by Father Stanley Smolenski
Devotion to the Divine Mercy according to the writings of St. Faustina Kowalska has become international. Her diary has been translated into every major language, thanks to the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, who staff the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass. It was a member of that community who brought the texts of her writings out of Poland at the beginning of the Second World War. He had promised to disseminate that devotion if he successfully escaped from occupied Poland. He did so, finally arriving in America, where he fulfilled his promise by distributing a brief account of those graces.
My introduction to this devotion happened when I was a teenager, some 60 years ago, and came across one of those original pamphlets. Two things impressed me. First, the country in which St. Faustina lived was not France, Italy or Spain, where most such reports take place, but rather the country from which both my mother and father had emigrated. The second was a prophecy given to St. Faustina, reputedly by Christ, to the effect that Poland would have much to suffer. But if Poland remained true to him, Christ would have a power emanate from her that would encircle the world.
I was immediately puzzled because the Second World War had just ended and Poland had been leveled by the Nazi Germans and was then being further despoiled by the Communist Russians. It had no political, military or economic significance in the world. What kind of international influence could come from her? Some 30 years later, in 1978, that prophecy came immediately to my mind when it was announced that Cardinal Archbishop Karol Wojtyla from Poland had been elected pope, taking the name of John Paul II.
As Archbishop of Krakow, the city in which St. Faustina lived, Pope John Paul II played a very decisive role in the appreciation of this devotion. When a faulty text of St. Faustina’s diary was investigated in Rome, a silence was imposed on it, forbidding any further distribution of her materials. Such an occurrence had been prophesied by the saint herself. Cardinal Wojtyla immediately had a leading Thomist theologian investigate the case again. This priest had no interest in her writings because they were considered by some to be the hallucinations of an uneducated nun. But then, as he thumbed through the handwritten pages, certain passages impressed him and he decided to review her accounts. The profundity of her spirituality won him over and he championed her cause. The reservation was lifted in the spring of 1978, and in the fall the Church had that Cardinal Archbishop from Krakow as its pope. He had been already involved in her cause for beatification, which he celebrated as pope, and canonized her as the first saint of the third Christian millennium. One of his first encyclicals, “Dives in Misericordia,” was dedicated to Divine Mercy.
St. Faustina came from a poor peasant family. She was needed to work on the farm, and her education was limited to a few winters in school. She became a maid and was providentially led to the religious order she entered as an auxiliary sister. As such she took care of the vegetable garden and the kitchen, and at times she was portress of the community’s institution for troubled girls. In 1934, at the request of her confessor, she began keeping record of her extraordinary experiences and aspirations, and would do so until her death in 1938 at the age of 33. In all there are 1828 entries in her diary which describe her spiritual ascent to union with God.
The main emphasis of these writings is total confidence in the mercy of God. In particular, she was directed to several devotions: (1) the chaplet of Divine Mercy, (2) a novena to Divine Mercy, (3) a feast of Divine Mercy, (4) a special image of Divine Mercy.
The chaplet uses an ordinary rosary. It begins with an Our Father, a Hail Mary followed by the Apostles’ Creed. On the Our Father beads the redemptive suffering of Christ is offered to the Father in reparation for sins: “Eternal Father I offer you the body and blood, soul and divinity of your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.” On the Hail Mary beads we ask that God’s mercy be extended to the entire world: “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” This chaplet concludes with “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world,” which is repeated three times.
The novena opens on Good Friday and concludes on Saturday before the feast. On each of these days the redemptive merits of Christ are applied to a specific group of people: all of mankind, especially sinners; priests and religious, devout and faithful persons; atheists and non-Christians; non-Catholic Christians; children and the child-like; devotees of Divine Mercy; souls in purgatory; the lukewarm and indifferent.
The first Sunday after Easter or the Second Sunday of Easter was designated to be the liturgical celebration of Divine Mercy. Full remission of sin with its punishment and special graces were promised on the fulfillment of certain requirements including confession and Communion. Pope John Paul II established this universal feast at the canonization of St. Faustina in 2000.
The image of Divine Mercy portrays Christ robed in white, his right hand held in blessing while his left hand opens his robe at his chest from which pale and red rays spread out. This represents the sacramentalization of the blood and water that came from the heart of Christ pierced on the cross. The water represents baptism, and the blood represents the Eucharist. In this way we are sanctified by the suffering and death of Jesus.
Yet here we see the Risen Christ, the Lord of the Paschal Mystery. At the bottom of this image is the phrase “Jesus, I trust in You.” In other words, the purpose of this image is to inspire an expression of faith, hope, confidence, trust and love for the merciful Lord.
