The Divine Mercy (Parts 1 and 2)
These two articles first appeared in Spirituality, a journal published by Dominican Publications, 42 Parnell Square, Dublin 1. Jan/Feb, n.34, March/April n.35 2001. For further information see www.dominicanpublications.com
In order to understand the life of Saint Faustina Kowalska, and the remarkable spread of her devotion to the Divine Mercy throughout the world, it helps to begin by learning the story of someone else: a priest. His name was Fr Michael Sopocko, who was born in Vilnius, Poland (now Lithuania) in 1888. Ordained a diocesan priest in 1914, he joined the Polish army as a military chaplain during the first world war. After the war, he continued his studies, and obtained a doctorate in theology at the age of 35. Fr Sopocko quickly became a favorite of his archbishop who recognized his academic brilliance and pastoral zeal, and soon gave him many tasks to do. He was also awarded a chair in Pastoral Theology at the local university. Thus, Michael Sopocko was a learned, energetic, and well-respected priest when in 1933, he was appointed to be confessor to the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Vilnius. Little did he know that the Lord was about to turn his life upside-down in the most supernatural way.
One day, when Fr Sopocko was hearing confessions, a sister named Sr Maria Faustina of the Most Blessed Sacrament entered the confessional. Fr Sopocko had heard her confession before, and he had admired her honesty and her love for Jesus. But this time he was completely stunned by what she had to say. She told him (Diary, entries 47-48, 327, and 742):
At this point in the story, it helps to imagine oneself in the place of Fr Sopocko. Sr Faustina was in his confessional pouring out this tale about an apparition of the Lord Jesus, and Jesus was supposedly asking for a new image of himself to be painted and venerated throughout the world. And so Fr Sopocko asked her the obvious question: could she paint? No, she said, she could not paint – and even if she could paint, how could she possibly disseminate the image ‘throughout the world,’ as Jesus supposedly had commanded? After all, she was a religious sister, confined mostly to the convent. The whole thing sounded terribly improbable. As a result, Fr Sopocko was not inclined to believe her at first, and wondered whether she might be imagining things, or whether she had simply misinterpreted the Lord’s message to her.
Then the situation became worse. The religious sister later went on to tell him that one of her previous confessors would not believe her, but that Jesus had told her not to worry, because he was going to send her a confessor one day who would help her. In fact, Jesus had given her a vision, and the priest in that vision had looked just like him – Fr Sopocko – and that was why she was confiding all these things to him now. Moreover, Jesus not only wanted a new image of himself to be painted, and spread throughout the world; he also wanted a new feast day in the liturgical calendar: a Feast of the Divine Mercy, to be celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter by the Church universal.
Once again, we can imagine ourselves in Fr Sopocko’s predicament. On the one hand, he knew very well that the Lord does, on rare occasions, give extraordinary private revelations and prophecies to chosen souls for the good of the whole Church. In the 17th century, for example, St Margaret Mary received from Jesus himself the special revelations of his Sacred Heart. These revelations were meant to rekindle in the hearts of the faithful an appreciation of his ardent, tender love for souls, in an age in which an arid rationalism – if it did not destroy belief in God altogether – portrayed him merely as the indifferent ‘Watchmaker’ of the universe (Deism) or as the Supreme Governor of a system of strict justice and predestination (Jansenism, Calvinism). Sometimes, God does indeed send prophetic revelations to his Church to return his people to the truths of the gospel.
On the other hand, Fr Sopocko knew that for every such authentic revelation or prophesy, there are many false ones. Besides, given the obvious practical difficulties in fulfilling the Lord’s alleged requests this time, the odds seemed all against authenticity in the case of Sr Faustina. Hence, he did what any devout and prudent pastor would do in such a situation: he inquired about Sr Faustina’s character with the superiors of her religious order, and he also sent her to a psychiatrist, for a complete mental health exam.
