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August-September 2011

Father Alphonse Ratisbonne

~ Salvation Through Mary ~


For the common run of souls, the spiritual life resembles, most often, a slow and difficult pilgrimage to Heaven, made up of falls and recoveries, resignation and confident perseverance. But to clearly show that he is the Master of all and in order to encourage us never to doubt his mercy, God sometimes performs great works of love, with which his holy Mother is frequently associated, so as to render these wonders still more touching.

Among all the manifestations of the goodness of Mary towards her children, the conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne, an Israelite from the Alsatian bourgeoisie, is certainly one of the most spectacular and moving in the entire history of Christianity. Often compared to that of Saul on the road to Damascus, the spiritual and moral transformation of Alphonse Ratisbonne was immediate and total. What was there in common between the intellectual arrogance of a young son of the family promised every success, and the touching humility of the founder of Ecce Homo in the twilight of his life?

Rome Rendez-vous

When he arrived in Rome at the beginning of 1842, Alphonse Ratisbonne was a young man destined for a brilliant future. Belonging to a wealthy Jewish family from Strasbourg, he shared with several Israelites of his station a high ideal: to undertake the moral and material regeneration of the most disadvantaged members of the Jewish community of Alsace and Germany.

However, despite his lofty aspirations, Alphonse had received no religious education and did not observe the least dictates of Judaism. His intelligence, as one biography notes, "had something cold and positive about it." Possessed of a caustic and mocking spirit, he was driven by a ferocious hostility towards Catholics; hostility further aggravated by his brother Theodore entering the Church several years earlier.

The voyage that our convinced rationalist made to Rome during winter 1842, having just become engaged to a young Alsation girl of high society, was therefore "the intellectual pilgrimage" that all cultivated young men undertook in this era to the ancient landmarks of Civilisation.

But thanks to Baron de Bussières, who he met in the Eternal City on the advice of his brother Theodore, the young Ratisbonne suddenly passed from indifference to faith. In fact, moved with pity by the arrogant atheism of his interlocutor, Baron de Bussières firmly invited Alphonse to wear Our Lady's Miraculous Medal and to recite St Bernard's Memorare. After much resistance, the young unbeliever eventually obeyed the pressing invitation of his brother's friend.

It was on 20 January 1842, while in the company of Baron de Bussières in the church of St. Andrea delle Fratte, that the miraculous, instantaneous conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne occurred. Let us read the account given later, in a moving little book, by the privileged witness of this startling scene:

"I soon found him," writes M. de Bussières, "kneeling before the chapel of St. Michael the Archangel. I went up to him and touched him three or four times before he became aware of my presence. Finally, he turned towards me, his face bathed in tears, hands clasped together. I was dumbstruck with astonishment. I felt what one must experience in the presence of a miracle. I helped Ratisbonne to his feet and led him, almost carrying him, out of the church; I asked him what was the matter, where he wanted to go: 'Take me wherever you like, he cried, 'after what I have seen, I obey'. I urged him to explain; he was unable to do so, overcome with emotion. He drew from his breast the miraculous medal, covering it with kisses and tears. I took him home, but despite my entreaties I could only obtain from him some exclamations broken with sobs: 'Ah! how happy I am! how good is God! what plenitude of graces and bliss! How those who do not know are to be pitied!' Then he burst into tears thinking about heretics and non-believers. Finally he asked me if he was mad. Soon led by the witness of the miracle to Father de Villefort, who asked him to explain what had happened, Ratisbonne could only confess: 'I SAW HER, I SAW HER!'"

Shortly after his conversion, the priest who baptised him quoted to Ratisbonne an extract from the second chapter of Eccliasticus: "The men God accepts as his own, He tries in the furnace of humiliations and distress." Was that not the foreshadowing of all the difficulties, all the crosses that awaited the future founder of Ecce Homo and which every Christian who truly wishes to follow Jesus and Mary must generously accept?

A New Life

Once the investigation ordered by the Vatican was completed, an investigation officially attesting to the authenticity of the miracle of St. Andrea delle Fratte, Ratisbonne left immediately for Paris, where his brother Theodore was chaplain to the Sisters of the House of Providence, dedicated to the education of young Jewish orphans. Marie Alphonse thirsted for retreat and wished to sacrifice himself in the total service for Jesus Christ, for the conversion of souls and, more particularly, for the salvation of his family.

