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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Conversion of the Jew Alphonse Ratisbonne

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Alphonse Ratisbonne ErscheinungAlphonse Ratisbonne came here as a hardened Jew. The Virgin appeared to him just as you see her. He fell down a Jew and rose a Christian.  

The Blessed Mother and the Church

According to traditional Catholic theology, there is an intimate and profound relationship between the Blessed Mother and the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. By the will of God, the universal mediation of Mary is ordinarily necessary for the salvation and sanctification of men, just as the mediation of the Church is also necessary. And, if the Church has been entrusted with the task of guarding and spreading the truths of the faith in their integrity and purity, the Blessed Mother has been given the mission of fighting and conquering the devil, the supreme inspirer and advocate of all errors and heresies.[1]


The triumph of the Church and the victory over errors and heresies: this is the victory that is reserved to Mary, of whom the Church sings: “You alone have destroyed the heresies of the entire universe.” Mary always had a decisive part “in the spreading, the battles, and the triumphs of the Catholic Faith”[2] and also, “the history of the triumphs of the Church is the history of the triumphs of Mary.”[3] “Whenever it seemed that night was about to descend upon the world, Mary the Morning Star appeared in the sky.”[4]

In this perspective, the great Marian apparitions of recent centuries shine forth with an extraordinary light. The Rue de Bac, La Salette, Lourdes, Fatima, are all names that should be familiar to every faithful Catholic. As night fell on the world with the spread of the Revolution, the Blessed Mother opened people’s eyes to the gravity of the situation with a brilliant constellation of Marian messages that culminated in her apparition at Fatima, which has rightly been called the most important event of the twentieth century.

The City of Rome also had the privilege of being the place of a great Marian apparition that is less well known but no less significant than the others for the profound teaching that is still gives to our present time. This was the miraculous conversion of the Jewish man Alphonse Ratisbonne on January 20, 1842, when the Blessed Mother appeared to him in the Roman church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.

In the chapel of the apparition, where today the image that the Roman people call the “Madonna del Miracolo” is venerated, there is a plaque on one of the pillars that recalls the event: “On January 20, 1842, Alphonse Ratisbonne came here as a hardened Jew. The Virgin appeared to him just as you see her. He fell down a Jew and rose a Christian. Stranger: take with you this precious remembrance of the Mercy of God and power of the Most Holy Virgin.”[5]

Alphonse Ratisbonne

alfons ratisbonneAlphonse Ratisbonne was born in Strasbourg in 1814 to a family of rich Jewish bankers. His father was the president of the Jewish Consistory of Strasbourg. He grew up in a climate of anti-Christian hatred, which only intensified when his older brother Theodore converted to Catholicism.[6] He was engaged to one of his cousins, and in order to improve his poor state of health he decided to go on a long journey that was to take him from Strasbourg through the French Riviera, Italy, Malta, and Egypt, and finally end up at Constantinople.

He arrived in Rome for a brief stay, that was not in his plans, on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1842. While he was there, he happened to meet a childhood friend, the Baron Gustave de Buissières, a devout Protestant. While they were engaged in an animated religious discussion, the baron’s brother Theodore dared Ratisbonne to wear a medal showing the image of the Immaculate Virgin Mary as she had appeared at the Rue de Bac in Paris to Saint Catherine Labouré just twelve years earlier in 1830, and also to write down and recite the Memorare, the ancient Marian prayer traditionally attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux that begins, “Remember, O Most gracious Virgin Mary...

Ratisbonne, in order to show his superiority to Catholic “superstitions,” laughed and accepted the dare. As he put the medal around his neck, he said, sarcastically, “Look at me now, I am Catholic, Apostolic, Roman.” In the following days, as the Alsatian Jew continued his life of happy skepticism, the Buissières family prayed intensely for his conversion, asking several of their friends to pray for him. Among these was the count Auguste de La Ferronays, a former minister of Charles X, who died suddenly on January 17. Meanwhile, an unexpected event forced Ratisbonne to postpone his departure from Rome. This brings us to January 20, 1842, a day which is best described using the account written by Ratisbonne himself.[7]

January 20, 1842

On Thursday, January 20, after eating breakfast at the hotel and taking my letters to the post office, I went to the house of my friend Gustave, the pietist,[8] who had just returned from a hunting expedition which had kept him away for several days.

He was very surprised to find that I was still in Rome. I explained my reason to him: I had wanted to see the Pope. “But I went away without seeing him,” I said to him, “since he was not present for the ceremonies for the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter [on January 18], where they had told me that he would make an appearance.”

