Ein Karem, Israel: Church of the Visitation & Church of John the Baptist
Ein Kerem is a few miles west of Jerusalem and is the traditional home of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband Zechariah. Mary went “into the hill country, to a city of Judah (Luke 1:39)” to visit Elizabeth. It was here that Mary spent three months when Elizabeth was pregnant and, of course, is the birthplace of John the Baptist. Once you have visited here, then any time you are praying the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary you will no doubt call Ein Kerem to mind when you get to the second mystery.
The Church of the Visitation (also known as the Abbey Church of St. John in the Woods) is a few steps from the main road of the village and inside the courtyard you will see the Magnificat spelled out in over 40 different languages. Although modern-day Jerusalem is growing toward the town, it still remains quite small and rural.
The Church of Saint John the Baptist is a relatively new building (about 18th Century), but it is built on the remains of two chapels that date from approximately the Fifth Century. Inside the church it is quite dark, the main interest being the Grotto of the Benedictus–reputed to be part of the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah and therefore the birthplace of John the Baptist.
There is a plaque under the main altar in the Church that marks the traditional birthplace of John the Baptist.
In addition, you will find the grave of Alphonsus Ratisbonne. He was a former Jew who became a Christian and helped to convert many Jews to Christianity. After his own sudden conversion, he wanted to help other Jews to convert. Alphonse had proposed to his brother the founding of schools for providing a Christian education to Jewish children. The Pope gave his blessing and authorization for this mission. He founded the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion in 1847, the first members being two Jewish sisters who converted to Catholicism and committed themselves to the education of Jewish children in a Christian setting. Not long after Alphonse’s ordination in 1850 as a Jesuit priest, he left his Order to join his brother in their shared vision. In 1852 Theodore and Alphonse led the small community of men who had gathered to share in the work to form a new congregation, the male branch of the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion.
The Ratisbonne brothers obtained permission to work as missionaries in Jerusalem. There Alphonse went to establish a convent for the Sisters to carry out their mission in the heart of the Jewish homeland.