Though it is not a defined dogma, the future conversion of the Jewish nation to the Faith is a common teaching of the Fathers and Doctors, inferred directly from Holy Scripture. This mass conversion (which need not be absolutely total) will be a sign of the immanent approach of the General Judgment. There are six such signs listed in Monsignor Joseph Pohle’s book, Eschatology: (1) The General Preaching of the Christian Religion all over the earth; (2) The Conversion of the Jews; (3) The return of Enoch and Elias; (4) A Great Apostasy and the Reign of Anti-Christ; (5) Extraordinary Disturbances of Nature; and (6) A Universal Conflagration.
Of these, numbers two and three — The Conversion of the Jews and the return of Enoch and Elias — are of interest here. The Old Testament contains several prophecies of the end-times conversion of the Jews. The Prophet Osee says this: “The children of Israel shall sit many days without king and without prince and without sacrifice, and without altar, and without ephod and without theraphim. And after this the children of Israel shall return, and shall seek the Lord their God and David their king: and they shall fear the Lord, and His goodness in the last days” (Osee 3:4-5). There are two parts to this prophesy. The first is that the Jews will be without king, prince, sacrifice, altar, ephod, and theraphim. This is a reference to the loss of civil kingship and sacrificing priesthood among the Jews. Regarding this part of the prophecy, Saint Augustine comments, “Who is there who does not see in this a portrait of the present state of the Jewish people?” The second part of the prophecy involves the return of the Jews, about which, Saint Augustine says this: “Nothing can be clearer than this prophecy, in which David stands for Jesus Christ, says the Apostle, is born of the line of David, according to the flesh” (cited in The Kingship of Christ and the Conversion of the Jewish Nation, by Father Denis Fahey, pgs. 101-2). There are other Old Testament passages in Deuteronomy, Isaias, Jeremias, Daniel, Micheas, and Malachias which foretell the same thing.
Saint Paul speaks much more clearly in the Epistle to the Romans. The whole eleventh chapter treats of the subject of the mystery of the election of the Gentiles and the falling away of the Jews. Saint Paul reminds the Romans that there were Jews who were faithful and accepted Christ. He also reminds them not to be complacent but to take a lesson from the rejection of the Jews, that if God would not spare the chosen people from His wrath, neither will he spare the Gentiles, should they fall into sin. He says, “For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, of this mystery (lest you should be wise in your own conceits) that blindness in part has happened in Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles should come in” (Rom. 11:25) This has always been interpreted by Catholics to mean that there will be a general conversion of the Jewish nation.
An impressive list of Fathers can be brought out who refer to this future conversion as a fact. Included are Tertullian, Origen, Saint Hilary, Saint Ambrose, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Jerome, Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Saint Prosper of Aquitaine, Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Isidore, Saint Bede the Venerable, and Saint Anselm. Saint Cyril of Alexandria says this: “Towards the end of time, Our Lord Jesus Christ will effect the reconciliation of His former persecutor Israel with Himself. Everybody who knows Holy Scripture is aware that, in the course of time, this people will return to the love of Christ by the submission of faith…. Yes, one day, after the conversion of the Gentiles, Israel will be converted, and the Jews will be astonished at the treasure they will find in Christ” (Commentary on Genesis, Bk. 5).
Another thought among the Fathers, and it is based on the eleventh chapter of Romans, is the idea that the zeal of the converted Jews will be the occasion of a restoration of the apostate Gentiles, who have despised the rule of Christ the King. Father Fahey speculates that the converted Jews will be heartbroken over their former opposition to Our Lord and His Church, and this contrition will fuel their charity to convert all men.
The return of Enoch and Elias is the third of the six signs of the approach of the General Judgment. The idea that Elias would return was a strong tradition in the Old Testament. The forth chapter of the book of Malachias says this: “Behold I will send you Elias the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers: lest I come, and strike the earth with anathema” (Mal. 4:5).
This prophesy of the return of Elias — who never died, but was taken away in a fiery chariot — was so strong at the time of our Lord that both He and Saint John the Baptist were mistaken for Elias by many of the people. Our Lord even referred to Saint John as Elias, but also reassured the Apostles after the Transfiguration that “Elias indeed shall come and restore all things” (Matt. 17:11).
The tradition is that Elias will preach to the Jews and Enoch to the Gentiles. Elias was an Israelite either of the tribe of Galaad or Nephtali; it is not certain which. Enoch is a common father to all of us, since he was Noe’s great-grandfather. Neither of them have tasted death, and neither will, until they preach the faith for 1260 days and die as martyrs.
While the mass conversion of the Jewish Nation is a sign of the imminent return of Christ in judgment, the conversion of Jewish people is not an exclusively eschatological event. On reads of Jewish converts throughout the history of the Church, many of whom, shamefully, have been forgotten. With each Jewish heart that responds to grace and enters the Church, we see a little foreshadowing of that great future event.
One such convert is 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 he Providentially came under the influence of a Baron Thèodore de Bussières, 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 every day and to recite the Memorare every morning and evening. Ratisbonne took this challenge. The date was January 17, 1842. Three days later 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 a Church, Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, where the Baron had to consult with one of the monks there about a friend’s funeral arrangements. De Bussières left Ratisbonne outside, but when he returned, his young companion was nowhere in sight.
De Bussières looked in the Church, where he found Alphonse prostrate on the floor of a side chapel, his face bathed in tears. He would barely talk to the Baron, but he kept kissing his 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 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 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 de Sion, which worked for the conversion of the Jewish People to the Catholic Church.
Seventy-five years after this wondrous conversion, the rector of the international Franciscan theology college in Rome, Father Stephane Ignudi (confessor and confidant of Pope Saint Pius X), read and commented on the story of Ratisbonne to a group of Conventual Franciscan seminarians. One of the young Friars in the chapel was Brother Maximilian Kolbe, who would later receive his doctorate in theology under Ignudi’s direction. Brother Maximilian was fired to a zeal for the conversion of the Jews upon the hearing of this story. It was then that he resolved to start a Marian association known as the Militia of the Immaculate. Each member — or knight — would have as his weapon, the Miraculous Medal.
As a newly-ordained priest, the young Father Maximilian offered his first Holy Mass at that side altar in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte where Alphonse Ratisbonne was converted.
Update: This piece has been corrected (2-8-2018) to read that the seminarians with Father Ignudi were Conventual Franciscans, not Capuchins. Thanks go to a good Friar (Ave Maria!) for correcting my silly mistake. Saint Maximilian Kolbe was a Conventual Franciscan Friar, not, like Padre Pio, a Capuchin.