Today marks the anniversary of the fascinating conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne that occurred on Thursday, January 20, 1842. I have been learning his story gradually, throughout my travels to Rome and Jerusalem.During Holy Week 2015, my friend and I entered Sant’Andrea delle Fratte in Rome, near Piazza di Spagna. On the left-hand side of this magnificent church is a chapel that captured my attention because of the bust of St. Maximilian Kolbe on the right-hand side of it. The plaque commemorates the celebration of his first Mass at that altar in 1918. On the left-hand side of this chapel, I noticed another bust and did not recognize it. The plaque says in Italian: “In this chapel Mary appeared to the Jew Alphonse Ratisbonne and converted him to Christ.” I was quite struck and intrigued. My gaze then shifted toward the side chapel itself, which contains a painting depicting Mary’s apparition to Alphonse.
I think I immediately began to look up his story on my phone since there was no further information in the church about him. I learned that Alphonse Ratisbonne had been born into an affluent secular Jewish family in 1814 in France. His parents died in his youth, he studied law in Paris, and was set to work with his uncle at his banking firm.
Interestingly, Ratisbonne’s elder brother Theodore had converted to the Catholic faith and became a priest in 1830. Alphonse recounts his reaction: “When my brother became a Catholic, and a priest, I persecuted him with a more unrelenting fury than any other member of my family. We were completely sundered; I hated him with a virulent hatred, though he had fully pardoned me.”
Many details are chronicled in “The conversion of Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne” by Ratisbonne’s contemporary Baron Theodore De Bussieres, which I am currently reading.
Here’s an excerpt about the conversion:
I had been but a few moments in the church when I was suddenly seized with an unutterable agitation of mind. I raised my eyes, the building had disappeared from before me; one single chapel had, so to speak, gathered and concentrated all the light; and in the midst of this radiance I saw standing on the altar lofty, clothed with splendours, full of majesty and of sweetness, the Virgin Mary, just as she is represented on my medal [a miraculous medal that a friend had given to him days earlier daring him to wear while in Rome]. An irresistible force drew me towards her; the Virgin made me a sign with her hand that I should kneel down; and then she seemed to say, That will do! She spoke not a word, but I understood all.”
Baron Theodore De Bussieres comments:
Brief as this statement is, Ratisbonne could not utter it without pausing frequently to take breath, and to subdue the emotion with which he was thrilling. We listened to him with a sacred awe, mingled with joy and with gratitude, marvelling at the depth of the counsels of God, and at the ineffable treasures of His mercy. One word struck us especially by its depth of mystery: She spoke not a word, but I understood all. Indeed, it was quite enough to listen to Ratisbonne; the Catholic faith exhaled from his heart like a precious perfume from the casket, which contains it indeed, but cannot confine it. He spoke of the Real Presence like a man who believed it with all the energy of his whole being; but the expression is far too weak, he spoke like one to whom it was an object of direct perception. […] “His face was radiant, I might almost say transfigured.”
Following his dramatic and sudden conversion, Alphonse returned to Paris and told his fiancée about it. She rejected this and Alphonse decided soonafter to become a Jesuit. He was ordained in 1848.
“But all who know me know well enough that, humanly speaking, I have the strongest reasons for remaining a Jew. My family is Jewish, my bride is a Jewess, my uncle is a Jew.” — Alphonse Ratisbonne
Eventually, Alphonse joined his brother Theodore in the Holy Land where they cooperated to establish Notre Dame de Sion — a religious community of people who “witness by their life to God’s faithful love for the Jewish people and God’s fidelity to the promises he revealed to the patriarchs and prophets of Israel for all humanity.” He founded the Convent of Ecce Homo in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Convent of St. John in Ein Kerem, and a Monastery for the formation of priests of the congregation.
Flash forward from Holy Week in Rome 2015 to my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in December 2016. One day, during the very organized itinerary, we made a lunch stop that had not been listed on our schedule. We disembarked the bus and entered through some gates. By God’s providence, I popped my head into the reception area and caught sight of an image of Alphonse Ratisbonne hanging on the wall. I could hardly believe it! (Both that we were at Our Lady of Sion in Ein Kerem for a quick lunch and that I had recognized Ratisbonne!)
Of all the places I have visited in Israel, I found Notre Dame de Sion in Ein Kerem to be the most indescribably beautiful and serene. Strolling through the gardens, I had an incredible sense of being at home. As we had only a brief time there, I ate quickly so that I could take one of the brothers up on his offer to point me in the direction of the grave of Alphonse Ratisbonne. I ran along the path, looking out to the hills on a quest to continue an adventure of discovery begun in Rome.
Right at the entrance of the small cemetery, I found the grave that simply says: Le Père Marie and over which a statue of Mary looks, with that same patient and affectionate gaze she displays in the painting depicting her apparition to Alphonse. The continuity was marvellous. I placed a stone upon his grave and prayed a ‘Hail Mary’ in French.
Next to a cross marking the place where the Brothers of Sion are buried, there were such vibrant and deep pink flowers with bright yellow centres. Some are closed, others are open, and I thought of the garden of souls to which our Lord is always tending.
In the land of promise and the land of fulfilment, I prayed with Hannah Senesh:
Dear God, You’ve kindled a fire in my heart, allow me to burn that which should be burned in my house – the House of Israel. And as You’ve given me an all-seeing eye, and an all-hearing ear, give me, as well, the strength to scourge, to caress, to uplift. And grant that these words would not be empty phrases but a credo for my life. Toward what am I aiming? Toward all that which is best in the world, and of which there is a spark within me.