It turned out that the psychiatrist who examined Sr Faustina gave a positive opinion that she was in perfect mental health. Moreover, the references from Sr Faustina’s superiors were also overwhelmingly positive. They told Fr Sopocko that Sr Faustina (Helena Kowalska) was brought up in a family of peasant farmers, and although she had loved her parents dearly, still, without their permission and without a penny to her name, had journeyed to the mother house of the order in Warsaw to follow a vocation to the religious life. Sr Faustina had then endeared herself to almost everyone because of her cheerfulness, her sincerity, and her hard-working nature. ‘She is a happy child of God,’ one of her superiors said. In fact, her superiors knew that she had a special devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist (hence her chosen religious name: Sr. Maria Faustina of the Most Blessed Sacrament), and they had also helped guide her through ‘the dark night of the soul,’ so they knew she had a deep and rich mystical life as well. In short, they looked upon Faustina as an extraordinary and model sister.
Fr Sopocko was now torn within himself. Evidently, this sister who had reported these extraordinary revelations from Jesus Christ was not only perfectly sane; she was also one of the most prayerful and virtuous nuns in the order. What could he do?
He decided to withhold his judgement. He delayed. He prayed for more light. He also put her to the test. Yet she was always willing to obey him, and she told him that Jesus had expressly commanded her to entrust herself completely to his spiritual direction.
Then Fr Sopocko did a very wise thing, for which future generations will always be grateful. He asked Sr Faustina to begin to write down, in a diary, all the converse between herself and the Lord, beginning from the very first stirrings of the spiritual life within her. This she did under obedience, although she found it very difficult to express herself in writing, since she had barely three semesters of formal education. As a result, she wrote very plainly, and without ornament, like a child.
Nevertheless, Fr Sopocko became more and more astonished at what she was writing down. Some years later, he wrote:
On page after page, the diary of Sr Faustina proclaims the message of God’s merciful love as the very heart of the gospel. It was not a new teaching: just a new expression and a clear focus on the very center of the Catholic Faith – the loving kindness and compassion of God.
In private revelations recorded in her diary, Jesus had spoken to her words such as these (entries 1074, 699, 1485, 1578):
Sr Faustina’s devotional life was driven by her sincere desire to put her complete trust in the Lord’s mercy in every aspect of life. For her, Jesus was ‘Mercy Incarnate,’ and the Lord had given her a mission: to proclaim this message of the Divine Mercy throughout the world, especially by the spread of the Image of Mercy, and the celebration of the Feast of Mercy. Moreover, this message and devotion was to be a fresh call to her, and to all people, to be merciful to one another. Jesus had said to her (entry 1688):
As a result, Sr Faustina was noted in her community for her special care for the poor who came to the convent seeking food, for the sick and infirm, and for the dying. She was also especially beloved of the destitute girls whom the sisters trained and educated in their convents.
Faustina’s devotion to Jesus Christ found its center and well-spring in the Holy Eucharist. As she wrote in her Diary (entries 1392, 1489, 1037, 223):
In short, for Sr Faustina the Eucharist is the fountain of all graces because the merciful Jesus is uniquely present there, Mercy Incarnate, and he pours out all his graces upon us from his merciful Heart.
Faustina regarded the Mother of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the most trustworthy guide to the heart of her Son. She therefore consecrated to the Mother of God all her concerns (entry 79):
It would be fair to say, therefore, that three words – Mercy, Eucharist, and Mary – summarize the very essence of the spiritual teaching to be found in Sr Faustina’s diary. The more that Fr Sopocko read of all this, as it flowed from her pen week by week, the more impressed he became by this message.
However, he was still not entirely convinced of the authenticity of her revelations. After all, Fr Sopocko was a well-trained theologian, and some of the things that Sr Faustina wrote were so striking that he wondered whether they were entirely orthodox.
First of all, Faustina claimed that Jesus had insisted that God is not only merciful to sinners – in fact, in a sense he is even more merciful to sinners than to the just. Faustina wrote (entry 1507):
Jesus said to her (entry 1146):
Clearly, the message of Christ to Sr Faustina was a message of extravagant love. He said he pours out a whole ocean of graces upon contrite souls who come to him with trust – even more than they ask. In fact, he has a special compassion for the very worst sinners, just because they are most in need of his mercy.
