Marie-Théodor Ratisbonne, N.D.S., (December 28, 1802 – January 10, 1884) was a noted Jewish convert to the Roman Catholic Church, who became a priest and missionary and who later founded the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion. He was the brother of Maria Alphonse Ratisbonne, who joined him in this effort.
Centre Chrétien d’Études Juives (CCEJ)
The Congregation of Our Lady of Sion (French: Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Sion, abbreviated by its members as N.D.S.) is composed of two Roman Catholic religious congregations founded in Paris, France. One is composed of Catholic priests and Religious Brothers, founded in 1852, and another of Religious Sisters, founded in 1843, both by Maria Theodor Ratisbonne, along with his brother Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, “to witness in the Church and in the world that God continues to be faithful in his love for the Jewish people and to hasten the fulfilment of the promises concerning the Jews and the Gentiles.” (Constitution, article 2).
A distinguished preacher and writer, and director of the Archconfraternity of Christian Mothers, b. of Jewish parentage at Strasburg, 28 Dec., 1802; d. in Paris, 10 Jan. 1884. He was raised in luxury, was educated at the Royal College of his native city, and at the age of manhood, was considered a leader among his people, who unanimously elected him to replace Samson Libermann when the latter was converted in 1824.
The conversion of his three friends, Emil Dreyfus, Alfred Mayer, and Samson Libermann, caused him to study the Bible and the history of the Church. For two years the work of grace went on within him, and finally he was baptized in 1826. He entered the seminary, and received Holy orders in 1830. He worked in his native diocese until 1840, when he became sub-director of the Confraternity of Notre Dame des Victoires at Paris. It was whilst in this city, in 1842, that his brother Alphonse, a free-thinker animated with greatest hatred against Christianity, was miraculously converted [through a vision of Mary] at Rome, and suggested to him to secure a home for the education of Jewish children.
Providence seemed to design him for the work, and answered his prayer for light by sending him the two daughters of a Jewish lady whom he subsequently converted. During the same summer he went to Rome; Gregory XVI decorated him a Knight of St. Sylvester, complimented him for his “Life of St. Bernard”, and granted his request to labour for the conversion of the Jews. Houses were opened under the patronage of “Our Lady of Sion” for the Christian education of Jewish boys and girls. Pius IX gave Ratisbonne many marks of his affection, and Leo XIII appointed him proto-notary Apostolic. At his death he received the last Sacraments from the Archbishop of Paris, and the final blessing from Leo XIII.
His chief works are: “Essai sur l’Education Morale” (1828); “Histoire de Saint-Bernard” (1841); “Méditations de Saint-Bernard sur le Présent et Futur” (1853); “Le Manuel de la Mère Chrétienne” (1860); “Questions Juives” (1868); “Nouveau Manuel des Mères Chrétiennes” (1870); “Le Pape” (1870); “Miettes Evangéliques” (1872); “Réponse aux Questions d’un Israélite de Notre Temps” (1878).
The Sisters of Sion changed their position and theology in the light of the Shoah, anticipating the changes in the Catholic Church in Vatican 2. This is described below by Emma Green, and the articles of Charlotte Klein. This change in the position of the order does not minimise or ignore the vision and contribution of the original founders, but seeks to build on it in more appropriate ways, which Messianic Jews will find both positive and negative, as has been the experience of this writer. For the life, vision, calling and works of service of the Ratisbonne brothers we give thanks.
“Rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the Lord.
“And many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me unto thee.” [Zech. 2:10–11]
Thank you Lord for the calling and commitment of the Ratisbonne brothers to the Messiah and his people. Help us to learn to serve as they did, and to explore ways today in which we can be relevant and servant hearted among your people Israel. In our Messiah’s name we pray. Amen.
The Jewish Encyclopedia, X; Currier, History of Religious Orders; Vapereau, Dictionnaire des Contemporains; Larousse, Grand Dictionnaire Universel; Hogan, Irish Monthly, XII; M. Th. Ratisbonne (Paris, 1904)
The name of the institute, which is rather long – Christian Centre for Jewish Studies; St. Pierre de Sion (Ratisbonne) – describes its aim. The last part “St.Pierre de Sion (Ratisbonne)” expresses its continuity with the original foundation – the Religious of Notre Dame de Sion. The Fathers of Notre Dame de Sion together with the Sisters founded the institute St. Pierre de Sion, which is now a centre for Jewish Studies. The name “Ratisbonne” recalls the founding fathers of the two religious communities. It is well known that they were Jews who became Catholic priests and founded the Congregations of Our Lady of Sion whose apostolic thrust was originally the conversion of the Jews. However, keeping the name Ratisbonne does not mean carrying on the original aim of conversions. This has been explicitly removed from the Constitutions of both groups and, precisely because they have rejected it, they do not wish either to forget or disguise that original aim which has undergone radical change. It is a question of recognising that we are heirs of a past of which we accept the consequences in order to make amends for mistakes, retain its values and adapt them for a new era. These include an esteem for the Word of God in Scripture, love for the Jewish People, participating in their sorrows and joy, struggling against anti-Semitism. Absent in the past was an appreciation of Jewish religious life, of the mission and witness of the Jewish people, of their fidelity to the covenant, of their authentic seeking after God through study, prayer and the commandments, of their return to God and to Zion in repentance and their expectation of the Messiah. We are constantly reminded of this past and of. the need to change at Ratisbonne. We much prefer a few difficulties from time to time with some Jewish friends rather than to forget or disown the past (1).
Charlotte Klein, NDS, “From Conversion to Dialogue – The Sisters of Sion and the Jews: A Paradigm of Catholic-Jewish Relations?”, Journal of Ecumenical …
Developing Dialogue: The Congregation of Our Lady of Sion and Nostra Aetate, 1945-1969 By Emma Green
The Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion was founded in France in 1843 by Theodore Ratisbonne, a Jewish convert to Catholicism. Started as a small teaching community of women in Paris, the Congregation had established a community of women in Jerusalem within a decade and a corresponding men’s congregation in France. The heart of the Jerusalem community still lies in the Ecce Homo convent and Basilica, purposefully built on the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus is believed to have walked to his crucifixion. At Ecce Homo and all over the world, the sisters fulfill their unique vocation: fostering dialogue between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.
From the beginning, the main work of the sisters was educating young Muslim, Christian, and Jewish girls, while much of their prayer focused on the conversion of the Jewish people and reparation for their refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah. However, their approach toward the Jewish people was one of sympathy and understanding, a less common trait in the Church in the nineteenth century. After the Holocaust, internal shifts moved the Order toward their present focus on dialogue. Many of the Sisters were involved in rescue work during the Holocaust, and in the two decades following this heroic effort, the Sisters re-articulated their mission based on their experiences in the rapidly changing 20th century.
Sion’s shift is remarkable, because it pre-dated the Church’s own document on Jewish relations and dialogue, Nostra Aetate, by at least a decade.1 Indeed, in his speech to the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion in January 1964, Cardinal Augustin Bea spoke of the first drafts of Nostra Aetate and the “particular vocation” of Sion that was “more urgently needed than ever.”2 The Congregation of Our Lady of Sion held a distinctive vocation in the Church during a time of significant doctrinal change, and their work for and with the Jewish people is an excellent illustration of efforts at Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council.