From ‘Ratisbonne to Reflections’ – by Peter W. Miller
Contrasting approaches towards the conversion of Jews
With Reflections on Covenant and Mission, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB] has submitted its contribution to an increasingly disturbing pattern of statements aimed at facilitating “interreligious unity.” Exhibiting a rare display of honesty, the now infamous document goes beyond the previously uncontroversial claims that Judaism represents a still valid and potentially salvific covenant with God, and directly challenges the Church’s mission towards the Jewish people.
To truly appreciate how far those presenting such views have strayed in recent decades, it’s useful to revisit the inspiring story of Fr. Alphonse Ratisbonne, a wealthy Jewish man who would undergo perhaps the most dramatic conversion since St. Paul.
Alphonse Ratisbonne was born a Jew in the Alsace region of Eastern France and would, over the years, develop a particular disdain for the Catholic Faith. Fully embracing the wave of new philosophic trends and scientific advancements, he looked upon Catholics as naive, superstitious, unintelligent and foolish.
This prejudice would grow to outright hatred when his older brother converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest, essentially “betraying” his family and heritage.
In 1842, on a journey for pleasure undertaken before he was to marry, Ratisbonne made the decision to take a slight detour and pay a visit to Rome. It was there he met a priest, a brother of an acquaintance, who would dedicate himself to the cause of this unlikely candidate’s conversion. In an effort to demonstrate the frivolity of Catholicism, Ratisbonne agreed to wear a Miraculous Medal and recite the Memorare daily. Additionally, for his own entertainment and prideful appetite, Ratisbonne would accompany his new acquaintance around Rome, never missing an opportunity to ridicule and blaspheme all he would hear and see.
Our Lady of the Miracle
All that would change on January 20th, when he visited the Church of Sant Andrea delle Fratte. It was within the walls of this historic church where Ratisbonne would be instantaneously converted by the Mother of God Herself.
“At the moment when the Blessed Virgin made a sign with her hand, the veil fell from my eyes; not one veil only, but all the veils that were wrapped around me disappeared, just as snow melts beneath the rays of the sun.”
The Mother of God would present to him the glories of the Faith and instantly educate him in its sacred truths.
“It is well known that I never opened a religious book and had never read a page of the Bible, and that the dogma of Original Sin, which it is either denied or forgotten by modern Jews, had never for a single moment occupied my thoughts—indeed, I doubt I had ever heard its name. How did I arrive at a knowledge of it? I know not. All I know is that when I entered that church I was profoundly ignorant of everything, and that when I came out I saw everything clearly and distinctly.”
After a thorough inquiry and investigation, Pope Gregory XVI declared the event a true miracle. There was no natural explanation to what happened on that particular day. As Ratisbonne’s Roman companion recounts:
“Even if we imagine an illusion in the case of a person of Ratisbonne’s character and education, with prejudices so violent, and with such interest both of affection and of position, it could not have been induced or augmented by any outward representation; for in the chapel that was the scene of the miracle, there is no statue, or picture, or image of the Blessed Virgin of any kind.”
Alphonse Ratisbonne was Baptized, ordained and joined the very Society of Jesus he had so violently despised. As he predicted, his family disowned him and revoked his partnership in the bank which was to be his inheritance. He would later receive permission to leave the Jesuits to start the Sisterhood of Our Lady of Sion, which dedicated itself to the conversion of Jews. The sisterhood soon moved to Jerusalem where it established two convents, two schools, three orphanages and a church. The priests assisting Ratisbonne, known as the Peres de Notre Dame de Sion later returned to Europe to establish additional foundations. Less than a century later, during the Nazi persecutions, these holy priests were among the most active rescuers of Jews.
Conversion to Catholicism through Our Blessed Mother Mary
As was the case when She appeared to St. Juan Diego three centuries earlier, Our Lady demonstrated the same “simplistic” outlook towards Catholicism and conversion that many Catholics today are mocked for maintaining. She did not fill Ratisbonne with a newfound respect for Judaism or encourage him to follow his conscience and “be the best Jew he could be.” She clearly showed him the error of his ways and the true light of the Catholic Faith. She did not enlighten him as to the permanence of the Old Covenant, suggest that conversion may not be necessary for his eternal salvation or apologize for past actions of Catholics. Following Our Blessed Mother’s heavenly example, Ratisbonne would take this holy gift and make it his mission to provide it to as many other Jews as possible.
The story of Ratisbonne’s conversion is not ancient history. This wasn’t a Roman centurion or even a medieval prince; he was a modern man in every sense of the term. He was well-educated in the ways of science and modern philosophy, had a prestigious position as a wealthy banker, was betrothed to a beautiful young girl and had every reason in the world to remain in his current state of worldly pleasures. The unlikelihood of the miraculous occurrence was not lost of the recent convert:
“O my God. . . . I who only a half hour before was still blaspheming! I who felt such a deadly hatred of the Catholic religion! And all who know me well enough that, humanly speaking, I have the strongest reasons for remaining a Jew. My family is Jewish; my bride is Jewish; my uncle is a Jew. In becoming a Catholic, I sacrifice all the interests and all the hopes I have on earth; and yet I am not mad. Everyone knows that I am not mad, that I have never been mad. Surely they must receive my testimony . . .”
“A man has a claim to be believed, when he sacrifices everything to a conviction that must have come from Heaven. If all that I have said is not rigorously true, I commit a crime, not only the most daring, but the most senseless and motiveless.”
Men in Alphonse Ratisbonne’s pre-conversion condition are anything but a rarity; millions could easily be found today. However, the nature of priest the Blessed Virgin called him to become is becoming increasingly scarce. Her clear example provided by the conversion of this “modern man” has fallen into the dustbin of history as bishops come up with new ways to obscure the Truth from those who need it most.
A Transparent Set of Reflections
On August 12 (2002), the USCCB’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs under the direction of Baltimore’s Cardinal Keeler released the document Reflections on Covenant and Mission which asserts, as most by now are aware, “campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.”*
(* This lie is still being erroneaously propagated by many in the Church today.)
Far from being a selective citation or a misrepresentation of the document’s “real message,” this statement is featured prominently in the actual document’s preface as the key “conclusion.” Additionally, it is repeated twice in the brief story that accompanied the document on the USCCB’s own Web site and even in its headline. Since the obvious and numerous errors of such a conclusion have been enumerated elsewhere, they won’t be repeated here.
As can now be unfortunately expected whenever something of this nature comes out, a number of individuals rushed to defend the document as either being “well in line” with previous post-Conciliar statements, representing “nothing really new” or being somehow defensible as not directly and specifically repudiating Church teaching.
But there was another side that was to be heard before the dust settled. A number of Catholics decided that this was entirely unacceptable and stood up to proclaim that this statement was erroneous and even a sign of apostasy. No, this time it wasn’t the pessimistic and disgruntled traditionalists ‘who never seem to like anything’, but the very same neo-conservative apologists who can usually be counted on for excuses or misplaced optimism and typically plead with others to give such obviously scandalous teaching the “benefit of the doubt.” Gradually, as more and more liberal apologists came forward with their own condemnation of these Reflections, others felt secure in being able to do the same without being labeled “schismatic” and joined in.
A long line of Popes, Saints, Church Fathers, Doctors, Ecumenical Councils and even the Mother of God herself have, through teaching and example, shown us the Truth of the Catholic Faith and the necessity of converting non-Catholics. It’s now more necessary than ever to consider whether those promoting “ecumenical dialogue” and “interreligious unity” are seeking that same conversion in the same sense. Despite the excuses and disclaimers, documents like Reflections on Covenant and Mission would say they are not.