Externals of the Catholic Church – Religious Medals

A religious medal is a piece of metal, usually resembling a coin, struck or cast for a commemorative purpose or to increase devotion, and adorned with some appropriate device or inscription. The varieties of these medals are almost beyond counting. They have been produced In honor of persons, such as our Divine Saviour, His Blessed Mother and the saints; of places, such as famous shrines; and of historical events, for example, definitions of Church doctrines, jubilees, miracles, dedications, etc. They are made to commemorate events in the life of the wearer, such as First Communion. They often recall mysteries of our faith; and some of them are specially blessed to serve as badges of pious associations, or to consecrate and protect the wearer. Many medals thus blessed are enriched with indulgences for the user.

The History of Medals

It is very likely that the use of medals among Christians came about because similar ornaments were common among many pagan races. There was in every form of paganism a constant endeavor to propitiate the deities who were adored and to secure their protection. Amulets, talismans and charms of various kinds were used, being generally worn suspended from the neck, as a supposed means of warding off danger, disease and other evils. Even after Christianity had become the prevailing religion, it seemed to be impossible to root out the practice of using some of these ancient pagan charms.

The Church, therefore, instead of trying to prevent it, endeavored to turn it to good ends by suggesting or tolerating the use of similar devices with Christian symbols. Our holy Church has shown her wisdom in this manner in regard to many pagan customs, purifying them and adapting them to her own purposes. What more natural than that the early Christian converts should wear symbols of their religion, just as in paganism they had worn amulets to secure the protection of their gods?

We find traces of the use of medals at a very early date, when the Roman Church was hiding in the catacombs. Some of these ancient medals are preserved in various museums, and are often marked with the “chrisma,” that is, the Greek monogram of the name of Christ. Others have portraits of the Apostles Peter and Paul, or representations of the martyrdom of certain saints.

In the Middle Ages

Later on it became customary to coin money with crosses and other religious emblems stamped on it, and such coins were often suspended from the neck and used as medals. About the twelfth century the great era of pilgrimages began, and at the famous shrines of Europe and Palestine the custom arose of making metal tokens or medals, to be used by the pilgrim as souvenirs of his pious journey, and also to attest the fact that he had really visited the shrine. These badges or “pilgrims’ signs,” as they were called, were generally worn conspicuously on the hat or breast. They were usually of lead, of circular or cross-shaped form, and were known by various names – the “tokens” of Assisi, the “crouches” or crosses signifying a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, scallop-shells reproduced in metal, from the shrine of Saint James of Compostella in Spain, crossed keys denoting a journey to the tomb of Saint Peter, etc.

The use of religious medals, however, was not common in the Middle Ages. Somewhat later, about the fifteenth century, artistic bronze and silver medals were substituted for the rude pilgrim-tokens. About 1475, and possibly earlier, the custom arose of making medals commemorative of the papal jubilees, and these were carried to all parts of the world by pilgrims who visited Rome to gain the jubilee indulgence.

In the sixteenth century the practice arose of giving a papal blessing to medals, and even of enriching them with indulgences for the wearers. And so the use of devotional medals spread rapidly throughout Europe, and celebrated artists and engravers occupied themselves with the designing of them.

Varieties of Religious Medals

To enumerate all the medals that have been issued or that are now in use would be an endless task. Specimens have been preserved of “plague medals” of the Middle Ages, used at times when pestilence was rife, as a protection against it. These often bore the picture of Saint Roch or Saint Sebastian, and, more often still, that of the Blessed Virgin or of some one of her shrines. When comets were objects of dread, medals were made in Germany to shield mankind from the calamities that were supposed to follow these direful portents. Others commemorated legendary miracles and important historical events.

Among the religious medals in most general use in our country are the scapular medals, which are described elsewhere in this book; the various sodality badges, differing in design according to the nature of the societies using them; many varieties of medals of the Blessed Virgin under her various titles, such as the Mater Dolorosa, Our Lady of Victory, Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Lourdes, of Perpetual Help, of Good Counsel, of Mount Carmel, etc. There are also the medals given to children at the time of First Communion and Confirmation, with appropriate devices; others in honor of our Blessed Lord, such as the “Salvator Mundi” (“Saviour of the world”), the Holy Childhood and the Infant of Prague. Then come the innumerable medals of the saints – those of Saint Joseph, popular especially among German Catholics; the Saint Rita medals, bearing an image of this recently canonized saint; and others commemorating Saint Dominic, Saint Aloysius, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Anthony, Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint Alphonsus, Saint Patrick, Saint Ann, Saint Agnes, the Guardian Angels, etc. A medal of Saint Christopher is one of the most recent, and is claimed to secure the protection of that saint for travelers and especially for automobilists – who assuredly need some such protection.

The Medal of Saint Benedict

This highly indulgenced medal bears a likeness of the great “Father of the Monastic Life.” In his right hand is a cross, beside which are the words “Crux Patris Benedict!” (“The Cross of the Father Benedict”); in his left hand is the book of the Benedictine rule. At his feet are represented a chalice and a raven, symbols of the priesthood and of hermit life. Around the edge are the words “Ejus in Obitu Nostro Praesentia Muniamur” (“At our death may we be fortified by his presence”). On the reverse side is a cross, on the vertical bar of which are the initial letters of the words “Crux Sacra Sit Mihi Lux” (“The holy Cross be my light”); on the horizontal bar are the initials of “Non Draco Sit Mihi Dux” (“Let not the Dragon be my guide”); and around are other letters signifying other Latin mottoes. At the top is usually the word “Pax” (“Peace”) or the monogram I H S.

This form of the Benedictine medal commemorates the 1400th anniversary of the birth of Saint Benedict, celebrated in 1880. The right to make them is reserved exclusively to the Great Arch-abbey of Monte Cassino, in Italy. There are many indulgences for the wearers, including a plenary one on All Souls’ Day, obtained by visiting a church on that day or on its eve, and praying there for the intention of the Holy Father.

The medal of Saint Benedict was first approved by Benedict XIV in 1741, and further indulgences were granted by Pius IX in 1877 and by Pius X in 1907.

The “Miraculous Medal”

There is a widely used medal known by this title because it takes its origin from a vision. It is a medal of the Blessed Virgin, and is used as a badge by our sodalities of the Children of Mary and of the Immaculate Conception. It bears on one side an image of our Blessed Mother standing on a globe. Around the picture are words “O Mary Conceived without Sin, Pray for Us Who Have Recourse to Thee.” On the reverse side is the letter M surmounted by a cross and surrounded by twelve stars, and beneath are the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the one with a crown of thorns, the other pierced by a sword.

This beautiful medal has a remarkable history. It was given to the world through a vision which was vouchsafed to a holy servant of God, Sister Catherine, a French Sister of Charity, known in the world as Zoe Laboure. On 27 November 1830, and on several other occasions, the Blessed Virgin appeared to her as depicted on the medal, and commanded the saintly nun to cause the medal to be made. This was done, with the sanction of the Archbishop of Paris, within two years; and the use of this medal of the Immaculate Conception spread rapidly throughout the world.

Many and great indulgences have been given to its wearers, and it has been an important factor in increasing devotion to the Blessed Mother of God, particularly among our young girls, the members of our parish sodalities.