In the darkest of days, the Lord raises up great Saints in the Church who shine like beacons; the clarity of their holiness, and their light and example, showing all of us what is expected of us in living out the Gospels. Those Saints are always provided by the Lord at the perfect moment, and they tend to provide an ‘antidote’ of sorts, to the evils and errors of any particular age.
The first half of the 20th Century was a time of unspeakable horror, brutality and inhumanity; a time filled with two World Wars, when so many souls were lost in conflicts and when many millions died in the concentration camps in parts of Europe – although even there, the grace of God was alive and active. And in this time of immense hatred between men and nations, the Lord reminded us of the very heart of the Gospel – the message of mercy.
The herald of this message of Divine Mercy was a simple and poorly educated young nun with barely three years of basic schooling, living quietly in a convent in Poland, cooking in the kitchen, tending the garden and answering the door. But in just a few years, her name would become known the world over and she would announce a message which has been described as “the greatest grass-roots movement in the history of the Church”.
As the first canonised Saint of the Third Millennium, she would herald a message both ancient and new, the message of Mercy – the beating heart of the Gospel.
This is the story of St Faustina, her life and her mission as the Apostle and Secretary of Divine Mercy.
On Divine Mercy Sunday, 30th April 2000, Pope John Paul II gave the Catholic Church – and the world – the first canonised Saint of the Third Millennium. In Baptism, she had received the name Helena Kowalska, while in religious life she would later be given the name by which we now know her – Sister Maria Faustina, the ‘Apostle and Secretary of the Divine Mercy’. Already, she is recognised as one of the greatest mystics in the history of the Church; and her Diary – ‘Divine Mercy In My Soul’ – is recognised by Church scholars and theologians as a work of immense importance for our times. So much so that there is presently a petition to have St Faustina declared a Doctor of the Church. So what is the story of her life?
Helena Kowalska was born on 25th August 1905 in Glogowiec, Poland, into a poor family of ten children, of which she was the third. Helena felt the call to religious life from a young age. In her Diary, she wrote –
“From the age of seven, I experienced the definite call of God, the grace of a vocation to the religious life. It was in the seventh year of my life that, for the first time, I heard God’s voice in my soul; that is, an invitation to a more perfect life. But I was not always obedient to the call to grace. I came across no one who would have explained these things to me.”
Attending a dance as a teenager, she saw a vision of the Lord Jesus, Who reprimanded her and asked how long she would keep putting off His call. Immediately, she went to the Cathedral of St Stanislaus to pray. Faustina describes what happened next –
“It was almost twilight; there were only a few people in the Cathedral. Paying no attention to what was happening around me, I fell prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament and begged the Lord to be good enough to allow me to understand what I should do next. Then I heard these words, “Go at once to Warsaw; you will enter a convent there”. I rose from prayer, came home and took care of things that needed to be settled. As best I could, I confided to my sister what took place within my soul. I told her to say goodbye to our parents and thus, in one dress, with no other belongings, I arrived in Warsaw.”
In the city, she entered the first Church she saw, asking the help of the Priest there in finding a convent who would accept her. He put her in touch with a woman who needed a servant, so that she was able to support herself until she could enter religious life. She approached various convents, all of whom refused her entry. Finally, on 1st August 1925, she knocked on a convent door on Zytnia Street, the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. Requesting entry, she was told to ‘ask the Lord of the House if He will accept you’; entering the Chapel, she prayed and heard a voice tell her – “I do accept you”. She would spend the next thirteen years as a Sister in this community, taking the religious name Faustina, and moving to several houses of the Order at different times.
Sister Faustina led a very humble life within the Order, working as gardener, cook and door-keeper. Her heroism consisted – like that of the great St Therese of Lisieux – not in great deeds, but in repeated small deeds done every single day with great love and humility, out of love of God and neighbour. This was her path to true sanctity, a small and hidden way, lived with immense love.
Living at the convent in Plock in the summer of 1930, her health began to deteriorate – partly due to her personal mortification through fasting but mainly due to the beginning of illness, now thought to have been tuberculosis. She would continue to have periods of ill health over the coming years.
On 22nd February 1931, while alone in her cell, she received a vision of the Merciful Jesus, as He is depicted in the Divine Mercy image. He told her –
“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.”
It was the beginnings of the new form of devotion to Jesus as Divine Mercy. The Lord was giving Faustina a task which she would carry on until death – and beyond. This task brought numerous obstacles, as well as numerous graces, to the young nun.
She was transferred to the convent in Vilnius in the summer of 1933, and here she met Fr Michael Sopocko, who would become her Spiritual Director and Confessor – and it was to him that Faustina would reveal the demands of the Lord Jesus. Fr Sopocko arranged psychiatric testing, which revealed no mental health problems; assured she was not deluded but was, rather, apparently genuine in what she had told him, he began to help her to fulfil her mission – and this, he would continue to do long after her death, and until his own. Much later, he would be beatified in recognition of his own personal sanctity.
In His revelations to St Faustina (which have received the full approval of the Church), Jesus proposed a form of Divine Mercy with particular characteristics and features. Although the form of the devotion was new, ‘Divine Mercy’ was an ancient idea – and one which is the beating heart of the Gospels. Notably, the Lord Jesus requested an Image to be painted, asking for it to be venerated throughout the world. He also gave Sr Faustina prayers, in the form of a ‘Chaplet of Divine Mercy’, as well as a Novena with particular intentions for each of the nine days. And He asked for a Feast of Divine Mercy to be celebrated throughout the entire Church on the Sunday after Easter.
