A Convent Conundrum?

Over the past few months I have received two questions about a most perplexing aspect of the life of St. Faustina. An inquirer named Paul wrote:

Our pastor began to read St. Faustina's Diary, and in a discussion with me one Sunday after Mass said that he might have found a contradiction in the Diary. The pastor said that in one part of the Diary Jesus tells Faustina she must never leave her order/convent, and later on in the Diary Faustina contemplates leaving her order to start a new one. Is this a contradiction?

Another reader of my column, named Kevin, sent in this concern:

Our Blessed Savior promised St. Faustina a new convent during her lifetime, but ... this never became a reality. The anti-Divine Mercy crowd often cites this unfulfilled promise as a way to discredit the Diary.

These are difficult questions, indeed. Why did Jesus tell St. Faustina that she must never leave her convent, only to ask her to do so several years later? Also, why did Jesus make a promise to her that she would be able to leave her convent to found a new religious order - a promise that He did not keep?

Let's deal with the first question. Paul's pastor sees a contradiction between Jesus' express desire for St. Faustina to remain in her convent, and His call to her later to leave her convent and found a new one, as the beginning of a new religious order. A close reading of the text of the Diary, however, makes it clear that Jesus did not say to Faustina that she must never leave her convent and her order, but only that she must not do so at the time she first contemplated leaving, that is, during her postulancy in the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy.

In her Diary, entry 19, after St. Faustina had resolved to inform the Mother Superior of her decision to leave, Jesus appeared to her in a vision, His face tearful and sorrowful, and covered with wounds. He said to her: "It is you who will cause Me this pain if you leave this convent. It is to this place that I called you and nowhere else; and I have prepared many graces for you." Sister Faustina resolved to stay put; but notice that Jesus did not say to her that she must never leave her order for the rest of her life. That would be reading too much into the text.

Now let's look at the second question. Why did Jesus break His promise to her that she would leave her convent to found a new religious order, dedicated exclusively to The Divine Mercy?

On the one hand, it is clear that St. Faustina discerned that Jesus told her on several occasions that His will was for her to leave her convent and start this new order. For example, in Diary entry 435, He promises to her cryptically: "By your entreaties you and your companions shall obtain mercy for yourselves and the world. ... Do not fear; I Myself will make up for everything that is lacking in you." The reader of the Diary is not made aware of what St. Faustina is referring to until the next Diary entry, 436, where she explains: "The secret is this: God demands that there be a Congregation which will proclaim the mercy of God to the world, and by its prayers, obtain it for the world."

In that same entry Jesus says to her: "I desire that there be such a Congregation." In entry 438, Jesus says that He desired that "such a congregation be founded as soon as possible, and you shall live in it together with your companions. My Spirit shall be the rule of your life. Your life is to be modeled on Mine, from the crib to My death on the Cross. Penetrate My mysteries, and you will know the abyss of My mercy toward creatures and My unfathomable goodness - and this you shall make known to the world. Through your prayers you shall mediate between heaven and earth."

Now, it is clear that when Jesus called her to found this new Congregation, and made these promises to her, He knew very well that she was dying of tuberculosis, and that she would never be able to carry out His requests. So what was He up to?

There are two possibilities here:

1) Jesus asked her to found this Congregation not because He really wanted her to do it, but because He wanted her to learn to let go of every last attachment in her heart to earthly possessions and securities, and to learn to completely abandon herself to His will and His plan. Saint Faustina was deeply devoted to her religious order, and the thought of leaving it filled her with sorrow and dread. In other words, Jesus was leading her to a deeper trustful surrender to His will, in somewhat the same way that he led the patriarch Abraham in Genesis 22. God asked Abraham to make a sacrifice of his only and beloved son, Isaac, not because God really wanted Isaac to be sacrificed, but because He wanted to test Abraham and bring him to a deeper surrender of faith.

2) Saint Faustina's discernment of Jesus' request was faulty. She got it partially wrong. Jesus did reveal to her His will for a new Congregation to be founded, but she was mistaken in believing that Jesus had asked her to leave her order and establish the new one herself. This possibility should not shock us: not even the saints of God are infallible in discerning God's will in difficult matters, and there are several indications here that she did get this one wrong. For example, neither her spiritual directors nor her archbishop were convinced that it was God's will that she should leave her order and try to accomplish this task herself. The archbishop asked her to pray for a clear, outward sign of God's will (entry 693), and the only sign she received was the steady worsening of her physical condition. Her principal guide in these matters, Fr. Sopocko, wrote these words about this predicament in his "Recollections":

While she was in Cracow, Sister Faustina in her letters to me frequently raised this subject and asked for my advice ... I counselled caution and recommended that she inform her confessor and her superiors ... At a certain time, Sister Faustina wrote that she had already received permission from her superior general and her confessor, with the condition that I give my permission. I wrote back that for me the permission alone of her superiors was not sufficient for me. I would agree if she received a clear order to leave the congregation, and only in those circumstances. She never did receive such a directive; she remained in her Congregation and died in it.

So, it is possible that Jesus did not actually call St. Faustina to found this new religious order herself, and that her own discernment of His will on this point was clouded. This would not be surprising, since, at the time, her whole body was under severe strain from massive infection by tuberculosis. Moreover, this explanation does not require us to believe that Jesus actually made false promises to Faustina. It is one thing for God to call someone to do something when He actually intends to prevent them from accomplishing it (as He did with Abraham). It is another thing to believe that Jesus would actually make false promises about the future to Faustina as part of His plan for her spiritual growth. Does God tell "white lies"?

On the other hand, at times St. Faustina was absolutely and totally convinced that leaving her order to found a new one is precisely what God wanted her to do:

I had such a clear understanding of the things the Lord was asking of me that truly were I to say that I do not understand what God is demanding from me, I would be lying, because the Lord is making His will known to me so clearly and distinctly that I do not have the least shadow of doubt about them (Diary, 615).

That does not sound like a person whose mind was clouded on the subject!

Well, it is hard to know which of these two explanations best fits all the facts. I lean toward the second explanation myself. But one thing we do know for sure: Jesus really did intend to found a new religious order dedicated to The Divine Mercy through St. Faustina, even if she could not leave the convent herself and establish it in person. I will let Fr. Sopocko tell the rest of this remarkable story, from his own recollections:

When I saw her on her deathbed ... I told her that the demand that she leave her Congregation to found a new one was an illusion and I asked her to pray for that intention. I would come the next day and request an answer.

On the following day I said Mass for this intention, during which some thoughts or interior inspirations came to me, that just as Sister Faustina herself could not paint the image of the Merciful Jesus, so she herself could not found a new congregation. But because of the terrible times approaching, such a congregation was needed.

When in the evening of that day, I visited Sister Faustina again ... I asked her if she could give me an answer to the question I had asked her the day before. Sister Faustina considered for a moment, and then said: "Father, you received an answer today during Mass; I do not need to say anything more."...

When I visited her in the last days of her life in the hospital in Pradnick ... she told me then ... that she had a vision that I was receiving the vows of the first six members of the new congregation in a small wooden chapel. In fact, in 1944 in Vilnius on 16th November I did receive the first private vows from six women who had decided to serve God in the new congregation, and in addition to the usual three vows they made a fourth, to propagate the devotion to the Divine Mercy ... And the vows were made in the wooden Chapel of the Carmelite Sisters ...

She also told me that she saw the first convent of the congregation, a large but poor house, with a great spirit within it and it stood beside a church ... When in 1947, I visited the house of the new congregation (Handmaids of Divine Mercy) in Mysliborz near Gorzow, I saw that everything confirmed what she had said, exactly.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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