Fr Sopocko was most amazed, however, by one of our Lord’s messages to Sr Faustina above all the others. Consequently, he made it the final testing-ground of the authenticity of all her revelations. This testing-ground was the claim that ‘mercy is the greatest attribute of God.’ Jesus had actually said this to Faustina several times, but one time he said it in a message which was intended directly for Fr Sopocko – which certainly made him pay close attention! Jesus said to her (entry 300):
Fr Sopocko’s response to this message is found in his own recollections, written some years later. He wrote:
With all reasonable doubt removed, therefore, Fr Sopocko began putting the Lord’s requests to Faustina into action. First, he commissioned an image of the Divine Mercy to be painted. Then for the Sunday after Easter, 1935, he had this image displayed over the famous Ostra Brama gate to the city of Vilnius, and in the nearby church he preached the message of mercy to the Catholic populace. Sr Faustina was given permission to be there, too, and towards the end of the service, when the priest took the Blessed Sacrament to bless the people, she saw the Lord Jesus himself, as he is represented in the Image of Mercy, and Christ himself gave his blessing, and the rays from his heart extended over the whole world.
This event marks the beginning of the spread of the great devotion to the Divine Mercy, a devotion which is now having such a profound impact upon the Church in our time. However, at first it did not spread rapidly. Rather, it spread slowly and steadily all over Poland, assisted by the grace of God in the hearts of the people.
Fr Sopocko actually saw very little of Sr Faustina after that great exposition of the Image of Mercy at the Ostra Brama gate. She remained in Vilnius for another year, but then she was transferred to Cracow. Nevertheless, she remained in contact with Fr Sopocko, and continued to write her diary: now not so much for him, but as Jesus said, she was to be the ‘apostle’ and ‘secretary’ of his mercy for the whole world.
Sr Faustina lived only two more years. Her body was gradually ravaged by tuberculosis, and she was not spared any of the terrible sufferings caused by that disease in its final stages. The last chapter in her life became one of extreme suffering, and she offered up all her sufferings, in union with Christ’s Passion, for sinners who have lost hope in God’s mercy, and especially those near to death. She prayed (entry 908):
And Jesus responded to her prayers (entry 1184):
Fr Sopocko visited her in September 1938, just ten days before she died. He always brought her news of the printing and dissemination of the image, and the spread of the devotion. But this time she had very little to say. As he later recalled, she was just too busy ‘communing with her heavenly Father.’
Sr Faustina died on October 5, 1938, but her mission was far from over. In fact, it was only just beginning. ‘My mission will not come to an end upon my death,’ she had said in her diary, ‘[for] I will draw aside for you the veils of heaven to convince you of God’s goodness’ (entry 281).
Throughout World War II, the people of Poland turned more and more to the Image of Mercy, and to the prayers called the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, to give them comfort and hope in the midst of the raging conflict, and the horrors of the Nazi occupation.
One Polish priest, Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski, in danger of death, made a dramatic escape across Stalin’s Russia and Fascist Japan, promising the Lord that if he made it to safety in the USA, he would spend the rest of his life spreading the mercy message. In fact, almost miraculously Fr. Jarzebowski did make it to safety (without proper traveling visas!), and, true to his word, in 1944 he and his associates in the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception established “The Mercy of God Apostolate” on Eden Hill in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, now the U.S. National Shrine of The Divine Mercy.
