The cult of Divine Mercy, which has its roots in Poland, is one of the most important and widespread forms of Catholic devotion both at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries. The character of the cult is undoubtedly universal – whether in Latin America or Japan, Australia or Poland – 3 p.m. is the hour of Divine Mercy and that is when believers say the chaplet prayer left by Faustina Kowalska, a Polish religious nun belonging to the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. Images of Merciful Jesus inspired by her visions can also be found in churches around the world.
Helena Kowalska, because this was the name of Maria Faustina before she joined the convent, was born in 1905 in Głogowiec, a town in central Poland, today in the Łódź region, near Łęczyca. She graduated only three classes of primary school, and from the age of 16 she worked as domestic help, first in Aleksandrów Łódzki, later in Łódź and then in Warsaw. Due to the fact that she was poor, her candidacy was rejected by several orders for which she was convinced that she had a religious vocation. Finally, Helena was accepted by the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, provided that she paid a dowry for which she worked for a year.
In 1925, she joined the order and a year later her investiture took place and took the religious name of Maria Faustina. She made her first vows in Łagiewniki in 1928, and in 1933 – her perpetual vows. She lived successively in Wilno (Vilnius), in Warsaw at Żytnia St., later Hetmańska St., in Płock, again in Vilnius, Walendów, Derdy and then again in Krakow, where she died in 1938. In the order she performed various services, most often involving hard physical work. She worked, among others things as a porter, gardener and salesclerk in a bakery run by the order.
Her first revelations took place in Płock in February 1931 when Jesus appeared personally to her. During the revelations, he instructed Faustina to paint a picture of Merciful Jesus with an aspiration prayer – “Jesus, I trust in You!” This image became one of the basic elements of the Divine Mercy devotion. At the same time, during the revelations, Faustina was ordered to establish the celebration of Divine Mercy, which was to take place on the first Sunday after Easter.
From 1933, Faustina was under the spiritual protection of a personal confessor, Michał Sopoćko, today the blessed of the Catholic Church. In turn, the first picture of Merciful Jesus, ordered during her mystical visions, was created in 1934. The image was painted in Vilnius by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, according to the direct instructions of Faustina. Today, this image is located in the church of Divine Mercy in Vilnius and is one of the two most popular versions of the image. The second, better known version of the painting “Jesus, I trust in You!” is the one created after the death of Faustina in 1943 in Krakow, painted according to instructions of Sopoćko by Adolf Hyła. The picture shows the figure of Jesus, looking at the viewer, dressed in a white robe. Jesus raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing, and his left hand points to his heart. Two rays run from the heart: bright one – symbolizing water, and red one – indicating blood that gushed from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus.
In 1935, during her mystical visions, Faustina received another order from Jesus to create a religious congregation dedicated to the worship of Divine Mercy, and she also received a special prayer – the chaplet of Divine Mercy. This chaplet has become another basic form of devotion associated with the cult. Unfortunately, soon afterwards, Faustina fell ill with tuberculosis. In 1937, she was healed, but the following year her health deteriorated again. She died in October 1938, and was buried in Łagiewniki.
Faustina was considered to have been stigmatised, although her stigmas were the so-called hidden stigmas. She did not have visible wounds on her body, but she felt physical pain in the places of the wounds of the crucified Jesus – in her hands, feet, side, and also on the head, in the place of the crown of thorns. She felt intense pain during the mass on Fridays. She had the same impression when meeting people in a state of sin or those intending to commit a sin. These hidden stigmas appeared for the first time in 1928, and then again after a break of several years in 1936 and remained until her death.
Faustina also left behind one of the most important texts of 20th-century Catholic mysticism – Diary. She started writing it in Vilnius, and continued in Krakow, from July 1934 to June 1938 on the explicit command of Jesus. Faustina made notes as ordered by her confessors: first of all – by Father Michał Sopoćko, and with the permission of the superiors of her order. The work consists of six notebooks in total and contains a description of her internal life. There are also descriptions of her life in the nunnery, as well as her physical and spiritual suffering, while the main emphasis is placed on the internal life of this future saint. It contains a description of the mystical visions of Christ that she experienced, in which she pointed to God’s Mercy as the only rescue for the world. The diary is one of the most translated works of Polish literature. It has over 30 official translations into foreign languages, and new ones are coming in languages far distant from Polish, such as Tagalo and Swahili.
A few words should be devoted to the aforementioned confessor and the most important preacher of the Divine Mercy cult Father Michał Sopoćko. He was a priest of the archdiocese of Vilnius and a professor of pastoral theology at the Faculty of Theology of the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, and after the Second World War was a lecturer at the Major Seminary in Bialystok, the part of the archdiocese of Vilnius within the borders of post-war Poland. During the war in 1942-1944, Sopoćko was threatened with arrest by the Germans due to the fact that he was involved in helping Jews in hiding. During this period he had to hide himself outside the city under a false name. His merits for the worship of God’s Mercy are great. In accordance with the orders received by Faustina, he founded a new congregation of the Sisters of Merciful Jesus in Vilnius in 1942. After the war, they moved to post-war Poland, and in 1955 the congregation received permission to function under diocesan law in the apostolic administration in Gorzów.
