…..….. was Divine Mercy Sunday, a solemnity of the Roman Catholic Church celebrated on the Sunday after Easter. The choice of this particular Sunday is not by coincidence considering the first mass during which the image of the Divine Mercy was first displayed was indeed on the occasion of the first Sunday after Easter. Instead it was through a vision received by Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska to whom the image first appeared that Christ Jesus Himself it was, who required the image of the Divine Mercy to be blessed on the Sunday after Easter.
Early Life and Calling
Born on August 25 1905 into a family of ten and named Helenka Kowalska, Faustina was the third child of Stanislaus, a carpenter and Marianna Kowalska. While attending an Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at the age of 7, she wrote that she felt a calling to religious life and wanted to enter the convent after finishing school. Unable to obtain parental permission to follow her calling, she went to work as a housekeeper in Lodz to support herself and her parents. A year passed and despite asking her parents again and on two occasions, she received firm refusals to enter a convent.
At aged 19, Faustina whie attending a dance in a park in Lodz with her sister, Faustina stated that during the course of a dance she had a vision of a suffering Jesus. Rushing away to a church, she reported that she was told by Jesus to leave for Warsaw immediately and join a convent. So she packed a small bag that night and without telling her parents nor knowing anyone in Warsaw, took a train bound for the city the following morning.
Convent, illness and the first vision
While at Warsaw she was referred by a priest at St James’s church in Grójecka Street to some accommodation whilst making her approaches to several convents. Faustina was finally accepted by the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy on the provision that she would pay for her habit. In 1925 she worked for a year as a housemaid, making deposits from her savings until she finally received her habit in 1926 when she took the name ‘ Maria Faustina ’ of the Blessed Sacrament. Faustina was Polish for ‘ fortunate or blessed ’. Two years later in April 1928, Maria Faustina took her first vows as a nun at a ceremony attended by her parents.
Faustina was sent to a convent in Vilnius initially for a year as a cook before being transferred to a convent in Plock in Poland. It was at Plock that Faustina first showed signs of an illness, believed to be tuberculosis which would lead to her demise nearly a decade later. It was also at Plock that Faustina first saw the image of Christ that would lead to her writings on the Divine Mercy.
In 1931, one night while in her room in Plock, dressed in a white garment with rays of white and red light emanating from near his heart, Jesus appeared to Faustina as the ‘ King of Divine Mercy ’. In her diary ( Notebook 1, items 47 and 48 ), Faustina wriote that Jesus told her to paint an image in accordance with the vision before her with the signature ‘ Jesus, I trust in You ’. Jesus also told Faustina how He desired the image to be venerated.
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
Faustina also noted in her diary that Jesus had also told her that he wanted the image of the Divine Mercy to be solemnly blessed on the first Sunday after Easter and that Sunday should be called the Feast of Mercy. Unable to paint nor finding assistance in doing so, it was not until three years later that the first artistic rendering of the image would be made under Faustina’s direction.
Further visions, writings and historical notes
Late in May of 1933, Faustina would again be transferred to Vilnius as a gardener. It was here that she met Father Michael Sopocko, who after making his own investigations, would support her in advising her to maintain a record of all her conversations with and messages from Jesus. It was Fr Sopocko too who introduced Faustina to the artist who would, under her direction, produce the first image of the Divine Mercy, the only painting of the image Faustina herself ever saw. It in 1934 that Faustina recorded a prediction that her message of the Divine Mercy would be suppressed for some time and appear to be ‘ utterly undone ’ before it would gain acceptance again. Item 378 in Faustina’s Notebook 1 bore this interesting inscription
There will come a time when this work, which God is demanding so very much, will be as though utterly undone. And then God will act with great power, which will give evidence of its authenticity. It will be a new splendour for the Church, although it has been dormant in it from long ago.
In September 1935, the year of the first mass of the Divine Mercy, Faustina wrote of a vision about the Chaplet of Divine Mercy in her diary. In the chaplet which was about a third of the length of the Rosary, Faustina wrote that the purpose for the prayers of mercy contained in the chaplet was threefold – to obtain mercy, to trust in Christ’s mercy and to show mercy to others.
