There’s more to Edgardo Mortara’s story than one controversial event

'The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara' by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (Wikimedia)

Having blogged last month about the conversion of the Jewish Edith Stein and her subsequent difficult relationship with her devoutly Jewish mother, I turn to the extraordinary story of another Jewish conversion. This is the tale of Edgardo Mortara, which sparked debate in the 1850s and still does today – as we have seen partly thanks to the recent publication of his memoirs.

It’s easy to see why this book has been controversial. Mortara, born to Jewish parents in Bologna, fell ill as a baby and was on the point of death. His Catholic nursemaid secretly baptised him. After he recovered, Church law dictated that he be raised as a Christian. Pope Pius IX, as ruler of Bologna in the Papal States, tried to arrange for Edgardo to be given a Catholic education. When his parents rejected this possibility, the Pope arranged for the six-year-old to be “sequestered” and brought to Rome.

This caused outrage, and has been hotly debated this year, with writers such as Fr Romanus Cessario defending Pius’s actions and others, including Jeff Mirus, criticising the decision as “absurd”. But one need not take sides in the controversy in order to see Mortara as a fascinating figure in his own right. Whether Pius IX was correct or not, Mortara’s subsequent story shows the mystery of vocation.

In these memoirs, Mortara describes his “sequestration” itself as “a miracle of grace”. Whether one agrees with that or not, Mortara’s description of subsequent events – written, like the rest of the book, in the third person – is a moving account of how grace worked in his life: “He had quickly noticed not only an attraction to Christianity [before he knew he had been baptised it seems he loved visiting Catholic churches with his nursemaid] but also an immediate certainty that he had been impelled towards the goal that he eagerly desired: the Church…”

Mortara writes that although he was naturally sad to leave his parents and family, he had no wish to return to them or their Jewish faith when, soon after his removal to Rome, they followed him and tried to persuade him to come back to them. He writes of his “constant and firm imperturbability” in the face of their pleas.

A secularist might say that Mortara had been brainwashed. Yet reading his memoirs it is hard not to think that he was actually responding fervently and freely to the grace of his baptism. Aged 16 he chose to become a novice in the Order of the Canons Regular among whom he had been educated. Later as a priest he took the name “Father Pio Maria Mortara”; “Pio” after the Pope, at whose funeral in 1878 he wept, and “Maria” because of his devotion to Our Lady.

Scholarly and fluent in several languages, Fr Mortara spent the rest of his long priestly life outside Italy, largely engaged in preaching and evangelising. He often used the details of his own life and conversion as an example of the supernatural operation of God’s grace. He finally settled in Liege, Belgium where he died in 1940 aged 88. Significantly, Liege had a sanctuary to Our Lady of Lourdes, for whom Mortara had always felt a special devotion and affinity, as the Lourdes apparitions occurred in 1858 – the same year that he was taken to Rome and began to live as a Catholic.

He also regularly corresponded with his natural family, resumed good relations with them in adult life and constantly prayed for their conversion – though he always regarded his Catholic nursemaid “as his mother in the supernatural order.”   He never ceased to champion the cause of Pius IX (now beatified) “to whom after God” he wrote, “he owes everything.”

Edgardo Mortara’s Memoirs remind us that the faith and understanding of children cannot be overlooked or dismissed. Indeed, a modern illustration of this can be found in the recent autobiography of Jean-Marie Elie Setbon, From the Kippah to the Cross, in which the author, raised in a non-observant Jewish home, relates how he felt an irresistible attraction as a young boy to the figure of Christ on a crucifix, which he hid in his bedroom. Modern child psychology, dismissive of religious faith, would find this abnormal or incomprehensible. Yet Mortara and Setbon, in their different ways, can teach us something about the humility and openness necessary for conversion and spiritual growth. They give new meaning to Christ’s words, “Unless ye become as little children…”