The Jew Alphonse Ratisbonne and Lady of Miracles
In my earlier article we were talking about the Miraculous Medal that was revealed when Virgin Mary appeared to Catherine Laboure and many miracles and miraculous healings which manifested through it. One of the greatest miracles attributed to Miraculous Medal happened twelve years later, in 1842 when Our Lady of Miracle again appeared to a man wearing the Miraculous Medal. The man was Marie Alphonse Ratisbonne – the Jew by nationality and creed, convinced anti-Catholic, born in France.
Marie Alphonse Ratisbonne was born on May 1, 1814 as the eleventh of the thirteen children in a family of wealthy Jewish bankers. When Alphonse Ratisbonne was still of young age, his older brother Theodor converted to Catholic faith and became a priest. The family reacted negatively and Alphonse never spoke again with him and developed a very negative attitude to Catholic faith.
At age of 28 he became engaged with his cousin Flore Ratisbonne, who was only 16 at the time. Alphonse Ratisbonne planned to marry her in August next year and assume a partnership at his uncle’s bank. But before settling down he decided to travel around Europe and to the East. Ratisbonne decided to go to Naples and later spend the winter in Malta, to strengthen his delicate health.
In Naples, due to some error, instead of coming to the reservation office for Palermo, as he intended, he arrived at the stage-coach for Rome. Even after he realized what happen; he remained there and booked his passage on the steamer to Rome. He left Naples on the 5th and arrived in Rome on the 6th January, the feast of the Three Kings. In Rome he began to tour the city and museums. Here Ratisbonne at January 8 meets on the street his old Protestant classmate from Strasburg, Gustavo de Bussières. In the process of rekindling their friendship, Alphonse meets Gustave's older brother, the Baron Theodore de Bussières, a convert to Catholicism and a close friend of Alphonse's priest-brother. Alphonse feels instinctive abhorrence toward this zealous Catholic convert, but he knows the baron is an expert on Constantinople, which Alphonse plans to visit, so he agrees to call upon him for travel advice. De Bussières saw it as his mission to convert to Catholicism any unbeliever who crossed his path. He and Ratisbonne became friends, but Ratisbonne's sarcasm and blasphemy irritated him enormously.
The baron offered Alphonse to take a simple test: wear the Miraculous Medal and repeat every morning a prayer Fr. Claude Bernard (1588-1641) composed to the Virgin Mary, the Memorare:
REMEMBER, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided by thee. Inspired with this confidence, I fly to thee, Mary, Virgin of virgins, Mother of Jesus Christ; to thee do I come; before thee I stand, sinful, sorrowful and trembling. O Mistress of the World and Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer wretched me crying to thee in this vale of tears. Be near me, I beseech thee, in all my necessities, now and always, and especially at the hour of my death. O clement, o loving, o sweet Virgin Mary. Amen.
The first moment Ratisbonne didn’t like the idea, but later he agreed quoting a line from The Tales of Hoffman: "If it does me no good, at least it will do me no harm," and allowed the Baron’s young daughter to put the medal around his neck.
Baron de Bussières also told a close circle of his Aristocratic friends about the sceptical Jew and invited them to mention him in their prayers. Notable among them was a devout Catholic who was seriously ill, Count Laferronays, who offered his life for the conversion of the “young Jew.” On the same day he entered a church and prayed more than 20 Memorares for this intention, he suffered a heart attack, received the last Sacraments, and died.
The next day, on January 20, Baron de Bussières was on his way to arrange the Count’s funeral in the Basilica of St. Andrea delle Fratte when he met Ratisbonne. He asked him to accompany him and wait in the church until he had arranged some matters with the priest in the sacristy.