By November of that same year, Faustina had written the rules for a new contemplative congregation devoted to Divine Mercy and a month later visited a house in Vilnius which she had seen in a vision as the first convent for the congregation. However she was reminded by Archbishop Jalbrzykowski that she was perpetually vowed to her current order
Faustina’s long time supporter Fr Sopocko wrote the first brochure on the Divine Mercy devotion in the summer of 1936. It carried the image of the Divine Mercy on the cover and Faustina was in receipt of this as her illness took hold. She was moved to Pradnik in Krakow where she would spend most of the final two years of her life in prayer while writing her diaries. In March of the following year, Faustina wrote of a vision that the feast of Divine Mercy would be celebrated in her local chapel in the presence of large crowds and that the same celebration would be held in Rome before the Pope. In July, the first holy cards with the Divine Mercy image were produced and Faustina began at the suggestion of Fr Sopocko to write the instructions for the novena of Divine Mercy which she had reported as a message from Jesus on Good Friday. Throughout the year, much progress was made in promoting the messages of Divine Mercy and a pamphlet with the image of Divine Mercy was published with the title Christ, King of Mercy. In it were the chaplet. Novena and the litany of Divine Mercy.
The passing, beatification and canonisation of Sister Faustina
In April 1938, Faustina’s illness had worsened and she was sent to a sanatorium in Pradnik. However by June she was no longer able to write and Fr Sopocko who visited her wrote of her condition but noted her ecstasy when in prayer. Later in September, Faustina was taken back home to Krakow where she would remain until passing away in October after making her final confession, 13 years after entering the convent. She was buried on October 7 and now rests at the Basilica of Divine Mercy in Krakow.
Before her death, Sr Faustina predicted a terrible war and asked for prayers for Poland. When her prediction of war came true, Archbishop Jalbrzykowski allowed public access to the Divine Mercy image and the size of the crowds attending lef to the Divine Mercy devotion which was a strength and inspiration for many especially during the difficult times of the war. By 1941 the devotion had spread to America where millions of copies of Divine Mercy prayer cards were distributed there and wordwide. Whilst in hiding during the war Fr Sopocko wrote the constitution for the congregation and assisted with the formation of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Divine Mercy. Within 13 years for Faustina’s passing, 150 Divine Mercy centers had already been established in Poland alone. However in 1959 Faustina’s writings were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books and remained there until the index was abolished in 1966 by Pope Paul VI. It had been reported that the initial ban stemmed from theological issues so in 1965 Karol Wojtyla, then Archbishop of Krakow launched a new investigation while submitting a number of documents about Faustina to the Vatican, requesting that the process of her beatification should begin.
In 1977, over a year before being elected as John Paul II, Archbishop Wojtyla asked the Vatican to review and lift the ban on the Divine Mercy devotion to successful effect the following year. Thus in April 1978 the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of faith declared that the notification ban was no longer binding, and stated that misunderstandings were created by a faulty Italian translation of Faustina’s Diary which were compounded by difficulties in communication during World War II and the subsequent Communist era.
The formal beatification of Faustina involved the case of Maureen Digan, a visitor from the United States to the tomb of Sister Faustina. While praying at the tomb Miss Digan a sufferer from Lymphedema (a disease which causes significant swelling due to fluid retention) for decades and who had undergone 10 operations including a leg amputation without success reported that while praying at Faustina’s tomb, she heard a voice saying ‘ Ask for my help and I will help you ’ This she did and her constant pain stopped. 2 days later Maureen Digan reported that her shoe became too large for her because her body stopped undue liquid retention. Her recovery was investigated by numerous physicians who stated that she was healed but were unable to provide any explanation for the occurrence. The case was declared miraculous by the Vatican in 1992 based on the additional testimony of over twenty witnesses about her prior condition.
Sister Maria Faustina was beatified on April 18, 1993 and canonized on April 30, 2000 as the first saint in the 21st century. That her Vatican biography directly quotes some of her conversations with Jesus distinguishes Saint Faustina from the many other reported visions. At a modest estimate made in 2010, the following of the Divine Mercy devotion was believed to be over one hundred million Catholics.
It would not have escaped our notice that Saint Faustina’s writings about the need to obtain, trust and dispense mercy mirrors very closely the words our Saviour gave us in that as we ask for mercy ourselves so should we show it to others. Thus it is very appropriate therefore that as Christ Jesus Himself intended, this special feast should follow the passion and celebrations of Holy Week when we recall the sacrifice of our Lord and rejoice in His resurrection and saving grace, when indeed our reflections should encourage us to turn those words into deeds.