With the secularization of societies once Christian, this message is important because when people realize the seriousness of sin, they can become discouraged and despair of God’s goodness and mercy. Jesus emphasized to St. Faustina how much that disturbs him and therefore extends to the world this means of hope.
Divine Mercy and the Paschal Mystery
Theology states that we are not obliged to follow such private revelations, but St. Thomas Aquinas also points out that it would be imprudent to ignore them. The purpose of such private revelations is medicinal: to lead to specific action necessary at a particular time for a special need.
We see that the emphasis here is upon Divine Mercy. Is belief in this divine attribute of particular need in our times? With the growth of secularism and the ignoring of sin, such as abortion, people are in shock when they discover the true meaning of the evil they have allowed into their lives. They need the reassurance of the goodness of God, of his mercy, of his forgiveness. Also, in order to have people come to the realization of the need for such repentance in their lives, there has to be mediation, that of Christ and his Church. Thus we have the invocation of the passion of Christ in the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for the forgiveness of sin and the invocation of trust before the image of the Merciful Christ. Do we not see here the presentation of the scriptural theme: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”?
In the Novena of Divine Mercy the merits of Christ’s redemption are applied to specific persons on each day. This novena begins on Good Friday and ends on the Saturday after Easter. As the Church is solemnly celebrating the Paschal Mystery with its octave, this novena keeps the people in tune every day with the Church’s paschal commemoration. By this devotion the people making the novena are united with the paschal liturgy of the Church. This novena does not contradict the liturgical intention of that octave. On the contrary, it simplifies what may appear formal in liturgical terms.
The fact that Pope John Paul II has designated the Sunday after Easter as Mercy Sunday shows this congruity. The scriptural readings for that day emphasize Divine Mercy since it focuses on Jesus bestowing the power to forgive sins on his apostles, the sacrament of Reconciliation, on the day of his Resurrection.
The image of Divine Mercy sums it all up. It portrays the Risen Christ mediating his grace through the red and pale rays representing the blood and water that poured out of his heart pierced on the cross. It is a sacramental icon presenting the Paschal Lamb as the Eternal Priest and source of baptismal and eucharistic life, which is solemnly celebrated during the liturgy of the paschal vigil and extended throughout the Easter octave and season.
Thus in the chaplet, the novena, the feast and the icon we have multiple ways of devotion to the Paschal Mystery since they all focus on the death and resurrection of Christ.
It should not come as a surprise then that this devotion is eminently eucharistic. Many of the entries in St. Faustina’s diary refer to the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Here is a sampling: “I saw how the two rays, as painted in the image, issued from the host and spread over the whole world. This lasted only a moment, but it seemed as though it had lasted all day, and our chapel was overcrowded all day long, and the whole day abounded in joy.” (1046)
Her appreciation of the Mass is wondrous indeed. “Oh, what awesome mysteries take place during Mass! A great mystery is accomplished in the Holy Mass. With what great devotion should we listen to and take part in this death of Jesus. One day we will know what God is doing for us in each Mass, and what sort of gift he is preparing in it for us. Only his divine love could permit that such a gift be provided for us. O Jesus, my Jesus, with what pain is my soul pierced when I see this fountain of life gushing forth with such sweetness and power for each soul, while at the same time I see souls withering away and drying up through their own fault. O Jesus, grant that the power of mercy embrace these souls.” (914)
Her communions were no less ardent. “I find myself so weak that were it not for holy Communion I would fall continually. One thing alone sustains me, and that is holy Communion. From it I draw my strength; in it is all my comfort. I fear life on days when I do not receive holy Communion. I fear my own self. Jesus concealed in the host is everything to me. From the tabernacle I draw strength, power, courage, and light. Here, I seek consolation in time of anguish. I would not know how to give glory to God if I did not have the Eucharist in my heart.” (1037)
When the Church canonizes a saint, it does so on the proofs of sanctity and intercession. St. Faustina Kowalska revealed her sanctity through her diary. Her spirituality is doctrinal, sacramental and mystical. As for her intercessory power, her desire and work for evangelization is clear. “I feel certain that my mission will not come to an end upon my death, but will begin. O doubting souls, I will draw aside for you the veils of heaven to convince you of God’s goodness, so that you will no longer continue to wound with your distrust the sweetest Heart of Jesus. God is Love and Mercy.” (281)
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Father Stanley Smolenski is co-director of the Diocese of Charleston Volunteers program.