A religious medal is usually metallic, cast either in a round or oval shape, depicting the image of our Lord, the Blessed Mother, or another saint. Medals have also commemorated places (e.g. shrines), very important spiritual events in one’s life (e.g. first Communion or Ordination), or major historical events (e.g. a Holy Year, the proclamation of a dogma, or an apparition of the Blessed Mother). These medals are usually designed to be worn around the neck of the person or to be attached to a rosary or key chain.
Actually, the wearing of religious medals is a very ancient tradition in our Church. This practice may have resulted from “baptizing" what was once a pagan practice: Pliny used the word amuletum for medals worn around the neck by all classes of people as talismans (i.e. objects believed to give supernatural powers or protection to the wearer). Rather than simply eradicating a cultural practice, the Christians instead “baptized" the use, rooting it in Christian belief and removing the talisman connection.
Archeology has discovered medals bearing the image of St. Peter and St. Paul manufactured in the second century, and of St. Lawrence the Martyr in the fourth century. St. Zeno of Verona (d. 371) recorded the custom of giving religious medals to newly baptized Christians to commemorate their baptism and reception into the Church. A fifth century story of the life of St. Genevieve recounted how St. Germain placed a medal marked with the sign of the cross around her neck to be a physical reminder of her vow of virginity. Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) sent to Queen Theodolind of the Lombards two small reliquaries containing relics of the True Cross and a sentence from the gospel manuscripts to be worn around the neck as a reminder of her duty as a Christian Queen.
In the Middle Ages, medals were often distributed to pilgrims who visited sacred shrines, such as St. Peter’s, Rome; Canterbury, England; and Santiago de Compostela, Spain. During the thirteenth century, a type of medal known as the jetons became popular: On one side were the initials of the wearer or some other identifying marking, while the reverse side had a pious motto, such as “Love God and Praise Him," “O Lord, Our God," “Hail Mary, Mother of God," or an inscription, such as IHS. These jetons were popular until the time of the French Revolution.
The use of religious medals as we know them today arose in the sixteenth century. Pope St. Pius V (d. 1572) began the custom of blessing religious medals and attaching an indulgence to them. For example, in 1566 he blessed medals with the image of Jesus and Mary and granted an indulgence to the faithful who wore them.
Note, however, the Christians consistently condemned the talisman effect or any connection with magic, as evidenced in St. Jerome’s early writings (d. 420). The Catechism also affirms that “all practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others– even if this were for the sake of restoring their health– are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion…. Wearing charms is also reprehensible" (#2117). Never should we look upon the wearing of a religious medal as a “charm," but always as a sacred symbol of the supernatural protection offered directly by our Lord, Blessed Mother, or saint.
Technically, medals are classified as a sacramental: “These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the Church’s spiritual intercession. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #60). The sacramental prepares a person to receive grace and disposes him to cooperate with it; in this way, the medal reminds us of a holy person, which in turn open us to grace to follow his example. The Enchiridion of Indulgences (1969) affirms “The faithful, who devoutly use an article of devotion (crucifix or cross, rosary, scapular, or medal) properly blessed by any priest, obtain a partial indulgence" (#35).
In all, the wearing of a religious medal is a good, pious practice which keeps us mindful of the protection and love of the image it bears. Moreover, the consciousness of that image should motivate us to fulfill our religious duties and put our faith into action. Just as a blessed wedding ring is a constant physical reminder to the spouse of his or her vows of fidelity and love, so do these medals provide a constant physical reminder of the love and fidelity we share with Almighty God and the communion of saints.