So when I title this post “A Reader Asks…”, it’s to include it in that particular part of the blog. But this particular reader deserves special notice, because she happens also to be my lovely wife, Melissa!
For a while now, I’ve worn what’s known colloquially as the “Miraculous Medal.” Its official title is the Medal of Mary Immaculate, which she instructed to have made in a series of apparitions to St. Catherine Labouré in 1830. Our Lady promised St. Catherine that the wearer would receive blessings if they wore this medal, especially around their neck. Due to the many miracles reported by those who have worn it throughout history, it was affectionately referred to as “the Miraculous Medal.” I’ve derived some benefit from the medal myself, and so I try to spread devotion to it when I can–starting with encouraging Melissa to wear it. She’d been resistant for a while, because she was concerned about being superstitious, but the other day she had begun to wear it. That’s what prompted her question, which she posted on my Facebook wall. She wrote:
Okay I have a question for you and I thought I’d post it instead of just asking you so that other people could possibly see it and know the answer too! So you were very happy with me wearing the Miraculous Medal last night that I found in my drawer like the one you wear all the time. What I’m wondering is whether it isn’t superstitious to believe that wearing this medal will bring you graces or miracles like it says in the pamphlet. I know it’s a symbol of faith, like someone might wear a cross or crucifix but they don’t necessarily believe that wearing it will bring them anything, so yeah I’m confuzzled.
In order to fully answer this question, we’ll have to look at what the Church teaches about “sacramentals” (of which the Miraculous Medal is one), and at what “superstition” is. To help us, we’ll examine the
Catechism of the Catholic Church
and Sacred Scripture. Hopefully by understanding sacramentals and superstition, we’ll understand the difference and be able to avoid falling into the latter, which goes beyond simply being silly to actually being sinful.
“Sacramentals”, such as the Miraculous Medal, are objects or actions used to help aid us in devotion and to dispose us to receiving God’s grace. However, they do nothing in and of themselves, but only because of the prayer of the Church and our internal cooperation which disposes us toward the graces available in the sacraments. According to the Catechism,
These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy. (#1667)
In other words, the Miraculous Medal, as a symbol of our faith, is something that can increase our faith by constantly reminding us of our faith and disposing us to receiving the Sacraments of the Church, leading us to greater prayer and intimacy with God. When Our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Labouré and instructed her to have the Miraculous Medal made, she promised that “those who wear it, especially around the neck, will receive great graces.” That is, the Blessed Virgin Mary didn’t promise that wearing the Miraculous Medal would automatically gain people miracles in some sort of “name-it-and-claim-it fashion”, but rather that
- a) wearing it would signify our faith in and our obedience to her, and by extension, to Jesus Himself (since, of course, one cannot be obedient to her without being obedient to Him–cf. John 2:5. This is itself highlighted by the monogram on the back of the medal–an M surmounted by a Cross, and by the presence of both the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus).
- b) Such obedience itself merits graces.
- c) Since the medal calls us to prayer–particularly asking Mary, who is so close to Jesus, to pray for us–such prayers are powerful and effective (cf. James 5:17).
In sum, the medal calls us to obedience and prayer, and disposes us to love Jesus and His Mother more. If we do that, even without the medal, we will receive great graces. How much more does the medal, given to us by Mary herself, inspire such devotion in our hearts, which in turn leads to greater grace, faith, and perhaps, even miraculous interventions?
A superstition, on the other hand, is a belief that a particular action or item in and of itself provides the “luck” or blessing or miracle independent from God or our faith or any such thing. It is actually contrary to religion, which is why the Church condemns superstition. If we treat the Miraculous Medal, or any other sacramental, in such a manner, then it indeed does become superstitious and sinful. In paragraph 2111, the Catechism says,
Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.
We can see this occur in Scripture. In the Book of Numbers, the Israelites get up to their old grumblings, and God punishes them wtih a bunch of poisonous snakes. When they repent, God commands Moses to build a bronze serpent on a pole, which, when lifted up, would cure the Israelites of the poisonous bites, if only they would look at the serpent. Obviously, God’s not commanding idolatry–He doesn’t want them to worship the image, but the image, as a sacramental, was to dispose them to receive the grace of God’s healing if they would respond in faith, obedience, and prayer (cf. Num 21:4-9).
However, centuries after the events of the wilderness, the Israelites had kept the statue, and even gone so far as to give it a name, and treat it as if it were itself a god or a magical charm. This is why, in 2 Kings 18:4, when King Hezekiah takes the throne and seeks to serve God, one of the first things that he does is to destroy the bronze serpent. We see then how, unfortunately, a sacramental given by God Himself devolved into a superstitious and idolatrous practice.
There is a difference between a good and lawful practice of wearing a Miraculous Medal and trusting in Our Lady’s prayers for us to grant us graces, and trusting in the medal itself or in the very act of wearing it to grant us those same graces or using it as a “good luck charm” to have a better life.
O Mary, conceived without sin,
pray for us who have recourse to thee.
–The prayer on the Miraculous Medal.