History of the Divine Mercy worship
The cult began with visions of Faustina Kowalska, and was later propagated by Sopoćko but initially it met with many obstacles. An important boost to this form of devotion was the Second World War. During the German occupation, the inhabitants of Vilnius spread the cult of God’s Mercy throughout the country, perfectly matching the tragic conditions of war and occupation as it was a source of spiritual hope for those who were suffering. Pictures of merciful Jesus accompanied Polish deportees in the Soviet Union, as well as prisoners and victims of concentration camps. Soldiers of the army of General Władysław Anders, mostly composed of those saved from Soviet exile, spread this devotion to the whole world, because the army first went to the Middle East, then to Italy and Great Britain. The cult was also introduced in the USA by a member of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate Józef Jarzębowski. In Poland, the cult was extending its influence mainly from Łagiewniki, where the aforementioned painting by Hyła was found and which was the burial place of Faustina, who died in 1938.
The cult of Divine Mercy did not immediately meet with the acceptance of the official Church. In 1946, the Primate of Poland, Cardinal August Hlond, together with the Polish episcopate, asked the Vatican to establish the Divine Mercy as a celebration in Poland on the second Sunday of Easter, however, the petition was not approved by Rome. The visions described in the Diary weren’t canonically confirmed. Theologians did not initially try to deepen their knowledge of this form of devotion, and the Church authorities were afraid of the uncontrolled development of a cult inspired by the visions of Faustina. They critically referred to the forms of worship of Divine Mercy, among others Vilnius metropolitan, resident in Bialystok, Archbishop Romuald Jałbrzykowski and the Przemyśl bishop – Franciszek Barda.
In 1958, the crisis culminated with the Holy Office banning the worship of Divine Mercy in the forms proposed by Faustina Kowalska. This was due to distortions in translations from the Polish evaluated by the Holy Office. Another reason was real irregularities in the cult’s development caused by the lack of sufficient theological reflection on this form of devotion. Colors of rays coming from the heart of Jesus were misinterpreted – as a reference to the white and red Polish flag. In 1958, Karol Wojtyła was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Kraków. In the opinion prepared for the needs of the Holy Office, he positively spoke about the new worship.
The opinion of the Vatican dicastery forbade the worship of Divine Mercy, as well as the distribution of pictures of merciful Jesus and the writings of Faustina Kowalska. The cult of the image of merciful Jesus depended on the consent of the local bishop. The Vatican dicastery also warned cult advocate Sopoćko against further propagating the cult. However, despite the prohibition of distribution issued by the Holy Office, the cult survived. It was – with the consent of Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak – continued in Łagiewniki, among others.
Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, who at the beginning of the 1960s was the Kraków metropolitan, in 1965 initiated the beatification process of Faustina Kowalska. In 1968, he was sent to the Vatican Congregation for Beatification Affairs. At that time, the study of the writings of Faustina began again under the supervision among others of a censor – Prof. Ignacy Różycki, a Krakow theologian who, although initially reluctant to worship, soon became one of its zealous propagators. Pallottine priests also put great merits in the field of deepening the justification of the theological worship of Divine Mercy.
Based on the extended opinions of censors, in 1977, Cardinal Wojtyła wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to clarify doubts concerning the devotion. He wanted to show that the writings of Faustina did not contain anything contrary to Catholic doctrine and morality. In April 1978, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acceded to his argument and dismissed the decree of the Holy Office of 1958. Already in October of the same year, a declared defender of the Divine Mercy cult – Cardinal Wojtyła – became pope as John Paul II. From that moment, the Church authorities were fully involved in propagating the new cult. The Pope even recognized the spread of the worship of God’s Mercy as his special task.
In 1981, John Paul II published an encyclical devoted to God’s Mercy – Dives in misericordia. This pope closely watched the beatification process of Faustina, and finally in 1993 on the second Sunday of Easter, he proclaimed Faustina Kowalska as blessed of the Catholic Church. This triggered the rapid development of the cult of Divine Mercy. As Ewa Czaczkowska writes, in 1993-2000 the number of pilgrims to Łagiewniki increased six times. In 1995, the Church in Poland was authorized to celebrate the Divine Mercy on the second Sunday of Easter. Finally, in 2000, John Paul II – again on the first Sunday of Easter – canonized St. Faustina Kowalska. At the same time, he announced to the entire universal Church the establishment of the celebration of Divine Mercy on the second Sunday of Easter.
John Paul II was also personally involved in the construction of the God’s Mercy Sanctuary in Łagiewniki – in the place where the relics of St. Faustina were, and also where the image of God’s Mercy by Adolf Hyła was located, famous for its favors and worship. He visited Łagiewniki himself twice – in 1997 during his sixth pilgrimage to Poland and in 2002 – during his last – eighth visit to his homeland. During the last visit, the pope called the Krakow sanctuary the “world center of the worship of Mercy.” He consecrated the new temple there and performed the solemn entrustment of the world to God’s Mercy. It was an act of piety personally designed and carried out by John Paul II.
Since then, numerous shrines of Divine Mercy have been created all over the world. They were established on all continents, and several are located, among others in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Spain, the Philippines, France, India, Italy, Mexico, Slovenia, the USA and of course in Poland. Pope John Paul II and Sopoćko, who are called the apostles of God’s mercy, were also elevated. The first, who died in 2005, was beatified in 2011 and canonized three years later. Whereas, Sopoćko, who died in 1975, was beatified in 2008. The cult of Divine Mercy remains – next to the cult of Saint John Paul II – probably the most serious Polish contribution to the development of 20th-century Catholic devotion.
Author: Professor Paweł Skibiński – historian, lecturer at the University of Warsaw, specialist in the recent history of the Catholic Church, chair of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński Pro Memoria editorial board, from 2010 to 2015 CEO of the John Paul II and Primate Wyszyński Museum.
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin