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The Life of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska: Apostle of Divine Mercy

DM 101: Week 43

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 30, 2006)
In order to understand the life of St. Maria 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, and he was born in Vilnius in 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. The Archbishop recognized his academic brilliance and pastoral zeal, and soon gave him many tasks to do for the Church. He was also awarded a chair in Pastoral Theology at the local university. Thus, Fr. Michael Sopocko was a learned, energetic, and well-respected priest when, in 1933, he was appointed to be the usual 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 at the convent, a sister entered the confessional by the name of Sr. Faustina of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Fr. Sopocko had heard her confessions 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):

In the evening, when I was in my cell, I saw the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment. One hand [was] raised in the gesture of blessing, the other was touching the garment at the breast. From beneath the garment, slightly drawn aside at the breast, there were emanating two large rays, one red, the other pale. In silence I kept my gaze fixed on the Lord; my soul was struck with awe, but also with great joy. After a while, Jesus said to me, Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You. I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and [then] throughout the world. I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. ... I am offering people a vessel with which they are to keep coming for graces to the fountain of mercy. That vessel is this image. ... By means of this image I will grant many graces to souls.

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. 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 who would help her to fulfill God's will in these matters. In fact, Jesus had given her a vision of this priest, 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 whole 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 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 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 against authenticity in the case of Sr. Faustina. Hence, Fr. Sopocko did what any devout and prudent pastor would do in such a circumstance: 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 turns 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 Faustina (Helena Kowalska) was brought up in a family of peasant farmers, and although she had loved her parents dearly, without their permission and without a penny to her name she 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. 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 then torn within himself. Evidently, this sister who had reported to him 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 judgement. 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 conversations 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. Some years later, he wrote:

I was amazed that she, a simple nun, with hardly any education, and without the time to read ascetic works, could speak so knowledgeably of theological matters, and such [difficult] ones as the mystery of the Holy Trinity, or the Divine Mercy and other attributes of God, with the expertise of a consummate theologian.

(This series continues next week on the Divine Mercy spirituality of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska).