In 2000, after Blessed John Paul II officially declared the Sunday after Easter to be celebrated around the world as Divine Mercy Sunday, the image of Jesus as the Divine Mercy started to become better known.
It was the same year the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception — the congregation entrusted with promoting the message and the devotion of Divine Mercy — initiated the restoration of the original Divine Mercy image.
Back then, they didn’t realize that, from their headquarters at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass., the restored image would eventually be reproduced in the Year of Faith.
Although there are several versions of the image, there is only one original version. It was painted under the direction and watchful eye of St. Faustina Kowalska after Jesus commanded her to have it painted. In her diary, he told her, "I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and (then) throughout the world."
Faustina and her confessor, Blessed Michael Sopocko, supervised art professor Eugene Kazimierowski as he painted the image in Vilnius, which is now in present-day Lithuania. The "Vilnius image" was completed in 1934.
Marian Father Michael Gaitley, who initiated and heads the current reproduction project, explained, "It took the artist 12 tries, under Faustina’s watchful eyes, before it was completed. All the changes she asked for were on the face of Jesus — so the face is just like she saw it."
The priest described how, over the years, smoke and soot from candles darkened the image of the merciful Jesus; consequently, the Marians, in the Jubilee Year 2000, contacted Cardinal Audrys Backis, the archbishop of Vilnius, offering to have the image restored.
Cardinal Backis accepted, and the Marians donated the $20,000 needed to return the painting to its pristine glory. The Vilnius Archdiocese handled the restoration, and the image remains in the Church of the Holy Spirit there, where it has been enshrined since 1987.
Unfortunately, the official photo of the restored image was not the best quality for producing prayer cards, as the Marians do.
But, in 2008, Father Gaitley attended the beatification of Father Sopocko in Bialystok, Poland, and had an epiphany when he saw a prayer card with the image.
"I looked at it and had to do a double take!" he recalled.
The image on the prayer cards was clear and bright. At that moment, he was determined to have the Marians reproduce the restored image just as beautifully.
Father Gaitley found the chance in 2011, when he became "Father Joseph," the honorary title for the director of the Association of Marian Helpers based in Stockbridge.
"One of my top priorities when I became ‘Father Joseph’ was to improve the quality of that image," he said. "We didn’t change the image in any way, but made it easier to see."
He and provincial superior Father Kazimierz Chwalek took a high-quality photo of the restored Vilnius image and then had graphic artists further improve the quality using the latest computer technology. Their plan was to offer a museum-quality, framed 8-by-10 image for an affordable price.
After months of research, Brother Chris Alar, a seminarian, and layman Mark Fanders found the idea could work if the entire production was brought in house. But there was no capital for the necessary high-tech equipment.
So the Marians turned to the Lord in prayer. Father Gaitley was at a meeting with fellow Marians, presenting this possible solution, when his cellphone rang.
It was a Marian priest who had received a call from a benefactor, who had asked: "Do you need any help?" The priest told her about Father Gaitley’s dream project. At once, she promised to fund the equipment for the in-house reproduction.
"That cinched everything," said Fanders. "It was the Lord’s project."
But who would help them make the pictures? One morning, Father Gaitley prayed, "Lord, you need to send me someone to make these images."
When he arrived at his office, he was surprised to see Eric Mahl, who had played football for the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets and had come to the shrine once before.
Years earlier, Mahl had given up everything to share the Divine Mercy message, living in shelters to spread the mercy message with the people there.
That day, Mahl felt called to go to the shrine to give Father Gaitley an old Divine Mercy image he had found at a thrift shop.
"I felt this was an answer to prayer," Father Gaitley said. The priest asked Mahl to help reproduce the restored image. Mahl now lives as a Marian associate and makes the Divine Mercy images.
The first images were made on Feb. 21, 2013, the vigil of Feb. 22, the date in 1931 when Jesus told Faustina to have his image painted.
"It’s another sign we are definitely doing the Lord’s work," said Fanders.
The image has been providential in other ways. Other sizes of the image are produced off site. The first of those arrived on the day of the Newtown, Conn., shootings. "The very first one of those other images we received," Father Gaitley said, "we donated to the Newtown parish (of St. Rose of Lima) in Connecticut as a sign of mercy in the midst of evil."
The Marians also donate images that do not come out perfectly in the process to the poor.
Brother Chris finds that the restored-reproduced image is one "that will grasp the heart of the faithful in a way that we hope will draw them closer to God’s mercy and to our faith as a whole."
The Divine Mercy image is a timely reminder. "This is a God-given image for our time," Father Gaitley explained. "God waited for our time to give this image because he knows we needed it.
"He wants us to trust in him, which this image reminds us to do."
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.