Meanwhile, Fr. Sopocko was busy himself spreading the devotion, and in the process suffering much ridicule and loss of his reputation. The hardest blow, however, came in 1959, when the Vatican, having received erroneous and confusing translations of the diary of Sr. Faustina, forbade the spreading of the Mercy devotion in the forms proposed by her. That ban would last a full twenty years. Fr. Sopocko, however, consoled himself with the knowledge that all this was in fulfilment of a prophecy made by Sr. Faustina long before. She had written (entry 378):
In 1965 the Archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla, knowing full well that the Vatican had received faulty translations of her diary, began the official process of investigation into Sr. Faustina’s life and virtues. He asked one of Poland’s leading theologians, Fr. Ignacy Rózycki, to prepare a critical analysis of her diary as part of that process. Fr. Rózycki, however, did not really want to waste his time analyzing what rumor told him were just the hallucinations of an uneducated nun. Yet just before sending his letter of refusal to the Archbishop, he picked up the diary and casually began to read a few pages “just to pass the time.” His prejudice against it was immediately shaken. Then he read the whole thing through, and afterwards he decided to devote the rest of his life to the study and propagation of her message.
In 1979, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, having received the results of Fr. Rózycki’s research, as well as more accurate translations of the Diary, informed the Marian order that the ban on Sr. Faustina’s devotion had finally been lifted. In a letter explaining this decision, the Congregation wrote:
Finally, there it was: the “Nihil Obstat” from the Vatican itself! A few months later, that same Cardinal Archbishop of Cracow who had initiated this process, Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II.
Still, the lifting of a ban is not yet the Church’s full, positive approval and encouragement - a process which usually happens more gradually. Meanwhile, with the ban rescinded, the Image, the Diary, the Chaplet, the celebrating of the Feast day, and the Three O’Clock Hour of Mercy prayers spread quickly throughout the world.
The Chaplet especially became very popular. Here was a form of prayer invoking God’s mercy upon the whole world, and extending the Eucharistic offering of Jesus Christ, with an intercessory intention (entry 476):
In fact, Jesus had attached the most extraordinary promises to the sincere and devout recitation of this Chaplet. As he said to Sr. Faustina (entries 1541, 687, 1731):
In the mid- 1980’s, for example, the people of the Philippines turned as a nation to The Divine Mercy through a daily nationwide broadcast of the Three O’Clock Hour of Mercy prayers and the Chaplet. They pleaded with the Lord for a peaceful and just settlement of their national conflict. Almost miraculously, a non-violent revolution did take place, and a democracy was restored to that poor, yet faithful country.
Meanwhile, convincing evidence of a miracle of healing attributed to Sr. Faustina’s intercession removed the last obstacle to the recognition of her sanctity by the universal Church. As a result, on April 18, 1993, on the Sunday after Easter (Mercy Sunday), she was given the title “Blessed” at a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In his homily at that beatification, the Holy Father exclaimed:
On January 23, 1995, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship granted to the bishops of Poland - the first group of bishops to make the request - the right to celebrate the liturgical Feast of Mercy on the Sunday after Easter, the very day in the liturgical calendar that the Lord had requested of Sr. Faustina. Then on the Sunday after Easter, 1995, the Holy Father himself celebrated “Mercy Sunday” in the city of Rome, establishing at the same time an international center for the devotion at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Sassia (just a few hundred yards away from St. Peter’s Basilica) and blessing an image of The Divine Mercy for that church.
If there still remained doubt in anyone’s mind about the general approval of this message and devotion by the See of St. Peter, that doubt was removed by the Pope’s visit to the tomb of Bl. Faustina near Cracow in the summer of 1997, and by the remarkable address he delivered there at the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. In that address he not only explained the importance of this message and devotion to all souls seeking for God, he also told of how important it has been to him personally, in his own spiritual journey:
Clearly, on almost every occasion that Pope John Paul II has spoken of Sr. Faustina, or about the Divine Mercy message and devotion, he has stressed that this is a remedy especially suited to meet the critical needs of our age. In a world in which, at times, darkness seems to be enveloping almost everything, a world now full to overflowing with apostasy, the persecution of Christians, the breakdown of the family, the exploitation of the poor, the murder of unborn children, and the horrors of ethnic cleansing, where indeed, if not to The Divine Mercy and compassion, can the world turn to find refuge and the light of hope?
As the human race wanders further and further away from its Savior, He has not abandoned it to its fate, nor failed to find new ways to bring His lost sheep home. Every aspect of the Divine Mercy message and devotion which He fashioned proclaims loud and clear the same gospel message: God is not just waiting patiently for the world to come back to Him! Rather, His Mercy always takes the initiative - without any merit or deserving on our part - and seeks us out and finds us.
The Image of The Divine Mercy revealed to Sr. Faustina is a vivid expression of this gospel message. Everything about this Image speaks of the risen Lord taking the initiative, and seeking out the lost and the brokenhearted with the rays of His merciful love. In this Image Christ is shown walking toward the viewer, coming to find us; the rays of merciful love flowing from His Heart spread out to embrace the viewer, and His hand is raised with a blessing of peace even before we ask for it. In an age in which the visual image - whether through television, films, or the computer screen - has become the most powerful medium of communication, Jesus Christ has fashioned for us an image of Himself that awakens our trust in Him and calms our fears. As He once said to Sr. Faustina (entry 1485):
The Feast of Mercy proclaims this same gospel message. It is not a new feast. According to St. Augustine, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and The Apostolic Constitutions, the early Church celebrated the Sunday after Easter, or Octave Day of Easter, as a great feast day (called in the West “Dominica in Albis” - the Sunday in White). It was a rounding out of the eight days of Easter celebrations, and a day that St. Augustine called “the compendium of the days of mercy.” In other words, on this day the Church gives thanks to God for His merciful love shining through all the great acts by which He won our salvation, especially the Cross and Resurrection of His Son. As Pope John Paul II said in his Regina Caeli address on Mercy Sunday, 1995, “the whole Octave of Easter is like a single day,” and the Octave Sunday is meant to be a day of “thanksgiving for the goodness God has shown man in the whole Easter mystery.” For this reason, the opening prayer, psalms, and lessons appointed for that Sunday already proclaim the message of Mercy, and did not need to be changed for the official institution of the Feast. The whole of Mercy Sunday is meant to manifest Jesus Christ, reaching out to sinful humanity with His prevenient, unmerited Mercy. As he said to Sr. Faustina (entry 699):
The Chaplet of Divine Mercy also proclaims this message of Mercy. The Chaplet is a pleading for God’s Mercy upon the world, but a pleading upon the basis of God’s supreme act of Mercy for us all, namely, His “sorrowful Passion.” Although not first in time, on the linear scale of human history, yet the Cross is first in the order of grace, for it is the basis for all the graces that the Lord has poured out upon humanity, past, present, and future. “While we were yet sinners,” St. Paul wrote, “Christ died for us.” While we were still sinners - the perfect expression of prevenient, undeserved Divine Mercy.
Finally, God’s mercy is not only meant to be received with trust: it is also to be shared through love. The practice of the works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal, are the goal and fruit of this devotion, as well as a gospel command: “Be merciful even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). Sr. Faustina knew very well that it is only hearts that have been transformed by the mercy of Jesus Christ that are fully equipped to share it with others, and so she prayed constantly for the gift of a merciful heart (entry 692):
Here is the divine remedy for a world full of cold-hearts and broken-hearts: the Merciful Heart of Jesus, which can transform human hearts so that they become “living reflections” of His own (entry 163). With approximately one billion people now living in the most abject material poverty, and billions more living under the reign of false and oppressive ideologies, surely, the time is right for the advent of a worldwide apostolate of Mercy, fashioned by Christ’s own Merciful Heart. This is also the earnest plea of Pope John Paul II, who asked the faithful on Mercy Sunday, 1995, to “trust in the Lord and be Apostles of Divine Mercy, and follow the invitation of Bl. Faustina.”
Bl. Faustina was canonized at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on Mercy Sunday, 2000. She was the first new saint of the third millennium. May it be a millennium of Divine Mercy: St. Faustina, pray for us!
Robert A. Stackpole, S.T.D.