by Catherine M. Odell
“There is nothing that man needs more than Divine Mercy,” Pope John Paul II told the world at the grave of Poland’s Saint Faustina Kowalska in a suburb of Cracow on June 7, 1997.
The pope had come to honor the nun he beatified in 1993, and whom Jesus had named as His “Apostle of Divine Mercy” to this troubled, bloody century. It was certainly not the first time that Karol Wojtyla had visited the convent where the largely unlettered Sister of Our Lady of Mercy died an agonizing death from tuberculosis at age thirty-three in 1938.
After he was named archbishop of Cracow in 1964, he opened the investigation of Sister Faustina’s life and virtues. But he had first heard about her during World War II. He was then a young seminarian studying in a clandestine seminary in Cracow. Poland was in agony, occupied by Nazi Germany.
Sister Faustina, gifted with the charism of prophecy along with many other gifts, had predicted Poland’s war-time crucifixion. Responding to the promptings and visions given secretly to her, she also recorded the “Chaplet of Divine Mercy” and the “Novena of Divine Mercy.”
Under the guidance of her confessor, Father Michael Sopocko, she directed the painting of the Image of Divine Mercy — Jesus with pale and red rays flowing from His chest, sending graces out to the world. And finally, the slender sister saw to it that a Feast of Divine Mercy was begun to commemorate Christ ’s redemptive love — and mercy — on the Sunday after Easter.
Immediately after her death, Poland was in need of the Divine Mercy message and devotion. “In those difficult years, it was a particular support and an inexhaustible source of hope, not only for the people of Cracow but for the entire nation,” Pope John Paul II admitted in June 1997. Poles stuffed the Divine Mercy prayers and pictures of Jesus into their pockets as they fled from their country, even when on their way to refugee camps. The devotions also spread very quickly to the United States. Father Joseph Jarzebowski, a Marian priest blacklisted by the Nazi SS, promised God that if he was able to escape from Poland and join members of his community in the United States, he would spread the Divine Mercy message. In May 1941 he arrived in Washington, D.C. With the help of Felician Sisters, a Polish order, he quickly began to print and distribute the Divine Mercy prayers and devotions, as did Father Sopocko in Poland.
From those roots, a flourishing and dynamic international Divine Mercy movement has sprung. The prayers have been translated into dozens of languages. There are Divine Mercy centers all over the world. Divine Mercy Sunday is celebrated as an official feast in Poland. On April 20, 2000, more than twenty thousand pilgrims attended the Divine Mercy Sunday celebration at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy on Eden Hill, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. On the same feast day, Faustina became a saint in Rome. The shrine and international distribution center for Divine Mercy materials is administered from Eden Hill by the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.
And the diary of Saint Faustina — four hundred seventy-seven pages of neat, tight script — has been translated and distributed throughout the world. It has since become a sort of handbook for the growing Divine Mercy movement. Sister Faustina began to write the diary in her Vilnius convent cell in the summer of 1934. Jesus and her confessor, Father Michael Sopocko, had ordered her to do it.
Having completed barely three semesters of schooling as a child in Poland, writing anything — except a few letters home — was an intimidating prospect. Nonetheless, Sister Faustina obediently complied and found a scratchy pen and a student theme book in a convent cupboard. Like the saints Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and — most of all — Thérèse of Lisieux, who had been canonized in 1925, the year Sister Faustina entered the convent, this Polish sister inadvertently created a spiritual classic.
The diary of Sister Faustina is rich in mystical allusions and solid theological truths. It details the awesome journey of a soul striving to be and do whatever God wanted. Despite the austere religious conditions of her convent life and the traditions of a Polish spirituality unfamiliar to many of us today, her story speaks out.
The themes of persistence in the face of adversity, “active submission,” fundamental trust in the Lord, faithfulness to the end, discernment, an ability to change the things that were changeable and the ability to be at peace with the unchangeable. Her diary presents all these things and more. It is a letter from one soul to another. And it is an account of her discovery of God’s love. In the first notebook of her diary, she inscribed a title: Divine Mercy in My Soul.
Many years after the diary was written, Polish Cardinal Andrew Deskur, a theologian and a close friend of Pope John Paul II, wrote an introduction to the diary’s official Polish edition. The work, he said, “is Catholic mysticism of exceptional worth . . . for the whole Church.”
During her lifetime in half a dozen convents across Poland, this pretty young nun with freckles and gray-green eyes could not have been identified as a mystic capable of articulating dogmas and beautiful theological ideas. She was the convent gardener. She worked in the kitchen, the bakery, and the laundry. And yet, in recent years, the Congregation acknowledged her as its spiritual co-founder. She deepened her order’s spirituality, showing new ways to fulfill its charism of cooperating with Divine Mercy to help rescue lost souls.
Her real mission, of course, had nothing to do with stirring soup or folding laundry — though she learned to do these, as the Little Flower of Lisieux had done them — in the spirit of absolute obedience and generosity for Jesus. Her real mission was hidden from almost everyone around her. It had to do with announcing God’s mercy to a world increasingly steeped in sin and selfishness. “It is My will,” Jesus told her, “that you should write. You do not live for yourself, but for others’ souls. Write so that they might learn to love Me. Write of My mercy.”
By the middle of 1936, the superiors of Sister Faustina’s order understood that she was dying. A vicious and painful case of multiple tuberculosis was choking the young life out of her. Sister Faustina had known all along that she would not live long. In fact, she knew — and predicted — the exact date of her death. It was October 5, 1938.
During her final sickbed struggle in Cracow in 1937 and ’38, Sister Faustina united her pain and suffering with those of Jesus, scourged and crucified. She prayed in particular for the dying, for priests and religious, and for her beloved homeland, Poland. She relived the torments of Christ’s last hours many times, and she experienced the Lord’s stigmata, though it was never visible.
Who could have predicted that a simple country girl would flower so exquisitely? Born to a poor, devout carpenter and his illiterate wife, Sister Faustina Kowalska (named Helena by her parents) was the third child in a family that eventually had eight mouths to feed. Her siblings loved her deeply, but they never imitated her astounding generosity, obedience, and piety.
Perhaps by the end of their own lives, her brothers and sisters understood more about the “Apostle of Divine Mercy” — their own Helena — whom Jesus had given to the troubled twentieth century. At the end of 1997, her eighty-two-year-old brother Mecislaus was still living near the family homestead in Glogowiec. He was the last of the Kowalski children alive. His older sister Natalia had died at age eighty-eight on January 24, 1997, after having spent her last months with the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy at their convent in Biala, near Plock. It was at Plock that Sister Faustina first saw the image of the Divine Mercy of Jesus.
“I feel certain that my mission will not come to an end upon my death, but will begin,” she wrote with her scratchy pen late one night at her desk upstairs in Vilnius. Her earthly end, in so many ways, was really a beginning.
Order Faustina: Apostle of Divine Mercy by Catherine M. Odell. Paperback, 208 pages, $9.95