Sister Catherine Laboure and the Miraculous Medal part. 2 The conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne from Judaism


WE now come to what is, perhaps, the most striking episode in connection with the medal called miraculous, namely, the conversion of the Jew, Alphonse Ratisbonne. This young man, whose conversion may be compared to that of St. Paul, before setting out for the East decided to visit Rome. But it was in spite of himself, so to speak, that he thus decided, for he was a fierce hater of Christianity, and this hatred on his part had been intensified by the conversion to the Catholic Faith of his brother, Theodore Ratisbonne, who was at that time a priest in Paris, and sub-director of the Arch-confraternity of Notre-Dame des Victoires. No sooner was Alphonse Ratisbonne in Rome than he wished to be out of it. In going through the ghetto his anti-Christian sentiments asserted themselves more fiercely than ever. An old school friend of his, Baron Gustave de Buissiere, who was a Protestant, happened to be in Rome at the time. These two had often tried to persuade each other, "Juif encroute" and "Protestant enrage" being the epithets mutually exchanged.

One day M. Ratisbonne, being resolved not to remain longer in Rome, set forth with the intention of wishing his friend good-bye. Through a servant's mistake he was shown into the presence of his friend's brother, Baron Theodore de Buissiere, a fervent Catholic. The conversation turned upon religion, and M. de Buissiere began at once to try and convert his visitor. The visitor, outwardly affable while inwardly irate, gave his interlocutor to understand that he was born a Jew and intended to remain one. Nothing daunted, the Baron then offered to give M. Ratisbonne a medal—no other than the " miraculous medal." The son of Israel could not conceal his astonishment, and but with difficulty, his indignation. Of course he refused the medal.

" I cannot understand your refusal," pursued M. de Buissiere, " since, from what you say, this medal must be a matter of perfect indifference to you, whereas to me it would afford the greatest consolation were you to accede to my wish and accept it."

" Since you seem so much in earnest," said the other, " I cannot refuse to comply with your request." This did not prevent him^ however, during the remainder of the interview, from laughing and indulging in jokes at the expense of Christianity. He went away with the medal in his pocket, though with difficulty able to conceal his ill humour. " I wonder what he would say," said the Jew to himself, " If I were to take it into my head to make him recite my Jewish prayers."

This was on January i6th, 1842. That night Alphonse Ratisbonne was prayed for by more than one. Among those whose prayers were enlisted in his favour was the Marquis de la Ferronnays, whom Mrs Augustus Craven in Rccit d'unc sceitr has introduced to us as her father.

The Marquis de la Ferronnays died the next day, after predicting that the man for whom so' many prayers were thus suddenly being offered would become a Catholic.

In the meantime M. Ratisbonne's views seemed in no way modified. He called the following day on Baron Theodore de Buissiere to tell him that he intended leaving Rome that night. The Baron with difficulty dissuaded him from his purpose and induced him to remain a few days longer. During these few days he acted as cicerone to his new friend, accompanying him to different places of interest in Rome. The Jew meanwhile made no effort to check his gibes and sarcasms at the expense of everything Christian.

We are on January 2Oth. It was a Thursday and about one o'clock, and M. de Buissiere, on his way to the church of St. Andrea delle Fratte, met M. Ratisbonne. He asked him to accompany him, and the two entered the church together. Leaving his companion, as he thought, intent on examining the building, the Baron passed through to the convent beyond in order to speak to the monks concerning- the funeral of the Marquis de la Ferronnays, which was to take place there the next day. On coming back, twelve minutes afterwards, he looked in vain for M. Ratisbonne. At last he perceived him in a side chapel, prostrate, with his face to the ground. He spoke to him and touched him, but could obtain no answer.

At length the prone man looked up ; and then, his face bathed in tears, his clasped hands, and his inability to speak, told that he had that to say which words were weak to express.

" Oh, how M. de la Ferronnays must have prayed for me ! " he said at last.

