Republic.”

On the day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX read Ineffabilis Deus, through tears:

“The Doctrine holds that the blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by singular privilege and grace of the omnipotent God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the savior of mankind, was preserved free from the stain of original sin from the moment of her conception, has been revealed by God and is to be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”

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