A Special Apostolate in Sion

by Norman A. Rubin

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They have come to Jerusalem from twelve countries around the world, including Turkey and Sweden. At their convents the Mass is sometimes celebrated in Hebrew, and they can bargain in fluent Arabic. They provide shelter for tourists, and they produce some of the finest honey in the Holy Land.

The Sisters of Our Lady of Sion are a unique Catholic community, dedicated to reminding Christians that their faith has Jewish roots. In 1984, the sisters celebrated the centenary of the deaths of their founders, Father Marie-Theodore Ratisbonne and his brother, Father Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne. The brothers themselves were converts from Judaism.

Born in the Alsace region of France in 1802, Theodore was baptized secretly because of his family’s bitter opposition. Alphonse was deeply hurt by his brother’s conversion, but 15 years later he too entered the Church, converted by a miraculous apparition of the Blessed Virgin in Rome.

Both brothers took the name Marie at baptism and were later ordained to the priesthood. They collaborated in founding two religious orders to engage in a special apostolate on behalf of the Jewish people: the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion in 1843 and the Fathers of Sion in 1852. Today the congregations seek to promote understanding between Jews and Christians.

In 1855 Alphonse traveled to Palestine, where he spent the rest of his life working among Jews and Moslems. He founded two houses for the Sisters of Sion, Ecce Homo and Ein Karem, and one community of priests, Ratisbonne.

About 20 sisters live at the Ecce Homo Convent on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. A guest house and a youth hostel take up a large portion of the 120-year-old convent’s premises. Staying at Ecce Homo, however, means more than just room and board. Sister Donna, the superior of the community, explains that most guests have no real opportunity for contact with many aspects of daily life in the country.

“We want this place to serve as a kind of window on Jerusalem and the Holy Land,” she says. In the evenings, visitors at Ecce Homo can attend lectures by Christian, Jewish and Moslem speakers who discuss the land, its history, and its myriad problems.

Every year, some 250,000 pilgrims from all parts of the world step across the threshold of Ecce Homo Convent near the site of the Second Station of the Cross. They come to see the flagstoned Roman courtyard preserved in the convent basement. This is the Lithostrotos, mentioned in the Passion according to St. John, where Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd with the words, “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the man.”) Nearby is the place where Pilate pronounced his judgment and washed his hands, declaring himself “innocent of the blood of this just man,” yet delivering him up to be crucified.

It is not possible to fix the precise position of these events, but it is highly probable that the crowning with thorns took place on the flagstones marked by the “game of the king.” It is one of several games cut into the surface of the Lithostrotos by Roman soldiers.

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Tags: Jerusalem Sisters Holy Land Village life Pilgrimage/pilgrims