Today is the feast of the Miraculous Medal. As I only recently visited the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, where the most well-known Miraculous Medal miracle took place, I would like to tell the story of that miracle (but not before mentioning a fact music buffs may appreciate: the composer Alessandro Scarlatti was married in this historic church in 1678).
The miracle is the conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne, a French Jew who hated the Catholic Church, especially since the conversion of his older brother, Theodore, who became a priest. Alphonse’s whole life changed when, while traveling around Europe, he Providentially came under the influence of a Baron de Bussieres, himself a convert to the Faith from Protestantism. The Baron, an older man, gave the cynical Ratisbonne a Miraculous Medal and presented him with a challenge to wear it daily and to recite the Memorare every morning and evening. Ratisbonne took this challenge, considering himself impervious to such superstition. The date was January 17th, 1842 (only about twelve years after Saint Catherine Labouré received the revelation of the medal). Three days later, on the 20th, Alphonse was supposed to be leaving Rome for the next stop on his travel itinerary. Instead, he found himself taking a walk with the Baron. The two stopped at Sant’Andrea delle Fratte (Saint Andrew of the Thickets), where the Baron had to consult with one of the monks about a friend’s funeral arrangements. De Bussieres left Ratisbonne outside, but when he returned, the young Jew was nowhere in sight.
He looked in the Church, where he found Alphonse prostrate on the floor of a side chapel, his face bathed in tears. The young Jew would barely speak to the Baron, but he kept kissing the medal and asked to see a priest. As he kissed the medal, he repeated, “I have seen her. I have seen her.”
Here is how Ratisbonne himself related what happened: “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 me 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 if by an irresistible impulse. She made a sign to me to kneel down, and then seemed to say: ‘that is well.’ She did not speak, but I understood everything.”
Alphonse became a Catholic and joined his formerly estranged brother, Abbe Theodore Ratisbonne, and the two founded an institute known as L’Oeurve de Notre Dame di Sion (the Work of Our Lady of Sion), which worked for the conversion of the Jews. (This apostolate would later be instumental in the baptism of Hermann Cohen, a former student of Franz Liszt.)
Seventy-five years after this famous conversion, the rector of the international Franciscan theology college in Rome, Father Stephane Ignudi, read and commented on the story of Ratisbonne to a group of Capuchin Franciscan seminarians. Ignudi was a confessor and confidant of Pope Saint Pius X. One of the young Friars in the chapel was Brother Maximilian Kolbe, who would later receive his doctorate in theology under Ignudi’s direction. Upon the hearing of this story, Brother Maximilian was fired to a zeal for the conversion of the Jews. It was then that he resolved to start a Marian association known as the Militia of the Immaculate, which had the conversion of Jews as one of its goals. And each member — or knight — would have as a weapon, the Miraculous Medal.
The year was 1917: the four-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Revolt, the two-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Freemasonry, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and, also, the year of the Balfour Declaration, by which England promised a Zionist state in Palestine. Finally, it was also the year of the Fatima apparitions.
Saint Maximilian was so moved by the conversion of Ratisbonne that he made it a regular topic of his conversation. He frequently returned to the altar where the apparition took place, called the altar of the Virgin of the Miracle. He said his first Mass there on the 29th of April, 1918.
Two busts flank that side-altar in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte: one is of Ratisbonne, the other of Saint Maximilian.