After making a generous gift of all his goods to the Sisters of Providence, he entered the novitiate of the Jesuits of Toulon in June 1843, at the age of 29. For 10 years he prepared himself, in the Society of Jesus, for the delicate mission he had received from Heaven to convert his people. He was active in the foundation and development of the Catechumenate of Our Lady of Sion.

Ordained priest on 23 September 1848, Fr Marie left soon after to evangelise the galley slaves of the Brest penal colony. Despite difficult living conditions, he said to the convicts: "My heart overflows with joy finding myself among you." After Brest, it was Fontevrault and the apostolate to inmates.

But Father Marie felt himself more and more attracted by the work of Our Lady of Sion, founded several years before by his brother Theodore. So the young priest obtained from his superiors permission to leave the Society of Jesus to return to Jerusalem, in 1855, by way of a pilgrimage. It was in the Holy City that he would accomplish the greatest and most fruitful part of his ministry. Thus he would rediscover, this time in its Christian dimension, the very ideal of his youth: to regenerate Jews and Muslims spiritually, morally and intellectually, in the light of the Catholic faith.

Our Lady of Sion

This foundation constituted the very heart of the vocation of Father Marie Alphonse Ratisbonne, who was actively supported in his task by Mgr Valerga, Latin Patriarch. Indeed the latter, edified by the Neophytat of Paris run by the Sister's of Father Theodore, did not hesitate to offer to the new Holy Land foundation the hospitality of his own residence.

However the funds necessary to set up the Work were soon lacking and Father even thought about returning to France. But unexpected assistance allowed the renting of a little house, which prompted him to write to his brother Theodore: "Our mission has been so visibly marked by the stamp of God that confidence becomes for us an imperious law. Send me the first workers of Sion; all is in readiness to receive them."

And so on 6 May 1856 the first four Sisters of Sion arrived from France: who "dismounting prostrated themselves at the sight of the Holy City, forehead in the dust." The Sister's accommodation was one of great poverty. The rooms did not even have furniture, about which Father Theodore rejoiced in a letter to the young founder: "I love that the works of God commence thus. We must remember that in this land, where in the past ran rivers of milk and honey, Our Lord did not possess a stone on which to rest his head." Thus the Sisters of Sion led in Jerusalem a double apostolate for the conversion of Israel: expiation through prayer and sacrifice; regeneration through free education for the children of Palestine.

But in 1857 an event occurred that established the providential character of Father Marie's foundation: the discovery, under a mountain of debris and in a remarkable state of preservation, of the small side-arch forming part of the Triumphal Arch at the palace of Pontius Pilate, commonly called Ecce Homo. On this site, some seven years later, began the construction of a sanctuary of which our missionary would say: "I want it to be splendid; the Lord must be royally and magnificently honoured, there where he was so shamefully stripped, so cruelly maltreated for us." This rightful wish would be fully granted by Providence.

Close by the sanctuary along the Via Dolorosa, Father Marie also constructed an orphanage, a boarding-school and a school for young Arabs with a view to providing the instruction and moral strength required to prepare them for the harsh political and social realities of the country. Up to two hundred children of every religion and origin attended these foundations and the community clinic opened along with them. Thus we can garner some idea of the exceptionally laborious and crucified life of

Father Marie Alphonse. Full of admiration for this crushing labour, accompanied by endless difficulties and fatigue, Fr Theodore would write: "My brother would chop himself into ten thousand pieces for Sion."

But it goes without saying that if all these foundations carry the stamp of Providence, they also express the faith and will of one man. Indeed the maintenance and development of such a Work required considerable means. And this vast human and spiritual programme weighed like a heavy cross on the shoulder of Father Marie. Whether tiredness, voyages, unflagging collections, not to mention the weight of an overwhelming correspondence. By what miracle, incessantly renewed, was the missionary provided with all the necessities for these works? Consider the wholly spiritual response of Father Marie: "I know nothing about it, I have never calculated, the Holy Virgin is charged with providing everything."

If the apostolic journeys of the missionary were more often crowned with success, they sometimes proved unfruitful, because the servant is not greater than the Master. So, like his Lord, Father would experience, notably during his voyages to France, Belgium and England, humiliations, calumnies, physical exhaustion. For years, as one biographer wrote, he led "a sad beggar's life."

The Interior Man

The principal character of the spirituality of Father Marie Alphonse resided, unquestionably, in this spirit of faith which nourished and transfigured an apostolic life of nearly forty years; long progression marked by so many works and trials. As to the the foundation of his interior life, the apostle of the Via Dolorosa himself rendered this testimony: "Much later they will be able to accuse me of many failings; but in truth, they will not be able to accuse me of having been a man of little faith."

