At the same time Pope John Paul II canonized Sister Faustina Kowalska the first saint of the new millennium on Apr. 30, 2000, he proclaimed the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday for the entire Church, forever linking the feast and the saint.
By doing so, the late Holy Father signaled that the Church recognizes the veracity of Faustina’s extraordinary accounts of Christ’s private revelations to her.
Only Jesus knows why he chose this humble nun — born Helena Kowalska Aug. 25, 1905, in Glogowiec, Poland; died of tuberculosis Oct. 5, 1938, in Krakow — to spread his message of Divine Mercy to the world.
But the world knows about the encounters through her diary, which was published after her death as Divine Mercy in My Soul. (The book continues to sell well in the United States 21 years after its initial publication in English in 1987.)
As the Divine Mercy message fans out around the world — not only the diary but also the devotion, the chaplet and the famous image — we are learning more about St. Faustina, the person.
And what a model Christian she was.
Father Seraphim Michalenko of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, who was vice postulator for the cause of St. Faustina in North America, points out that, from age 7, Faustina felt called to the religious life. While at a vespers service conducted with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, she began to understand the meaning of divine grace.
She recorded in her diary how, as a 19-year-old at a dance, she saw Jesus at her side covered with wounds. He asked her, “How long shall I put up with you and how long will you keep putting me off?” She slipped away to the cathedral to pray, where Jesus told her, “Go at once to Warsaw; you will enter a convent there.”
She left immediately.
“She couldn’t say goodbye to her parents because they were opposed to her going to the convent,” explains Father Michalenko. “She was the best child and they were hoping she would take care of them in their old age.”
At 20, she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. When receiving the habit and simultaneously seeing everything she was going to suffer, she fainted. Those present interpreted this as fear over going ahead with her vocation.
“Only after they read the diary,” says Father Michalenko, “did they realize what had happened.”
And that didn’t happen until after she died. During her life, only her superiors and confessors — chiefly Father Michael Sopocko, her spiritual director — knew anything about the visions and the diary.
A Beautiful Mind
Another little-known fact about Faustina: She was highly intelligent but came from a poor family and had only three grades of schooling.
Sister Saula, Superior of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Boston says that, in the convent, Faustina was assigned to simple tasks such as cooking and, later, some gardening. Toward the end of her life, when she was unable to perform these tasks, she was assigned to answer the door.
Sister Faustina was the first saint or mystic who had to undergo psychiatric evaluation — and she passed it, notes Father Kazimierz Chwalek of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, a member of the international committee for the First World Apostolic Congress on Mercy.
When Father Sopocko, the spiritual director who will himself be beatified on Sept. 28, heard of her experiences and of the Lord asking for the image to be painted, the first thing he did was send Faustina to the psychiatrist.
“The psychiatric report said she was normal in all categories,” says Father Chwalek. “As a matter of fact, she had higher than the average common sense.”
She was sought out for decision-making because of the ease with which she organized her thoughts, he adds.
“In other words, her feet were really planted here on earth,” says the priest. “She was not a flake.”
That’s another reason the sisters were later surprised to learn of the divine encounters: They hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary about her.
Nor did they know about the great sufferings and dark night of the soul she experienced. Sister Saula says St. Faustina offered these up, joining her pain with Our Lord’s sufferings for the salvation of souls.
For instance, when local girls in moral crisis came to the convent to help out and reflect, if she saw an attitude of unrepentance, she would treat them tenderly, pray for them and double her penances offered for them.
“She had permission from her confessor and superior to do that,” says Sister Saula. “She would take upon herself the suffering and temptations of others. In this way she helped them and brought them to repentance.”
Faustina responded to Jesus’ call to her to help him save souls with her suffering and prayer in this spiritual battle, says Basilian Father George Kosicki, promoter of Divine Mercy on EWTN and author of more than 40 books, the latest being A Pocket Guide to Living the Divine Mercy (OSV, 2008). “She saved so many,” he says, “that Satan absolutely hated her.”
He probably also feared her, knowing that St. Faustina’s spirituality was deeply rooted in sound Catholic doctrine and theology.
“It’s very important to point out that most of her extraordinary experiences of seeing the Lord are connected to the Eucharist,” says Father Chwalek. “Either she was meditating in his presence in the exposed Blessed Sacrament or in her heart when she received him in holy Communion. She lived the Eucharist. She saw him the way he appears in the Divine Mercy image. Her whole life was Eucharistic-centered.”
With all the focus on Jesus in her life, he adds, many people don’t seem to realize that Faustina had an abiding love for the Blessed Mother.
This expressed itself in deep Marian devotion and near-constant prayers for Mary’s intercession.
A Gift for Our Time
For 20 years St. Faustina’s writings were prohibited from distribution because of incorrect translations outside Poland. Then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla had his top theologian analyze her writings.
He “completed the most exhaustive report on the writings in the whole history of the beatification process,” says Father Michalenko. Not only did he find nothing contrary to the teachings of the Church, he adds, but he also concluded that the writings held much potential to help people grow in grace and sanctity.
The prohibition was lifted on April 15, 1978. Six months later the Krakow cardinal and Faustina enthusiast became Pope John Paul II.
“Today my joy is truly great in presenting the life and witness of Sister Faustina Kowalska to the whole Church as a gift of God for our time,” he said at her Jubilee-year canonization.
And so it was with good reason that, of all the words she recorded in her diary, the ones most closely associated with St. Faustina are the simplest: “Jesus, I trust in you.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.