The Lord also reminded Sr Faustina often that the way would not be easy for her, that she would achieve anything only by emptying herself and relying entirely on the grace of God. She would encounter great obstacles in meeting His demands and for a while, it would appear that all was lost; but in the end, victory would be achieved.
Fr Sopocko eventually arranged to have the first Image of Divine Mercy painted, using his own money to pay the artist Eugene Kazimierowski – this Image of Divine Mercy was painted under Sr Faustina’s direction over a period of several months; it is the only Image of the Merciful Jesus which she ever saw during her life and the only one which had her approval. This original Image is in the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Vilnius.
Fr Sopocko also celebrated the very first ‘Feast of Divine Mercy’ in April 1935, with Sr Faustina present. Father Sopocko had also instructed her, under obedience, to write down everything about the visions she was experiencing – her Diary, entitled ‘Divine Mercy In My Soul’, would later become known throughout the entire world.
Throughout 1936 and 1937, Fr Sopocko arranged the publication of pamphlets giving details on the new Divine Mercy devotion and containing the Image of Divine Mercy, all with the approval of Archbishop Jałbrzykowski, who gave the literature his Imprimatur. From that point, the devotion would go on to spread throughout the world like a fire.
Years later, it seemed as though the whole devotion had come undone when the Diary was prohibited by the Vatican, due to a poor translation of the Diary which gave the impression – incorrectly – that it contained theological errors. The ban lasted twenty years until the intervention of the Archbishop of Krakow, who would later become Pope John Paul II. The rescinding of the prohibition noted there were ‘no impediments’ to the spreading of the devotion as proposed by Sr Faustina.
Around the same time that the message of Divine Mercy was becoming more widely known, Sr Faustina’s health was failing and she spent part of 1938 in a sanatorium before returning to the convent in Krakow, where she died a holy death on 5th October 1938. She was buried on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, 7th October.
Sr Faustina’s sanctity consisted not in her marvellous visions and revelations, but in her abandonment to the will of God and her desire to seek nothing but that will, forgetting herself entirely and seeking only the Lord, and living to an heroic degree of virtue in the process. This is something all of us should seek to do, for as the Second Vatican Council reminded us very clearly, the call to holiness is universal.
Her remains are in the Chapel of the Basilica of Divine Mercy in Krakow, where they have since been venerated by St John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, as well as countless millions of pilgrims who have come to ask her heavenly intercession.
One of these pilgrims was American woman Maureen Digan. She visited the tomb in the spring of 1981, having endured terrible ill health over many years, and come to ask St Faustina for a cure. And this was exactly what she received, the miraculous nature of the cure being ratified by the Vatican in 1992, leading to the beatification of Sr Faustina. Later, the miraculous healing of Father Ron Pytel (he was cured of a serious heart condition whilst some of his parishioners were praying at the tomb) on St Faustina’s feast day, 5th October 1995, led to her canonisation. And in October 2011, various Cardinals and Archbishops wrote to Pope Benedict, requesting that he consider declaring St Faustina a Doctor of the Church.
Now, St Faustina’s name is known the world over, as is the Divine Mercy devotion which has come to us through the revelations given to her by the Merciful Jesus. This devotion has changed the lives of millions of Catholics and other people of good faith and has instilled a new fire in the heart of the Church and of the faithful. The message of Divine Mercy has become the hallmark of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, who follows in the footsteps of that other great apostle of Divine Mercy, St John Paul. And as noted by the Lord Himself to St Faustina, this devotion will also prepare the world for His final coming.
Truly, this is the Time of Mercy.
Saint Faustina, Apostle and Secretary of the Divine Mercy, pray for us.
“Today my joy is truly great in presenting the life and witness of Sr Faustina Kowalska to the whole Church as a gift of God for our time. By divine Providence, the life of this humble daughter of Poland was completely linked with the history of the 20th century, the century we have just left behind..
Sr Faustina’s canonization has a particular eloquence: by this act I intend today to pass this message on to the new millennium. I pass it on to all people, so that they will learn to know ever better the true face of God and the true face of their brethren..
This consoling message is addressed above all to those who, afflicted by a particularly harsh trial or crushed by the weight of the sins they committed, have lost all confidence in life and are tempted to give in to despair. To them the gentle face of Christ is offered; those rays from his heart touch them and shine upon them, warm them, show them the way and fill them with hope. How many souls have been consoled by the prayer “Jesus, I trust in you”, which Providence intimated through Sr Faustina! This simple act of abandonment to Jesus dispels the thickest clouds and lets a ray of light penetrate every life. Jezu, ufam tobie..
And you, Faustina, a gift of God to our time, a gift from the land of Poland to the whole Church, obtain for us an awareness of the depth of divine mercy; help us to have a living experience of it and to bear witness to it among our brothers and sisters. May your message of light and hope spread throughout the world, spurring sinners to conversion, calming rivalries and hatred and opening individuals and nations to the practice of brotherhood. Today, fixing our gaze with you on the face of the risen Christ, let us make our own your prayer of trusting abandonment and say with firm hope: Christ Jesus, I trust in you!“
(Pope John Paul II, Homily on the Canonisation of St Faustina, 30th April 2000)