Catholic Religious Medals – Ancient Traditions and Modern Practice

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish Church

Medals are an important aspect of Catholic devotion, and it’s worth exploring the topic. Since medals might be a strong and visible point of interest for very young Catholics, knowing the background of the tradition is useful.

The Value in Medals

Wearing of medals has been popular among Catholics in the United States and around the world for a long time, and it has grown more popular in recent times since Pope John-Paul II’s visit in 1979. Medals are an easy way for Catholics to connect with their faith in a discreet way, and one of the more personal aspects of medals is that they can reflect something important to the wearer—maybe you wear a St. Christopher medal if your father was a truck driver or if you were going on a long-haul flight, since he is the patron saint of traveling and transport.

So, with the wide range of medals available, they can be a good way to express yourself through your faith. Exploring the histories of the various patron saints is not only a way to explore the history of the Church, it can also make for very interesting reading!

Il Duomo di Firenze

One of the Oldest Catholic Traditions

Religious medals have been a part of the Catholic tradition for a very long time. In fact, the wearing of medals is thought to have been carried over from pagan times—the Romans of all classes wore amulets personal to their beliefs, which they believed gave them added protection. Jewelry and decoration are common to nearly every creed and religion, so it is no surprise the early Church found medals a useful way to allow the faithful to express their beliefs. The early Church elders were keen, however, to distance the practice from the magic-related pagan beliefs.

This tradition continued, throughout the early years of the Church, andmedals are mentioned in the histories of many saints and in accounts of important historical moments. They are especially associated with baptism, and many pagan kings were given medals as tokens of their baptism. However, the popularity of medals before the Middle Ages was not as strong as afterward.

During the Renaissance and Reformation eras, artistic influence on medals (with some stunning examples created) was one of the reasons for their growth in popularity. This was mainly centered in Italy, where artists such as Antonio Marescotti gave the wearing of medals new life for Popes and clergy. This was bolstered by the giving of medals to pilgrims visiting holy sites.

Modern Times

Miraculous medals are one of the more popular types, and they were designed in the 19th century based on Saint Catherine Labouré’s visions. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal

in Paris is where the visions occurred. The St. Christopher medals are also very popular, and a French saying for the medals serves as an example of how they can give solace in challenging times (especially for travelers): "Look at St Christopher and go on reassured."

The medals commemorating Papal visits have also been very popular in recent times. As mentioned, Pope John Paul’s visit to America in 1979 spurred interest in the medals here.

Nowadays, there are medals for nearly every saint available, and they can be made from varieties of materials, from low-cost pewter to gold and silver. Miraculous medals are especially popular in countries like Ireland, where they are particularly associated with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is, in fact, the largest charity in that country.

In many places, they are also strongly associated with sacraments and life events, in particular during confirmation.

It is wrongly believed by some that the Church frowns on the devotional practice of medals. This is not the case, and expressions of faith are encouraged if done correctly. Medals also serve as a useful way to open dialogue with other faiths about Catholic teachings.

Saint Faustina Medal with a high relief image of this Patron Saint of Divine Mercy

How Medals Fit with Catholic Belief

As with all practices and traditions, it is important to remember the act of taking part in a practice or wearing a medal is intended to bring us closer to God and help us explore our faith. It is not the act or the possession that we benefit from—instead, it is what theact or possession represents that is important.

This can be a refreshing reminder for some Catholics who can, at times, be intimidated by the examples ofdevotion of other Catholics, since focusing on one’s own relationship with God and not on external tokens of belief can really take the pressure off. Wearing medals can be an even more powerful way to express your belief. They can also bring a personal touch to your devotion.

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