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Our Lady of Zion (Italy)

The Madonna del Miracolo painting by Natale Carta in the Basilica of St. Andrea delle Fratte in Rome

The Madonna del Miracolo painting

Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne Jesuit priest

Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne became a priest with the Society of Jesus. 

When the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Catherine Laboure for the second time on November 27, 1830, she gave the world the Miraculous Medal that would become a channel of great graces as she promised. Soon after the distribution of medals throughout France and later other parts of the world, numerous miracles were reported that are connected to the Miraculous Medal from unexplained cures, expulsion of evil spirits and conversions.

One of the most famous miracles of the Miraculous Medal is the instantaneous conversion of a Jew named Alphonse Ratisbonne. 

Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne was born in 1814 in Strasbourg, Alsace, France, into a famed family of Jewish bankers. An older brother, Théodor, converted to Christianity in 1827 and became a Catholic priest. The family reacted negatively and Alphonse resolved never to speak again with him, and developed a hatred of Catholic faith.

 

In January 1842, he decides to tour Europe and the East. In Rome, he encountered a 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. De Bussières saw it as his mission to convert to Catholicism any unbeliever who crossed his path. He and Ratisbonne became friends. 

 

The baron makes a proposition to Alphonse that he take a simple test: wear the Miraculous Medal and say every morning the Memorare, a prayer St. Bernard composed to the Virgin Mary.

 

Alphonse consents, mocks the Faith, and quotes a line from The Tales of Hoffman: “If it does me no good, at least it will dome no harm.” 

 

The Baron’s recruits members of Rome’s tight-knit community of aristocratic French expatriates to pray for Alphonse’s conversion. Notable among these friends is the Count Laferronays, once a notorious rogue and now a devout, fervent Catholic. Moved by the baron’s pleas, the count drops into a church and fervently prays “more than 20 Memorares” for the conversion of the “young Jew.” That same evening, the Count suffers a fatal heart attack.

 

When the baron was arranging the funeral for the count in the basilica of St. Andrea delle Fratte in Rome, he asked Ratisbonne to wait for him in the church. When the Baron returned, he found Ratisbonne on his knees in prayer.

 

In Ratisbonne’s own words: “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.”

 

The baron helps Ratisbonne outside and into his carriage. He takes him to the hotel where Alphonse is staying. Alphonse is still sobbing, clasping his Miraculous Medal, murmuring thanks to God. At last he turns to the baron, embraces him saying: “Take me to a confessor! When can I receive baptism, without which I can no longer live?”

 

The baron takes him to the Church of the Gesu, the Mother Church of the Jesuits, to see Father Villefort. There, Alphonse tries to explain himself, but he is still sobbing so hard that he is unintelligible. At last he calms down, takes the Miraculous Medal from his neck, holds it up, and cries: “I saw Her! I saw Her!” 

 

Eleven days later Ratisbonne received baptism, confirmation and his first Holy Communion. At his baptism, he added Marie to his name to reflect the role he felt the Blessed Virgin Mary had played in his life.

 

His story spread like fire. His conversion diffused devotion to the Miraculous Medal beyond France to the world.  Ratisbonne reconciled with his priest-brother, joined the Jesuits, and he himself became a Jesuit priest. The two brothers founded the Sisterhood of Our Lady of Zion, in the Holy Land, a congregation that cared for Jews and worked and prayed for their conversion. Father Mary Alphonse died in 1884 at Ein Karem, John the Baptist’s birthplace near Jerusalem.

In February 1842, the Vatican held a canonical investigation of the circumstances surrounding Alphonse’s conversion. After lengthy inquiry and many depositions, it concludes that his sudden conversion was entirely miraculous; an act of God wrought through the powerful intercession of the Virgin.

 

A few months later, after a formal inquest about the apparition of January 20, the Vicar General of Pope Gregory XVI, Cardinal Patrizi, declared on June 3, 1842, that it was a divine miracle operated through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and permitted the publication and spread of texts recording the miracle.

In May 1842, a painting of the Madonna del Miracolo was placed for veneration in the same spot and in the same form as She appeared. The canvas was painted by the artist Natale Carta, who followed the directives of Ratisbonne himself.

Fifty years later in January 1892, due to the large number of miracles attributed to Mary in the Shrine, Pope Leo XIII granted the honor of Pontifical Coronation of the image.

 

References:

Bussierre, Marie Theodore Renouard, “The conversion of M. Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne”, Burns and Lambert, 1855.

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