For many of our non-Catholic friends it is an anomaly. Some even consider it borderline idolatry. But, for Catholics the veneration of the Jewish girl who became the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God is a practice that began in the early centuries of the Church. There is even a special word for this: hyperdulia – reverence reserved for the Blessed Virgin Mary. This reverence is manifested in the countless titles the Church has bestowed on Mary throughout the centuries.
As the Ratisbonne literature states, the Holy Land is a small area of land where all the Christian denominations are to be found.
Catholics in this country know that under the honorific ‘Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception’ Mary is the patroness of the United States. Indeed, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (the largest church in the Americas), testifies to this honor. Many acquainted with the medal of the Immaculate Conception (the ‘miraculous medal’) are familiar with its provenance, the vision of the Blessed Mother to Saint Catherine Laboure in Paris in 1830.
What is not so well known is the story of Alphonse. Ratisbonne, born in 1814 in Strasburg, France, into a wealthy Jewish family. According to biographical accounts Ratisbonne was known for his disdain for Catholicism even though (or perhaps because) one of his brothers had converted and been ordained a priest. However, in 1842 in Rome, through the intercession of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Ratisbonne received a vision of the Blessed Mother – an experience which radically altered his life and led him into the priesthood. He eventually went to Jerusalem where he was responsible for the creation of several religious establishments to which the Ratisbonne Institute today can indirectly trace its lineage.
Earlier this year the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome erected the Saints Peter and Paul Center of Studies on the prestigious Ratisbonne premises in Jerusalem as an English language section of the School of Theology of the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome. The purposes for this pontifical post-graduate program are to continue to educate Catholics and others from around the world in Jewish studies and to augment the religious dialogue and enhance the academic and scientific status of Judeo-Christian studies.
As the Ratisbonne literature states, the Holy Land is a small area of land where all the Christian denominations are to be found. Studying theology in Jerusalem encourages the development of ecumenical sensitivity whereby consideration for other monotheistic religions comes easily. Of course, studies and programs are richly enhanced by the proximity of the actual places and locations mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. One can imagine how scholars from separate religious traditions who , together, study the same ancient material develop a deep and mutual respect.
Surely, more than any other the Blessed Mother is a proponent of this inter-religious sensitivity. Did she have the Ratisbonne Institute in mind a century and a half ago when she changed so radically the life of the young Alphonse? In different ways and places the Kingdom advances at different paces.