My love for two great joys in my life grew during the study abroad semester I spent in Austria in the Spring of 1997: traveling and my relationship with the Blessed Mother. Taking advantage of every 3-day weekend to journey anywhere within a train ride, my wanderlust was fueled. Developing a relationship with Mary was a more gradual process.
Although I was born Catholic, prayed the family Rosary, and often wore a scapular, I didn’t know Our Lady. I didn’t have an aversion to her, but I also wasn’t drawn into deep devotion. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I began seeking to understand her role in our Faith. One night in the Chapel as I pondered, I decided to ask her, “Mary, show me who you are.”
Like any good and loving Mother, she took me up on my invitation. And like every meaningful relationship, the more time I spent praying–or in conversation–with her, the more I came to know, love, and seek her. I discovered the more I relied on her as a young woman seeking the Truth, the more profoundly she moved in my life.
In April, five of us women from Little Flower’s household (similar to a “Catholic sorority”) wanted to go on a spring retreat. With St. Thérèse as our Patroness, it naturally followed to travel together to Lisieux, France. Lisieux is where the saint had lived, entered the Carmelite convent, and died at age twenty-four. We couldn’t be so close (a couple of hours east) and not also visit Paris, especially since our friend’s parents lived there and offered us accommodations.
Five spiritual friends that traveled for a personal retreat in France, final stop Paris–what a dream, right?! Yes. But the struggle was real, too. Arguments and obstinance arose in our group. Between visiting sacred spots and photo ops, there were some tense moments. Unaware of it at the time, I’m sure we were under spiritual attack. As a household of young women seeking to grow in unity and holiness, we were traveling targets for the Enemy, whose goal is to destroy. Being hungry, tired travelers—with some strong personalities—didn’t help either.
After our time visiting many holy sites in Lisieux (a story for another blog), we arrived in Paris. Our friend’s parents had a beautiful home inside and out, complete with an indoor pool! While we tried to settle in and plan out the next day in the city, the tension grew. We only had one full day, and there were three things that I really wanted to do in Paris:
- Visit the Louvre to see the art, especially the Mona Lisa.
- Visit the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (often called rue du Bac – the street it’s located at) where the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Catherine Labouré in 1830.
- Go to a Parisian café and be served by a waiter named Jean-Pierre. It just felt like the quintessential French male name.
Being an art appreciator and artist, going to the Louvre was on my bucket list. Not knowing if or when I’d return, I felt that I must go. Art museums weren’t a priority for everyone, though. Despite my volunteering to go early or alone, we weren’t finding an easy path forward for the group. We struggled to hash it out but eventually arrived at a plan for the following day.
Bright and early, our group headed out to the Chapel. While we traveled via public transit, a friend made a comment that hurt my feelings. Knowing my stubbornness had evoked her response, I carried that with me to rue du Bac.
The beauty of the Shrine was striking (see a quick virtual tour of the inside here). A white marble statue of the Blessed Mother stood centered behind the altar, encircled by a heavenly wall fresco depicting the apparition that occurred there. Like the miraculous medal, Mary was crowned with twelve stars with open hands radiating light toward the Earth upon which she stood. To the right was the incorrupt body of St. Catherine and the heart of St. Vincent de Paul within a reliquary. As I approached the altar where Mary first appeared, I looked up at the pure Virgin and began to weep.
The words around the medal, “O Mary, Conceived Without Sin, Pray for Us Who Have Recourse to Thee,” also surrounded her. Those words convicted me. I knew I was not faultless as I had come face-to-face with my sinfulness. I cried the entire time that I sat in the Chapel, probably about an hour. Mother Mary was about her work.
I dried my face as it neared the time we needed to leave and went to the gift shop. After my profound encounter with Mary there, I bought a bag full of Miraculous Medals. For the first time, I was truly inspired to share her with others.
I left the gift shop to rejoin my friends. Despite our conflict, my dear friend opened her arms to me. As I entered her embrace, she spoke in my ear, “Jesus told me to love you with His love.” My tears resumed but flowed in love and reconciliation. Mary always brings us back to her Son. Jesus restored us to what God intended–LOVE. More than 20 years later, that humble apology still reveals the Father’s heart to me.
We headed from there to the Louvre, where I beheld the Mona Lisa. But being there together–because it was important to me–made it all the more glorious. With our hearts light, and our tummies hungry, we walked from the museum towards some outdoor cafés. As we looked at the menu displayed outside one, a short, curly-haired waiter approached us. He invited us to come in and dine, to which I responded, “Are you named Jean-Pierre?”
With smiling brown eyes, he said, “Sure!” And we followed him to a table, laughing.
After we were seated, another waiter, who also claimed to be Jean-Pierre, came to take our order. We discussed where we had been with our waiter, actually named Mark. When he confessed that he’d never heard of the rue du Bac Chapel, I knew Mary wanted me to give him a medal.
Pulling out a medal, I began to briefly explain how Mary appeared and asked St. Catherine to fashion it. Mary promised that all who wear it with confidence would receive great graces. (Read more on that here.) He listened intently, but I still had to ask, “Will you wear it? I don’t want to give it to you unless you wear it.”
Mark nodded, “Yes, I will.” He thanked me, took the medal, and took our order.
Soon after, Mark returned, showing off his medal on the chain hooked to his pen with another waiter in tow. Another “Jean-Pierre” wanted a Miraculous Medal as well. And after he came another. Our Lady was lining them up; I was only the dispenser!
After our meal, as we walked past the outdoor kitchen to exit, Mark yelled, “There is the real Jean-Pierre.” One of the chefs raised his arms in victory, and we all cheered.
But the victory belonged to Our Lady. She drew us to her, back to Jesus and into right relationship with one another, and then led us to more souls upon whom she could pour out graces.
The victory still belongs to her. She crushes the head of the Enemy and continues to draw us to her Son.