When M. de Buissiere, eager for information, had drawn his friend outside the church, he had to judge from signs, for M. Ratisbonne refused to tell in words what had happened to him. He could only say : " Lead me whither you will. After what I have seen I can but obey." Then, drawing forth the medal which he had reluctantly carried about with him for some days previously, he pressed it to his lips murmuring over it burning words of gratitude and love. Amid the broken utterances of this man shaken by strong emotion, the following sentences came forth :—"How good God is." "What joy until now unknown !" " How great is my happiness ! " and, " How those are to be pitied who do not believe ! "

M. Ratisbonne refused to be more explicit until at the feet of one of God's ministers. " Take me to a priest," he said. He was led to the Rev. Father Villefort, S.J., of the Church of the Gesit. Then, on his knees and still clasping the medal, which he kept pressing to his lips, he exclaimed : "I have seen her!—I have seen her!"

He then related as follows : " I had been but a minute or two in the church when I became a prey to an indescribable feeling of distress. When I looked up the whole building around seemed to have disappeared. I could only see one chapel, which had, as it were, gathered all light unto itself, and there, in the midst of the light, standing on an altar, beautiful and majestic, was the Blessed Virgin Mary as represented on this medal. I was drawn towards her as by an irresistible impulse. She made a sign to me to kneel down, and then seemed to say: 'That is well' (' C'est bien) She did not speak, but I understood everything."

It is worth while to mention that the chapel in which this vision took place was dedicated to St. Michael, and contained no picture or statue of the Blessed Virgin.

M. Ratisbonne found it difficult to enter into further details. Questioned afresh, he expressed himself at a loss to account for the, as it were, involuntary impulse which had led him to go from the right side of the church, where M. de Buissicre had left him, to the left, where the chapel dedicated to St. Michael was situated. He said that at first he had looked at the Blessed Virgin in the radiance of her glory and immaculate purity, but that after wards he had found it impossible to gaze fully upon her. Thrice he attempted to raise his eyes to her, and each time his glance failed to reach higher than her hands. "I could not give an idea in words," he said, "of the mercy and liberality I felt to be expressed in those hands. It was not only rays of light that I saw escaping thence. Words fail to give an idea of the ineffable gifts that flow from those hands of our Mother ! The mercy, the tenderness, and the wealth of Heaven escape thence in torrents on the souls of those whom Mary protects."

The baptism of Alphonse Ratisbonne took place in the Church of the Gesu in presence of the elite of Roman society. Abbe Dupanloup, afterwards the great Bishop of Orleans, preaching on the occasion, said: "O you, on whom all eyes are fixed at this moment, tell us by what secret ways the Lord has led you hither. It is for you to tell us how the sun of truth first rose in your soul and what was its brilliant dawn." In an eloquent apostrophe to the Blessed Virgin he exclaimed : " Qucc est ista?" "You are the Mother of our Saviour," he continued, "and Jesus, the fruit of your womb, is the God blessed of all ages. As child of Adam you are our sister. You are the masterpiece of the Power Divine and His mercy's sweetest smile. O God, give light to the blind that they may see Mary, and hearts to those without hearts, that they may love her."

Received in audience by the Sovereign Pontiff, M. Ratisbonne was admitted to His Holiness's bedchamber in order that he might see there on a wall near the bed a beautiful picture of the Immaculate Conception as represented by the "Miraculous Medal."

Gregory XVI. ordered a canonical examination to be made of the circumstances attending this remarkable conversion, the result of which was the declaration by Cardinal Patrizzi (June 3rd, 1842) "that the perfect and instantaneous conversion of Alphonse Marie Ratisbonne from Judaism to the Catholic faith was a true and signal miracle wrought by the all-good and all-great God through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary."

Alphonse Ratisbonne became a priest and fellow-worker with his brother, Abbe Theodore Ratis bonne, in the foundation of the work known as L'CEuvre de Notre-Dame de St'on, from which were to be born two religious congregations now spread over the world. Forty years after the vision at Rome he died at Jerusalem with the name, Mary, on his lips.

Coming to Paris after his conversion he felt a strong wish to see Sister Catherine Laboure. The Archbishop of Paris had expressed a similar wish. To no purpose in either case, for the privileged daughter of St. Vincent of Paul clung tenaciously to her anonymity, and, intent on the menial offices which she called the pearls of a Sister of Charity, remained concealed behind the humble Sister Catherine to the end of her days.