Dates: 1 May 1814 – 6 May 1884
The conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne is remarkable and well worth reading in full (see Further Resources below).
He was an agnostic Jew with a passionate dislike of the Catholic Church, all the more so after his brother Theodor had not only converted but had actually been ordained as a priest. He commented that “I cherished a hatred against priests, churches, and convents, and especially against the Jesuits, whose very name goaded me to frenzy”.
Ratisbonne had recently become engaged and was shortly to become a partner in his uncle’s bank. His future thus seemed assured but he decided to go on his travels, mainly because his fiancée was still young. Visiting a friend in Rome, a baron named Theodore de Bussières who happened to be a staunch Catholic, Ratisbonne was given a spiritual challenge: to wear the Miraculous Medal and to recite daily the Memorare prayer. Irritated, he nevertheless went along with the challenge on the grounds that “if it will not do me any good, it will not do me any harm”. Shortly afterwards, the baron had to call in at a church and Ratisbonne went in to see if there was any interesting artwork. What happened next was inexplicable in purely human terms, but is told by Ratisbonne as follows:
"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.
Ratisbonne joined the Catholic Church without delay, giving up all his worldly plans. He was ordained as a priest in 1847 and – with his brother – dedicated himself to the conversion of the Jews.
The story of this conversion is one of 16 accounts of Jewish converts to the Catholic faith told in Honey from the Rock, edited by Roy Schoeman. Each is very moving in its own way. The Ratisbonne account is also easily found by searching online.