Gustave sarcastically consoled me, telling me about another curious ceremony that was about to take place, I believe at Saint Mary Major, something having to do with the blessing of animals. And throughout the whole conversation, we were continously joking and jesting in a way that you can imagine would happen in a conversation about this sort of thing between a Jew and a Protestant.

We spoke about hunting, the pleasures of life, the carnival entertainment, the brilliant dinner party that Duke Torlonia had given the night before. Nor could we forget the upcoming festivities for my marriage: I invited de Lotzbeck and he promised me he would attend.

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If at that moment (it was noon) a third party had come up to me and said: “Alphonse, within a quarter of an hour you will adore Jesus Christ, your God and your Savior, you will be prostrate in a poor church, you will strike your breast before a priest in a Jesuit house where you will spend Carnival[9] preparing for Baptism, ready to sacrifice yourself for the Catholic faith; and you will renounce the world, its pomps, its pleasures, your own fortune, your hopes, your future; and, if necessary, you will also renounce your fiancee, the affection of your family, the esteem of your friends, your connections with the Jews...and you will aspire to nothing other than to follow Jesus Christ and to carry his Cross even unto death!...” I tell you that if some prophet had come up to me and made such a prediction, there is only one person I would have thought more senseless than him: the man who would believe that such madness was possible! And yet, it is just such madness that today constitutes my wisdom and my happiness.

I walked out of the cafe, and there was the carriage of Theodore de Buissières. He stopped and invited me to get in and go for a ride. The weather was beautiful, and I happily accepted his invitation. But de Buissières asked me if I would mind stopping for a few minutes at the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte that was just down the street, because he had a matter he needed to take care of; he suggested that I wait in the carriage; but I preferred to get out and see the church. The people there were making preparations for a funeral, and I inquired who the deceased person was who would be receiving such extreme honors. De Buissières responded: “He is one of my friends, the Count de La Ferronays.” He added, “His sudden death is the cause of the sadness that you have seen in me for the last two days.”

I did not know de La Ferronays; I had never seen him, and I had no other impression than that of a vague sorrow that one always feels at the news of a sudden death. De Buissières left me to go and reserve a gallery for the family of the deceased. “Don’t get impatient,” he said to me as he entered the cloister, “it will only take two minutes....”

“He fell down a Jew and rose a Christian”

The Church of Sant’Andrew was small, poor, and deserted;... I believe that I was almost completely alone;... there was no work of art that attracted my attention. I walked around, mechanically, looking around without thinking anything in particular; I recall only that there was a black dog that was jumping and dancing around in front of me... As soon as the dog disappeared, the entire church disappeared, I no longer saw anything... or rather, my God, I saw only one thing!

How can I describe it? Oh! no, human speech cannot attempt to express the inexpressible; every description, no matter how sublime it would be, would only be a profanation of the ineffable truth. There I was, lying prostrate, bathed in my tears, with my heart outside of myself, when de Buissières called me back to life.

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I could not reply to his hasty questions; but I took the medal that I had on my chest and with with great affection I kissed the image of the Virgin, resplendent with grace....Oh! It was truly Her!

I did not know where I was; I did not know if I was Alphonse or someone else; I felt such a total change within me that I believed that I was someone other than myself....I tried to find myself and I did not find myself....The most ardent joy sprang from the depth of my soul; I could not speak; I did not want to reveal anything; I felt within me something solemn and sacred that made me ask to see a priest....I was taken to him, and only after he asked me to was I able to speak as best I could, on my knees and with a trembling heart.

My first words were in gratitude to de La Ferronays and the Archconfraternity of Our Lady of Victories. I knew with certainty that de La Ferronays had prayed for me; but I could not say how I knew, just as I could not give an account of the truths which I had now acquired faith in and knowledge of. All that I can say is that at the moment it happened the bandages fell from my eyes; not one only, but all the multitude of bandages that had been wrapped around me, they rapidly fell off one after the other, like snow and and mud and ice under the heat of a scorching sun.

I came out of a tomb, out of an abyss of shadows, and I was alive, perfectly alive....But I was weeping! I saw, at the bottom of the abyss, the extreme miseries from which I had been rescued by an infinite mercy; I shivered at the sight of all of my iniquities, and I was stupefied, softened, lost in admiration and gratitude....I thought of my brother with an unspeakable joy; but together with my tears of love I also wept tears of compassion. Oh! how many people tranquilly descend into this abyss with their eyes closed by their pride or their carelessness. They descend there, they sink into the horrible darkness alive! And my family, my fiancee, my poor sisters! Oh, excruciating anxiety! I think of all of you, you whom I love! I give my first prayers to you... Will you not raise your eyes toward the Savior of the world, whose blood has cancelled original sin? Oh, the imprint of this stain is horrible! It makes the creature made in the image of God completely unrecognizable.