Ratisbonne was wandering through the church admiring the beautiful marbles and various works of art. And suddenly something unusual happened. As Ratisbonne himself later described it:
"I was scarcely in the church when a total confusion came over me. When I looked up, it seemed to me that the entire church had been swallowed up in shadow, except one chapel. It was as though all the light was concentrated in that single place. I looked over towards this chapel whence so much light shone, and above the altar was a living figure, tall, majestic, beautiful and full of mercy. It was the most holy Virgin Mary, resembling her figure on the Miraculous Medal. At this sight I fell on my knees right where I stood. Unable to look up because of the blinding light, I fixed my glance on her hands, and in them I could read the expression of mercy and pardon. In the presence of the Most Blessed Virgin, even though she did not speak a word to me, I understood the frightful situation I was in, my sins and the beauty of the Catholic Faith.”
Returning from the sacristy, the Baron was surprised to see the Jew fervently praying on his knees before the altar of St. Michael the Archangel. He helped his friend to get on his feet, and took him to the Hotel Serny, where Alphonse was staying, and loosened his cravat so he can breathe. But Alphonse was still sobbing, clasping his Miraculous Medal, murmuring thanks to God. At last he turned to the baron, embraced him, and with a changed face said: "Take me to a confessor! When can I receive baptism, without which I can no longer live?" "What has happened?" exclaimed the baron. "What have you seen?" "That”, responded Alphonse, "I can reveal only on my knees and to a priest." So...the baron took him to the Gesu, the Jesuit mother-church, to see Father Villefort. There, Alphonse tried to explain himself, but he was still sobbing so hard that he was unintelligible. At last he calmed down, took the Miraculous Medal from his neck, held it up, and cried: "I saw Her! I saw Her!” Eleven days later, on January 31, he received Baptism, Confirmation and his First Communion from the hands of Cardinal Patrizi, the Vicar of the Pope.
Shortly after the apparition, based on the description of Fr. Ratisbonne, a picture was painted representing Our Lady who had appeared to him that day in Sant' Andrea delle Fratte. When the picture was completed, he viewed it and said that it only vaguely depicted the beauty of the apparition he had seen. This is not difficult to believe since the actual beauty of Our Lady must far surpass any mere representation. The picture was placed on the exact spot where she had appeared to him, and became known as Madonna del Miracolo, Our Lady of the Miracle, referring to the two-fold miracle, her apparition and the instantaneous conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne.
The miracle provoked a great amazement in society and Catholic world at the time. It was a great miracle that Our Lady appeared and the wealthy Jew converted to the Catholic faith. Also it happened when more and more people were turning to the rationalistic thought, thinking that everything can be explained and is determined by the laws of nature, turning many people away from Christianity. Rationality was strongly promoted and encouraged in France after French Revolution. But this apparition of Virgin Mary again encouraged many to turn to Catholicism. The following month, the Vatican held a canonical process to investigate the circumstances surrounding Alphonse's conversion. After lengthy investigation and many depositions, it concluded that his sudden conversion was entirely miraculous; an act of God done through the powerful intercession of the Virgin Mary.
After his conversion Alphonse Ratisbonne entered Jesuit order and ten years later together with his brother Theodor founded the Sisterhood of Our Lady of Sion in 1843, was ordained as a priest in 1847, and entered the Society of Jesus. However, willing to devote himself entirely to the conversion of the Jews, he left the society with the consent of Pope Pius IX, transplanted the Sisters of Sion to Jerusalem in 1855, and built for them in 1856 the large Convent of Ecce Homo with a school and an orphanage for girls. In 1860 he erected the Convent of St. John on the mountain at Ain Karim, together with a church and another orphanage for girls. Here Alphonse laboured with a few companions (Pères de Sion) for the conversion of Jews and Mohammedans until his death. He died there May 6, 1884. Ratisbonne did try to get in contact with Catherine Labouré, but never succeeded, as the Sister was shielded from the outside world. There were so many miracles operated by Mary in the Shrine, that on January 17, 1892, Pope Leo XIII coronated the venerated icon with a diadem. On April 25, 1942, Pope Pius XII elevated the title of the church to the rank of a basilica. On March 12, 1960, Pope John XXIII elevated the basilica of Sant Andrea delle Fratte to the title of a cardinal's church. The visit of Pope John Paul II to this church took place on February 28, 1982.