Catholic musician-turned-filmmaker Daniel diSilva has released “The Original Image of Divine Mercy,” a new documentary film about the history of the Divine Mercy devotion and the story of the original Divine Mercy image approved by visionary St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-38).
While many Catholics are familiar with the Divine Mercy image — Christ with red and white rays coming from his chest — which is a depiction of a mystical vision the Polish nun reported she saw in 1931, many might not realize there are multiple depictions of the image that vary in details. But only one did St. Faustina herself participate in the creation of, and it is the only one she ever saw before her death.
In “The Original Image of Divine Mercy,” diSilva travels throughout Europe and the United States conducting interviews with individuals who have specialized knowledge of the original image. He also interviews prominent Catholics devoted to the Divine Mercy image.
The image has a special significance to diSilva himself, as he had once drifted from the Catholic faith of his youth but returned to the Church in part through praying the Divine Mercy devotion.
“It is my goal to make the Divine Mercy devotion known,” diSilva said. “If just one person walks away from viewing the film with an interest in the devotion, all our efforts in making the film will have been worth it.”
He added that proceeds from the film will support the establishment of a Divine Mercy center in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the original image is located.
Tale of the image
In 1931, Christ directed St. Faustina to have the Divine Mercy image painted, a project she undertook with the assistance of her spiritual director, Blessed Father Michael Sopoćko (1888-1975), and Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, an artist who was Father Sopoćko’s neighbor. The image took six months to complete, with St. Faustina insisting many changes be made along the way.
Yet despite the effort, St. Faustina was disappointed with the result, as it didn’t reflect the magnificence of her vision. As Kestutis Kevalas, auxiliary bishop of Kaunas, Lithuania, explained in the film, “When Sister Faustina looked at it, she started to cry. ‘Well, the best we can do is this. There you go. It’s impossible. Our paints and our techniques don’t allow for more.’
“She accepted that image, and she also accepted the limitation of the painting,” Bishop Kevalas said.
St. Faustina would not have time to see the image publicized, said Pranas Morkus, a Lithuanian author and journalist featured in the film, because “as is proper for a mystic, she dies at the age of 33.” Kazimirowski, the artist, died in 1939, leaving Father Sopoćko alone to promote the image and devotion. Yet between the onslaught of World War II and the anti-Catholic Soviet government that dominated Poland and Lithuania in its aftermath, Father Sopoćko spent much of his time dodging authorities to avoid arrest and deportation to labor camps.
In 1941, for example, the Germans invaded Lithuania. The following year, the Gestapo raided the seminary at Vilnius, where Father Sopoćko lived, and arrested all the priests and seminarians.
Father Sopoćko was visiting a nearby convent and evaded arrest. Disguising himself as a nun, he was able to slip out of the city to safety.
The Soviets invaded and occupied the region in 1944, and in the aftermath of the war, many churches were closed and their artwork looted and destroyed.
Father Sopoćko again had to flee Vilnius to a neighboring diocese, Morkus said, to escape arrest by the Soviet secret police. “From there, he was able to give homilies on Divine Mercy in many different parishes,” Morkus said.
Many churches in the region were being closed by the authorities, and their artwork was looted.
“The Church was considered an enemy of the state because it was impossible to reconcile Church doctrine with communist ideology,” Sigitas Tamkevicius, archbishop emeritus of Kaunas, said in the film.
In 1983, Archbishop Tamkevicius said, he himself was arrested and sent to Soviet labor camps because of his efforts to promote the Catholic Faith. He remained in prison until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
‘Pointing us to mercy’
Through a remarkable series of events, related in the film, the Divine Mercy image was saved and made its way to the Vilnius shrine. Meanwhile, the Divine Mercy devotion had to survive other hurdles, including a proliferation of inaccurate images and its suppression by the Vatican Holy Office in 1958 and 1959 (lifted in 1978).
| DiSilva (left) said comedian Jim Ga¤gan has “a great devotion to the Divine Mercy.” Courtesy photo
As Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius related in the film, Pope St. John Paul II embraced the devotion.
“John Paul II opened up the new millennium by pointing us to mercy,” the archbishop said. “The first saint canonized in the new millennium [was] St. Faustina, [and] Divine Mercy Sunday was established. It was John Paul II leading his flock into the new millennium as the time or era of mercy.”
Other prominent Catholics featured in the film include comedian Jim Gaffigan. “He readily agreed to be part of the film,” diSilva said, “as both he and his wife have a great devotion to the Divine Mercy.”
Also featured are singer Harry Connick Jr., who plays the hymn “How Great Thou Art” on the organ in the loft of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, George Weigel, biographer of Pope St. John Paul II, and Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron.
The “Original Image of Divine Mercy” is not currently being distributed in the United States through the usual channels (in theaters or via DVD) but through screenings by parishes. Parishes are asked to contact diSilva via the film’s website and rent the film for a week to show whomever they wish.
Parishes may screen the film as often as they like during that week, in whatever venue is available to them.
More than 700 parishes will be screening the film in the next few months, both in the United States and overseas. A DVD version of the film will be available this fall.
The film’s reception has been good, diSilva said, garnering endorsements from many bishops. He believes once people hear the remarkable story of the Divine Mercy, it will become more meaningful in their lives and lead to many conversions or “reversions,” such as his own.
“I was not living my faith,” he said, “and the Divine Mercy helped turn me around. In this Year of Mercy, I hope this film will lead many to the Divine Mercy and have a similar experience as I did.”
Jim Graves writes from California.