I am asked how I learned these truths, since it is certain that I have never opened a book of religion, I have never read a page of the Bible, and the dogma of original sin, which is completely forgotten and denied by the Jews of our day, had never occupied my thoughts for even a moment; I doubt that I had ever even heard its name before. How then did I arrive at this knowledge? I do not know.

All that I know is that when I entered the church I was ignorant of everything; when I left, I could see clearly. I cannot explain this change except with the image of a man who awakens from a deep sleep, or a man born blind who sees the light in a single instant; he sees, but he cannot define the light that illumines him and in which he contemplates the objects of his admiration.

The Apostolate to the Jews

On hearing of the miracle, Pope Gregory XVI ordered his Cardinal Vicar Costantino Patrizi to immediately open a canonical investigation. This took place in 17 sessions, from February 17 to April 1, 1842, using the strict procedure of ecclesiastical tribunals. At its conclusion it determined “that the truth is fully confirmed of the famous miracle worked by Almighty God through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, namely, the instantaneous and perfect conversion of Alphonse Maria Ratisbonne from Judaism.

Cardinal Patrizi himself solemnly baptized Ratisbonne, with the new name of Alphonse Maria, on January 31, 1842, the Church of the Gesù. Ratisbonne became a priest in 1847. For some time he belonged to the Society of Jesus, which he then left with the permission of Pius IX to enter the Congregation of the Daughters and Missionaries of Our Lady of Zion, founded by his brother Theodore. Just like his brother, Alphonse Maria Ratisbonne wanted to dedicate his entire life to the apostolate among the Jews. In 1855 he left for Jerusalem, where he succeeded in purchasing the ruins of the Praetorium of Pilate, on which he constructed the Sanctuary of the Ecce Homo. He remained in Jerusalem until his death on May 6, 1884.[10]

News of the miracle spread rapidly throughout Christendom. It ignited popular devotion to the Miraculous Medal of the Rue du Bac and helped to hasten the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

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downloadAmong the saints and servants of God who have prayed in the Chapel of the Apparition in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, it is enough to recall Saint John Bosco, Saint Therese of Lisieux, and Saint Maximilian Kolbe. It was on January 20, 1917, the 75th anniversary of the apparition, that Kolbe, while listening to a retelling of the story of the conversion of Ratisbonne, conceived the idea of founding his Militia Immaculata, with the purpose of “seeking the conversion of sinners, heretics, schismatics, Jews, etc., and especially of Masons; and the sanctification of all under the patronage of and through the Immaculate Blessed Virgin Mary.”[11]

Towards the Reign of Mary

At the Rue du Bac, at La Salette, at Lourdes, at Fatima, the Blessed Mother chose innocent souls to transmit her messages to the world. In Rome, she appeared to a sinner, to a heart hardened by pride, to an enemy of the Church. A Jew by birth, a revolutionary in his thinking, Ratisbonne seemed to prefigure the modern world, incredulous, hard of heart, obstinate in his errors.

And yet it only took the apparition of Our Lady, one single action on her part, to make Ratisbonne fall to his knees and instantly understand – according to his own words given in the canonical investigation – “the horror of his state, the deformity of sin, the beauty of the Catholic Religion.” His conversion was perfect and instantaneous, just like that of Saint Paul the Apostle: the darkness of his unbelief and Judaism was instantly dispelled by the brightness of the truth. The Blessed Mother – “living, great, majestic, most beautiful, and merciful” – displayed her traditional qualities as Queen and Mother: both power and mercy. But in order to intervene, the Madonna requires the cooperation of human beings: the Miraculous Medal, the Memorare, the insistent prayers of the Baron de Buissières and of Count de La Ferronays, perhaps through an imperceptible gesture of good will by Ratisbonne, are all parts of the story not to be overlooked in the big picture of this conversion story.

Nothing is impossible for the Blessed Mother, she who is the royal dispenser of graces, when she is invoked by ardent and devout hearts. “When men decide to cooperate with the grace of God, then wonderful things happen in history: the conversion of the Roman Empire, the formation of the culture of the Middle Ages, the re-conquest of Spain beginning at Covadonga – these are all events of this sort, which happen as the fruit of the great resurrections of the soul to which people are also susceptible.”[12]

In the face of the scourge of atheist communism that threatens humanity today, let us therefore pray to the Blessed Mother and ask her to once again show her power and her mercy. In the same way in which she converted the Jew Ratisbonne and established her reign in his heart, may she also grant in our day the conversion of the world, the establishment of Her reign and the reign of her Divine Son, and the triumph of the Church over the Revolution.

Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino


[1] It is through her relationship with the Church that the Blessed Mother is entitled to be called Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix. On Golgotha, “Thus she who, according to the flesh, was the mother of our Head, through the added title of pain and glory became, according to the Spirit, the mother of all His members” (Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, June 29, 1943,

[2] LEO XIII, Encyclical on the Holy Rosary Adiutricem, May 9, 1895,

[3] PIUS XII, Discourse Il vostro IV Convegno, to the Young People of the Marian Congregations of Italy, April 26, 1958, in Maria SS., Insegnamenti pontifici a cura dei monaci di Solesmes, Italian translation, 2nd updated edition, Edizioni Paoline, Rome 1964, p. 519.

[4] Ibid.

[5] This is a translation of the French text on the plaque. The best account of the apparition is the short book by Father alfredo bellantonioLa Meraviglia romana dell’Immacolata, 2nd edition, Rome 1973. The canonical investigation of the apparition is also accessible, in two handwritten volumes, at the historical archive of the Vicariate of Rome.

[6] Théodore-Marie Ratisbonne (born in Strasbourg 1802, died in Paris 1884) was baptized in 1827 and collaborated with Msgr. Dufriche-Desgenettes at the church of Notre Dame des Victoires in Paris, one of the most vibrant spiritual centers of Paris. The Archconfraternity of Notre Dame des Victoires was founded by Charles-Eléonore Dufriche-Desgenettes (born in Almson 1778, died in Paris 1860). He made his church a center for the constant spread of devotion to the Miraculous Medal. In 1825 he was among those who most fought for the consecration of Charles X at Reims (cf. MARC BLOCH, I re taumaturghi, Italian translation, Einaudi 1973, p. 313).

[7] The account is taken from a letter that Alphonse Ratisbonne wrote from the college of Juilly to Msgr. Dufriche-Desgenettes on January 20, 1842. We have also partially drawn from and integrated the Italian translation contained in the work La Madonna del miracolo, in the care of the Postulazione Generale dei Minimi, Roma 1971 and the text reported in JEAN GUITTON, La Vergine a Rue du Bac, Italian translation, Edizioni Paoline, Roma 1977.

[8] Pietism was a movement within Protestantism that emphasized individual piety and living a devout Christian life.

[9] Carnival, or Shrovetide, is a period of festivities, street parades, and outdoor entertainment during the weeks preceding Lent. In 1842 Lent began on February 10. 

[10] “He knelt on those ruins and prayed; it seemed that he could still hear the echo of that condemnation and the hateful cry of his fathers: “Crucifige Eum!” “I have never forgotten,” he said, “what I felt in front of the ruins of the court of Pontius Pilate.” There it was that the cry rang out: “May his blood fall upon us and upon our children.” “It fell, yes,” thought Alphonse, “but it fell not in a curse but in regeneration,” just as it fell on him on January 20, 1842, in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.” Cf. Father ANTONIO BELLANTONIO, op. cit., p. 153.

[11] Maximilian Kolbe chose to celebrate his First Mass at the Altar of the Apparition on April 29, 1918. Father Ricciardi has transcribed this detail (translated) from Kolbe’s personal register of Mass intentions: “Altar of the Miracle, Church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte: for the conversion of P. Petkow [Grand Master of Polish Masonry], of schismatics, non-Catholics, masons, etc.” Cf. Father ANTONIO RICCIARDI, Beato Massimiliano Maria Kolbe OFM, Edizioni agiografiche, in the care of the Genral Postulation of the Conventual Franciscans, Rome 1971, p. 57

[12] PLINIO CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Rivoluzione e Contro-Rivoluzione, 3rd Italian edition, Cristianità, Piacenza 1977, p. 152.

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Last modified on Thursday, February 20, 2020
Roberto de Mattei | Remnant Columnist

Prof. De Mattei is President of the Lepanto Foundation, as well as Founder and Director of the Lepanto Cultural Centre. He directs the magazine “Radici Cristiane” and the “Corrispondenza Romana” News Agency. He is the author of many books, that have been translated into several languages, and earned him an international reputation. Between 2003-2011 he was Vice President of the Italian National Research Council (CNR). He was also a member of the Board of Directors of the Italian Historical Institute. He is married to Rita di Campello and father of 5 children.