Imagine yourself in Rome on this day, one hundred and seven years ago. It’s January 20, 1917, and you’re with St. Maximilian Kolbe attending a lecture given by Fr. Stefano Ignudi, rector of the Conventual Franciscan Seraphic College in Rome. The talk is on the Miraculous Medal. This is the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne in the Roman church of St. Andrea della Fratte and Fr. Ignudi tells the story of the conversion. There’s no time to recall it all here as you can look it up online, but suffice it to say: a Catholic-hating Jewish man accepted a challenge to wear the Miraculous Medal and recite the Memorare daily for a few days; while waiting in the above-named church for the friend who challenged him, Ratisbonne experienced an apparition of the Blessed Mother as well as receiving an infused knowledge of the Catholic Faith. That’s right: he got the whole catechism (and then some) all at once, no CCD or RCIA (or whatever those were called back in France and Italy in 1842.) No chance of a watered-down or dumbed-down Catholicism ‘to make it more appealing and not offend anyone.’ Nope, Mama Mary made sure he got the whole real deal, straight up and unvarnished. Such a good Mama.
After the lecture, Fr. Ignudi asks the gathered seminarians and friars (and you!) to read an account of how the Miraculous Medal came to be. Even though he is familiar with the story of St. Catherine Laboure and the events at Rue du Bac, Paris, 1830, St. Maximilian devours the literature. The lecture and reading makes a huge impact on St. Maximilian’s spirituality and vocation; he becomes focused on the Miraculous Medal as a ‘weapon’ for conversion, referring to it as his ‘spiritual bullet’ to fight against Satan and the enemies of the Church. He focuses much of his intellect on the Immaculate Conception as an attribute of Our Lady and felt that there were mysteries within her self-identification at Lourdes in 1858 as “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Delving into those mysteries drove his evangelization and apologetic efforts. “Who are you, O Immaculata” was the question he kept asking that illustrated his quest. To him, “I am the Immaculate Conception” was just as profound a statement as God’s self-revelation as “I AM WHO AM” to Moses at the Burning Bush. To be something is one thing, to be the essence of a thing is another matter. I think his actual quote went something like, “To be white is one thing, to be whiteness is something else.” (He wasn’t making a racial statement. He could have used ‘cold,’ and ‘coldness.’ Or, being Polish, ‘pierogi,’ and ‘pieroginess.’ Yes, pieroginess is a thing.)
From that point on, St. Maximilian, always a strong devotee and advocate of Our Lady, makes her Immaculate Conception attribute the centerpiece of his Mariology. His Marian teachings impact the Church to this day. His ‘Total Consecration’ to the Blessed Virgin Mary has an evangelical aspect to it; using his formula, consecrants become ‘paintbrushes’ in the hands of the Blessed Mother to win souls for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. His consecration formula creates an army of evangelical warriors in the Militia of the Immaculata, all dedicated to winning the world for Christ.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had he been absent from the lecture hall on that day. Certainly, his Marianism would not have been affected; but given the Miraculous Medal’s centerpiece in his evangelistic and apologetic work, it may have had a lesser impact. The Miraculous Medal spearheaded his zeal, and its connection to the Immaculate Conception dogma, with its origin at Our Lady’s apparition at Lourdes gave it a dimension it might not have had. The power of the Miraculous Medal in converting a hardened cynic and Our Lady’s role in that conversion convinced St. Maximilian that the Blessed Mother is the key to winning souls for Jesus and His Church. It was only a matter of time before he developed his strategy and tactics further.
One lecture had a profound impact on one young person. That impact has multiplied a million-fold in the century since.