His spirit of faith dictated to Father Ratisbonne an exemplary detachment. He confided everything to the Lord and desired that the money necessary for his works, largely comprised of small donations from the poorest, be utilised with just moderation, without ever offending the virtue of poverty. Consenting only to strictly necessary expenditure, Father taxed himself with austere privations, which he did not mitigate even in sickness.

Such a spirit of faith and poverty can only lead to humility; of which the abundant correspondence of the missionary of Jerusalem supplies numerous touching accounts. Thus, he preferred the company of the poor and underprivileged to that of the powerful. And if his ardent nature sometimes led him to certain outbursts, he did not hesitate immediately to humble himself over it. On this subject a biographer notes: "Sometimes one saw him throw himself on his knees before a colleague whom he had just reprimanded a little sharply, and lose himself, as it were, in the most generous apologies."

His profound faith made Father Ratisbonne intimately comprehend and desire "the sublime beauty of suffering." Moreover, did not the sanctuary of Ecce Homo, of which he had major charge, continually remind him of the sacrifice of this Christ Who he had made a duty of imitating with all his strength?

The charming conversation and jovial character of our great builder could deceive unperceptive persons. But those who knew him better were aware of his attraction to "Jesus crucified, abandoned, covered with opprobrium." Besides, the ceaseless voyages of Father Marie, journeys so painful, punctuated with contradictions, trials and humiliations: did they not give him the right to speak of the Passion "as a priest having drunk in long draughts the chalice of the Saviour?" He drew from this experience all his courage and brought it to others, repeating with the confidence of faith: "There is only one step from Calvary to Heaven."

Devotion to Mary

Do we need to underline the privileged attraction of the missionary of the Via Dolorosa to the Most Holy Virgin? He never pronounced this blessed name without emotion. After Jesus, Mary was his only shield. He would willingly say: "The name Alphonse is not the one I received at my baptism. On 31 January 1842 I could only take one unique name: that of Mary. My feast, like that of all Sion, is the 15th of August."

When he spoke of his Heavenly Mother, Father Marie could not express the profound sentiment of his soul. His speech hesitated and his eye was still completely dazzled by the vision that decided his vocation. After all, beyond words, is not silence the most eloquent language to truly translate such a love?

In all his pains and sufferings, Mary was the consolation and hope of the holy priest. "Since 1842," he wrote, "I have never stopped seeing the intervention of Mary who is herself only a hand of God, not the hand that punishes, but the hand of mercy; it is to that which I owe my having remained confident, even on the worst days." He also made this major observation: "My whole life must imitate these phenomena of the supernatural order: the Cross and Mary. I meet them each day in the accomplishment of my tasks; so laborious and so beautiful." Armed with courage in the middle of so many tribulations, here is the unique source from which Father Ratisbonne drew his admirable profession of faith: "I believe in the Resurrection, in the Divine Mercy, in the Love of Mary and in Eternal Life."

The Good Servant

The last months of Father Marie's earthly pilgrimage were darkened by sickness. The death of his brother Theodore, on 10 January 1884, added to this trial. Despite these difficulties, however, the founder of the Via Dolorosa did not yield to the desire of those who hoped he would return to Paris. To all the numerous letters and dispatches which implored him to go back to France, he gave the same response: "Pray, leave the poor Father Marie in his corner. He has never been good at anything, and now, he is more incapable than ever. Besides, he is becoming completely blind and only asks to die in peace on the Via Dolorosa."

Soon, in a perfect disposition of soul and always attentive to those who approached him, Father Marie received the last rites in complete serenity. To those troubled about the future of his works, he offered a peace without shadow, mixed with total abandonment to God: "God will provide for everything. Courage! Sursum Corda! Admit that I have really earned my Requiem!"

On 6 May 1884, seventy years after his birth, the founder of Ecce Homo departed this world with the deep joy and happiness of one finally returning to his Mother; this Mother so beloved, from whom he had received conversion and salvation.

All of grieving Jerusalem attended the funeral of the missionary of the Via Dolorosa, conducted with great simplicity. On his very modest tomb, a stone slab erected in the little cemetery of St. John, one can read these solitary words: "Father Marie." Shortly before his death, the missionary had explained their meaning: "The first will speak of the sinner I have been, the second, of the mercy of the Holy Virgin towards me."

Thanks to "Introibo" (April-May 2011). Translated from the French by Rod Pead.




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