One of the fastest growing devotions in the Church today developed in the 1930s, when Our Lord appeared to a simple, Polish nun, who he later referred to as “the secretary” of his mercy, as Matthew Biddle explains…
FEBRUARY 22, 1931 began as an ordinary day for Sister Faustina, a member of the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy living in a convent in Cracow, Poland.
The day began with recitation of prayers and attendance at Holy Mass, and was followed by the nun’s regular tasks working in the kitchen or the vegetable garden.
But in the evening, while the 25-year-old was alone in her humble cell, she suddenly saw a vision of Jesus Christ that would come to be honoured by thousands, if not millions, of people worldwide in the years to come.
Sister Faustina’s visions of Christ continued for several years, and his messages were preserved through a diary the nun wrote at the instruction of her confessor.
That diary has since been translated into Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Italian, and nearly one million copies of the 700- page book have been sold.
While the Divine Mercy image is arguably the most widely known aspect of the devotion, there are several other components to it, namely the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Feast of Divine Mercy, the Novena to Divine Mercy and the Hour of Mercy.
Helen Kowalska was born in a small Polish village on August 25, 1905, and was the third child in a family of 10. The family was poor, and Helen only received three years of basic education.
Three weeks before her 20th birthday, Helen entered the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, an order devoted to the care and education of troubled young women. The next year Helen received her religious habit and her religious name, Sr Maria Faustina of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
From the outside, Sr Faustina was just like any of the other nuns – dutiful to her tasks and faithful to the rule of life; cheerful to others and unselfish in her love of neighbour.
Yet God, it seems, had special plans for her.
From a young age, Sr Faustina desired a closer union with God, and this desire came to fruition with the vision she received in 1931, some six years after she entered religious life.
In the Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, she recalls that first vision:
“In the evening, when I was in my cell, I saw the Lord Jesus clothes in a white garment. One hand [was] raised in the gesture of blessing, the other was touching the garment at the breast. From beneath the garment, slightly drawn aside at the breast, there were emanating two large rays, one red, the other pale… After a while, Jesus said to me, 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.”
After explaining the vision to her confessor, Sr Faustina was told to simply paint God’s image in her own soul. But immediately after leaving the confessional, Jesus told her:
“My image is already in your soul. I desire that there be a Feast of Mercy. I want this image, which you will paint with a brush, to be solemnly blessed on the first Sunday after Easter; that Sunday is to be the Feast of Mercy. I desire that priests proclaim this great mercy of Mine towards souls of sinners. Let the sinner not be afraid to approach me. The flames of mercy are burning Me – clamouring to be spent; I want to pour them out upon these souls.”
The saint says she felt exhausted and overburdened by the requests of Jesus, and wished to be relieved of them. She even asked Jesus to give the graces to someone else, convinced they were being wasted on her.
But instead Christ sent Sr Faustina a holy confessor, Fr Michael Sopocko, who would assist her to carry out his requests.
Fr Sopocko asked the painter Eugene Kazimierowski to paint the picture according to St Faustina’s directions. After more than 12 attempts, St Faustina eventually accepted it as satisfactory in June 1934. It was around this time that Fr Sopocko asked Sr Faustina to write down the details of her visions, which eventually became the Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska.
Sr Faustina diligently wrote down as much as she could for the next four years, until her health no longer allowed her to continue.
By that stage, she had been suffering from tuberculosis for almost two years, but her condition deteriorated rapidly in August 1938. Sr Faustina died on October 5, 1938, aged 33.
After her death, several other paintings of the Divine Mercy image were created, each significantly different from the other. The Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy asked Stanislaw Batowski to paint the image for them to adorn their convent, however it was lost in a fire soon after its completion.
Batowski painted a replica, but at the exact same time he presented the new version to the Sisters, another artist, Adolf Hyla, was presenting an image he had painted, as a votive offering in thanksgiving for his family’s survival during World War II.
Faced with the decision of which painting to keep in the convent, the Sisters turned to the advice of a visiting Polish Cardinal, Adam Sapieha, who eventually chose Hyla’s version.
It would later become one of the most reproduced images of Divine Mercy.
The Diary remained largely unknown until 1979, when it was brought out of Poland in its rough typewritten form. Soon after, a Polish edition was published and work was commissioned for the diary to be translated into English.
It took several years of careful review and editing to then ensure there was an authentic agreement with the original Polish text. Finally, in 1987, the English version was published.
In 1993 Sr Faustina was beatified by Pope John Paul II, and seven years later, on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2000, she was canonised by the same Pope.
Spread of the Devotion
Knowledge of the Divine Mercy devotion has undoubtedly grown at a rapid pace since St Faustina’s canonisation 16 years ago. But even prior to her canonisation, many Catholics worldwide were developing a great love for Divine Mercy.
After the saint’s death, her confessor, Fr Michael Sopocko gave some of the main documents related to St Faustina’s revelations to a Marian priest, Fr Joseph Jarzebowski. While the documents did not include the complete diary, they did include information about the Divine Mercy Novena, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and the Divine Mercy image.
In 1941 Fr Jarzebowski took the documents and a copy of the Divine Mercy image to the United States, where the devotion soon began to spread. In 1960 a National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Massachusetts was dedicated.
Although the Divine Mercy devotion was known of in Australia by some, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it began to spread more widely.
This was thanks largely to the establishment of Divine Mercy Publications in 1992, a small business dedicated to spreading the devotion, led by Victorian John Canavan.
In the years since its establishment, Divine Mercy Publications has distributed more than one million pieces of literature throughout the Oceania region.
“It is the fastest moving message within the Church,” Mr Canavan says. “It’s really grown, and it will continue to grow.”
Those who are touched by the message of Divine Mercy, as Mr Canavan was, often cite a passage in the Diary that gives them courage and inspiration to work tirelessly at promoting the devotion:
“Souls who spread the honour of My mercy I shield through their entire lives as a tender mother her infant, and at the hour of death I will not be a Judge for them, but the Merciful Saviour,” (par. 1075).
Australia even has its own Divine Mercy Shrine, located 20km south of Tarcutta, NSW. The Shrine is part of the Wagga Wagga Diocese, and its leader, Bishop Gerard Hanna, will say Mass at the Shrine on Divine Mercy Sunday.
The Shrine’s caretaker Damian Tetley says in the seven years that he and his family have maintained the property, the devotion has grown significantly.
“The Shrine has really established Divine Mercy in the diocese, because most parishes now have some sort of devotion to Divine Mercy,” he says.
There is also a Shrine of Divine Mercy in Keysborough, Victoria, which is home to the local Polish Catholic community. A Holy Door for the Jubilee Year of Mercy was opened at the Shrine on December 8 last year.
And in rural Western Australia, building of the State’s first Church to be named after the Divine Mercy commenced in 2011.
Further, more and more parishes right around the country have set up regular times to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet, sometimes weekly, other times monthly.
In the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, a special celebration on the Feast of Divine Mercy has been held at St Clement’s Monastery in Galong every year since 2004.
While knowledge of the devotion is clearly growing in Australia and around the world, the message of Divine Mercy is still foreign to many others.
But in this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, which will feature a World Youth Day in Poland, St Faustina’s homeland, there could be no better time to discover the devotion that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described as “a central message for our time”.
The work of the saint who Jesus called “the secretary” of his mercy is far from over.