Photo: Marian archives
Saint Faustina, the non-conformist, during a visit she made to her family. On the right are her parents. To her left, her godparents.
World Youth Day — a six-day celebration of the Catholic faith — began today in Sydney, Australia, with more than 125,000 international visitors expected to attend, under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. The last time the world turned its eyes to Sydney was eight years ago when it was the host city for the summer Olympics.
The athletes of the summer games and the attendees of World Youth Day have at least one important thing in common. Both have embraced the rigors of self-discipline, arguably not the most common trait of youth these days.
One requires the training of body and mind to perform athletic feats that few can do. The other requires the training of the body, mind, and soul to do what all of us are called to do. We are all called to say "yes" to God.
Father Mark Baron, MIC, who is attending World Youth Day with Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, reports how he has met many young people at World Youth Day who are drawn to the faith through St. Faustina. That's not surprising. Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, the Lord's secretary of Divine Mercy, can certainly serve as a model for saying "yes."
She responded to God's call with a freewill decision. She stepped out from the limited scope of expectations her own family and, indeed, her society, had of her, a poor peasant girl with limited education. She responded with guts and pluck, girded by a spiritual regimen of trust.
The third of 10 children, Helen Kowalska felt an abiding attraction to God at an early age. As Sr. Sophia Michalenko, CMGT, writes in her book, The Life of Faustina Kowalska (Servant Books):
When she was seven years old, Helenka experienced an invitation from God to a more perfect life. ... Later in life she commented, "But I did not always obey the call of grace. I did not know anyone who might have explained these things to me."
Even a future saint struggled to obey the call. The young Helen struggled just as we all, at times, struggle. Later, in her teen years, when her parents discouraged her against entering a convent, her disappointment was nearly overpowering. Sister Sophia writes:
Broken in spirit, Helen now decided to abandon the spiritual life and begin "to live a distracted, worldly life," as she called it. She tried not to pay attention to the promptings of God's grace and even made attempts to suppress them by indulging in such pleasures as caring more for her outward appearance, buying fashionable clothing and going to dances with her girlfriends.
Amazing to think that even in her time, in the early 20th century, a child could be be so easily lured away from God toward the assorted — and sordid — attractions of the world. Today, the distractions that compete for our attention have increased probably a thousand-fold. Still, the struggle is essentially the same.
Our bodies and minds struggle with sin, a fire that seeks to forge us and bend us away from God until we're finally hardened, but brittle, and, finally, broken. But we are all made to live in union with Him, which is why the life of sin is never fulfilling. Talk to anyone involved with drugs or pornography or promiscuous sex. You won't find anyone — repeat: anyone — who is truly happy.
The young Helen — the future St. Faustina — never allowed herself to turn her gaze very far from God. Her attempts to suppress the promptings of God failed. The worldly focus of materialism brought only dissatisfaction to her soul.
She was attending a dance with her sister Josephine when the Lord appeared to her. Saint Faustina writes:
While everyone was having a good time, my soul was experiencing deep torment. As I began to dance, I suddenly saw Jesus at my side, Jesus racked with pain, stripped of His clothing, all covered with wounds, who spoke these words to me: How long shall I put up with you and how long will you keep putting Me off? (Diary of St. Faustina, 9)
The Lord told her to go at once to Warsaw and to enter a convent. And that's what she did. It took courage. It took discipline. It took navigating herself through that "narrow gate" that Christ speaks of in the Gospel of Luke, that one in which many will attempt to enter but few will "be strong enough" (13:24).
We know that Helen Kowalska, unlike many of today's youth, had a good head start. She received a strong foundation of faith through her parents. Even as a young child, religious matters occupied her. She loved attending Holy Mass. She cared deeply for the poor. Moreover, she understood that while we are all sinners, we all are called to enter the narrow gate by believing the glorious good news that we are forgiven and can achieve peace and eternal life through Christ.
But even Helen, herself, questioned whether she was strong enough for the challenge. As Sr. Sophia writes:
Helen left for Warsaw with only the set of clothes she was wearing. Her uncle took her to the train station. She was courageous until she sat down in her compartment. Then came the tears. "Mother will say I ran away from home when she finds out about this," she sighed. It made her sad, for she knew that her action would hurt her parents, but she felt more deeply the need to be obedient to Him who she had come to love so much ever since she was a small child of seven.
We know what happens next. She enters the convent. She receives a series of revelations that become the foundation for the modern Divine Mercy movement. We also know, by her example, that when we make the freewill decision to live holy lives, God stands ready to reach out to us, too. He supports us, aids us, and transforms us through His grace.
I imagine the attendees of World Youth Day know this. They know they are called to say "yes." They also know, like St. Faustina knew, that saying "yes" is no cinch. Too many worldly matters seek to turn that "yes" into a "maybe," into a "not right now," into a "what was the question?"
As the largest youth event in the world gets under way, we should pray for the attendees and, indeed, for all the young people of the world, that they may continue to be "non-conformists" so as to conform to the will of God.
It's a "yes" like no other — a "yes" achieved through discipline. What sort of discipline? Saint Faustina's own spiritual life points to a discipline of prayer; of Eucharistic Adoration; of participating in the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice; of daily Scriptural reading; of learning about and embracing Church teachings; of regular participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation; and of the freewill decision to be transformed into living reflections of the Lord's mercy.
Let us pray they remain strong. To be strong means being malleable in His hands, flexible to the plans of God who alone knows what's best for us. To be strong means to remain resolute in our minds so that when He stands before us asking us how long we will keep putting Him off, we can say with the discipline of trust: "I will put you off no more!"