Photo: Sisters of Merciful Jesus
'A Priest After My Own Heart'
Sanctity is infectious. If your heart is open, you can catch it merely from being around people who are already on the road to holiness. In fact, saints sometimes catch it — and increase it — from being with each other.
Think of those many saints down through history who have encouraged and aided each other along the path to heaven: St. Francis and St. Clare; St. Monica, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine; St. Margaret Mary and St. Claude De La Colombiere; St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. We often think of St. Faustina's spiritual director, Fr. Michael Sopocko, as merely the primary witness of her sanctity, and as an instrument for the painting of the Image of The Divine Mercy. But he was so much more than that. He was a true guide for her soul and a man of enormous wisdom and courage — so much so that the Church beatified him in 2008. In other words, Bl. Fr. Michael Sopocko was not just an appendage of St. Faustina. As we shall see, he was a man of sanctity in his own right, a great theologian of The Divine Mercy, and one of the principal instruments that our Lord used to fashion the soul of Sr. Faustina.
Michael Sopocko was born in what is now Lithuania in 1888 to noble family, but one afflicted by considerable poverty. His family worked out in the fields and barely scraped together enough to survive. Yet they were a deeply devout Catholic family as well, and Michael sensed a call to the priesthood even as a child. Through the generosity of the rector of the seminary in Vilnius, he was able to study there for four years and was ordained to the priesthood in 1914.
At his first assignment as a parish priest he became active in the field of education and attempted to open new schools for children in rural villages in his area, but the authorities of the German occupation gradually tightened restrictions on his activities, and eventually he was forced to leave.
In 1918, he began to study for a degree in theology at the University of Warsaw, in Poland, but the worsening situation of World War I forced him to delay, and he signed up as a military chaplain instead, serving first as a chaplain to the Polish army in a field hospital. After only a month, however, he requested to be sent to the front lines to serve the soldiers who were in the thick of the fighting. In addition to saying Mass, hearing confessions, and anointing the dying, Fr. Michael found himself called upon to care for the wounded in the absence of adequate hospital facilities. After succumbing to illness, he was posted to a training camp for military officers, where his talks on religious and patriotic themes were so highly regarded they were published by the Ministry of Defense and used for instructing cadets in all military units. He also did his best to resume his theological studies, and he organized the founding of a school for orphaned children from military families. In 1923, he finally received his master's degree in theology and later wrote a thesis on the deleterious effects of alcoholism on school-aged youth.
The Bishop of Vilnius at the time recognized Fr. Michael's academic brilliance and pastoral zeal, and so appointed him director of military chaplaincy for the entire Vilnius region, giving him responsibility for the pastoral care of more than 10,000 soldiers in the region. About the same time, Fr. Michael was working to complete his doctoral and post-doctoral work in theology. In 1927-1928 he was also appointed spiritual director of the seminary in Vilnius, and head of the Pastoral Theology department at Vilnius University — extra duties that caused him to withdraw from military chaplaincy work.
In all this, what do we see in Fr. Michael? Our Lord had fashioned him by poverty and hardship into a character of extraordinary toughness, perseverance, and courage, as well as great compassion for the suffering. Although he was not aware of it at the time, all of these were virtues he would need in abundance when he was appointed in 1932 to be the usual confessor to the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Vilnius. There, he met a most extraordinary holy soul and visionary named Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska — "and the rest," we may say, "is history."
Most of the readers of our website, thedivinemercy.org, know the story of Fr. Sopocko's dealings with St. Faustina — how he tested her, encouraged and guided her in the years that followed. What some do not know, however, are the things that St. Faustina wrote about him in her Diary — including statements made by Jesus Himself about Fr. Michael that St. Faustina recorded for us. For example, in entry 1256 Jesus said to her: "He [Fr. Michael] is a priest after My own Heart; his efforts are pleasing to Me. ... Through him it pleases Me to proclaim the worship of My mercy." In entry 1408 Jesus said: "His thought is closely united with Mine, so be at peace about what concerns My work. I will not let him make a mistake. ..." And in entry 1390 St. Faustina stated: "As a result of his efforts, a new light will shine in the Church of God for the consolation of souls."
These extraordinary accolades were not only a confirmation to St. Faustina that she could put her complete trust in his spiritual guidance but also a prophecy of the tremendous role that his efforts and writings would play in the spread of the Divine Mercy message and devotion in the decades to follow.
After St. Faustina's death, and during the early years of World War II, Fr. Michael worked tirelessly to research and make the case for the establishment of the Feast of The Divine Mercy. He also never lost an opportunity to preach about God's merciful love. For example, during Lenten devotions his homilies on Divine Mercy in Vilnius Cathedral drew huge crowds from all over the city. As Fr. Michael was also assisting Jews at the time, both spiritually and materially, to help them survive Nazi persecution, he was in increasing danger, and was even incarcerated by the Gestapo for several days while they investigated his activities. In March of 1942, the Nazis began to round up all of the priests in Vilnius for deportation to concentration camps. Forewarned by his housekeeper that the Gestapo had laid a trap to capture him in his apartment, he fled for refuge to an Ursuline convent, where the Sisters sheltered him as he lay in hiding. For two years, he worked on the property as a gardener and carpenter under the assumed name Waclaw Rodziewicz.
In 1944 as pressure on Vilnius from the war eased, Fr. Sopocko returned to his duties at the seminary, but it was not long before persecution from the Communist authorities forced him to leave Lithuania altogether and relocate to Bialystok, in Poland. There, he helped to found the religious order now known as the Sisters of the Merciful Jesus. He also began teaching again, this time at the seminary in Bialystok.
Father Michael's main concern, however, was the spread of the message and devotion to The Divine Mercy, and to this cause he devoted most of the rest of his life. A brilliant theologian, he pondered deeply the message of mercy proclaimed throughout Holy Scripture and in the Church's theological tradition, especially in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 1958, he suffered damage to a facial nerve that made it difficult for him to give public talks to large audiences, and in 1962 he was injured in a car accident — all of which made it necessary for him to retire from most of his teaching and priestly duties. But he certainly did not retire from his zeal for promotion of The Divine Mercy (remember: this guy was tough!). From 1959-1962, he published a four volume magnum opus entitled The Mercy of God in His Works, a study of the theme of Divine Mercy in scripture and in theology that became a classic in the field (it was translated and published in both French and English). From 1959 onward, he also suffered from the temporary decision of the Holy See, based on a faulty translation of Sr. Faustina's Diary into Italian, to put a ban on the message and devotion in the forms proposed by her, a ban that would last 20 years. But Fr. Michael never lost hope, and he was encouraged that an official investigation into Sr. Faustina's life and virtues was started under the oversight of the young Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, in 1965 (the future Pope John Paul II).
Father Michael died in his simple bedroom in Bialystok on Feb. 15, 1975, on the day of the commemoration of St. Faustin, the patron saint of Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska.
What would it have been like to sit in Bl. Fr. Michael Sopocko's classes at those seminaries in Vilnius and Bialystok and learn about the mysteries of Divine Mercy from him? What would it have been like to have him as your spiritual director, and listen to his words of guidance, challenge, and encouragement as he pointed out to you the path to ever-greater holiness? Thousands of soldiers and seminarians did just that — and so did St. Faustina.
Over the next year, in this column, we are going to sit at the feet (so to speak) of this awesome servant of God, this "priest after My own Heart," as Jesus called him, and let him show us the way to a deeper knowledge of God's merciful love, and a deeper entrustment to His merciful Heart. In other words, we are going to put our souls into the spiritual care of Bl. Fr. Michael Sopocko.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).