St. Maria Faustina Kowalska
St. Maria Faustina Kowalska

October 5th is the feast of St. Faustina, the Apostle of Divine Mercy. Saint Faustina's full professed name was Maria Faustina Kowalska. She was a member of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy and a mystic visionary, bringing the world the devotion of the Divine Mercy.

Maria Faustina was the third of ten children, born Helena Kowalska on August 25, 1905 in Glogowiec, Poland, which at the time was part of the Russian empire. Her family was poor and deeply religious. At the age of 7, she was in adoration before the Holy Eucharist and felt called to the religious life. Her parents however would not permit her to enter the convent when she concluded finishing school. She worked as a housekeeper to support herself and her parents. She approached her parents twice more, asking to join a convent, each time being denied.

At the age of 19, Faustina went to a dance in a park in a nearby town. At the dance, she had a vision of Jesus suffering. She quickly went to a church, where she was told by Jesus to leave for Warsaw and join a convent. She took a small bag with her on the 130 mile trip the next morning, leaving without her parent’s permission and with no connections in Warsaw.

She arrived in Warsaw and entered the first church she saw, (St. James’ church) and attended mass. She asked the priest, Father Dabrowski, for guidance, and he recommended staying with a local lady he trusted until she could enter a convent.

Faustina was denied entry to several convents in Warsaw because she was penniless and uneducated. Several weeks into her search for a convent that would accept her, she came to the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, where the Mother Superior offered to accept her as a lay sister if she could find a way to pay for her habit. As a lay sister she was unlikely to advance to higher levels in the order due to her lack of education. Her duties would primarily be housekeeping chores for the convent.

She worked as a house maid for a year to save up money, posting money at the convent throughout the year to satisfy her end of the agreement with the Mother Superior. On April 30, 1926, she received her habit and took the name of Maria Faustina of the Blessed Sacrament. In April 1928, she took her first vows as a nun, with her parents attending the ceremony.

From February to April 1929, she was sent to the convent in Wilno (Vilnius, in present day Lithuania) as a cook. She would later return there and meet Father Sopocko, who supported her mission. In May 1930, she was transferred to the convent in Plock, Poland for about 2 years. In the autumn of 1930, she contracted Tuberculosis and was sent away to rest at a form owned by the convent. Several months later, she recovered and returned to the convent in Plock.

On the night of Sunday February 22, 1931, while she was in her cell in Plock, Jesus appeared to her as the "King of Divine Mercy" dressed in a white garment, with rays of white and red light streaming from his heart. Jesus 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."

Jesus also told her that he wanted the Divine Mercy image to be

"solemnly blessed on the first Sunday after Easter; that Sunday is to be the Feast of Mercy."

Faustina did not know how to paint, so she asked for help from some of the other nuns in the convent, but they did not assist her. Faustina returned to Warsaw to prepare to take her final vows as a nun in November 1932. On May 1, 1933 she took her final vows in Lagiewniki and became a perpetual sister of Our Lady of Mercy. She then was sent to Vilnius again to work as the gardener. Shortly thereafter, she met Father Michael Sopocko, the confessor to the nuns, who was also a professor at Stefan Batory University.

During her first confession to Fr. Sopocko, she revealed her visions and Jesus’ instructions to her. Fr. Sopocko insisted that she undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which she passed without issue. Sopocko grew to trust in Faustina’s mission, and supported her. It was Fr. Sopocko who encouraged her to keep a diary of her visions and conversations with Jesus.  He also introduced her to the artist Eugene Kazimierowski, who was also a professor at Stefan Batory University. Kazimierowski finished the first rendition of the image we now know as the Divine Mercy Image in June 1934. Several other artists would reproduce the image, the most famous of which was created by Adolf Hyla.

Faustina predicted that her message would be suppressed for some time, stating in her diary on February 8, 1935:

There will come a time when this work, which God is demanding so very much, will be as though utterly undone. And then God will act with great power, which will give evidence of its authenticity. It will be a new splendor for the Church, although it has been dormant in it from long ago.

This did come to pass. The Vatican in 1959 suppressed her messages, but the suppression was lifted in 1978 by Pope John Paul II.

On Good Friday, April 19, 1935, Jesus told her that He wanted the Divine Mercy image publicly honored. On Friday, April 26, 1935, Fr. Sopocko delivered the first sermon on Divine Mercy, with Sr. Faustina in attendance. The first mass in which the Divine Mercy image was displayed was on April 28, 1935, which was the second Sunday after Easter.

On September 13, 1935, Faustina wrote about a vision in which she was given the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. In the vision, she received the purpose of the Chaplet, namely to obtain mercy, to trust in Christ’s mercy, and to show mercy to others. In November of 1935, Faustina created the rules for a new contemplative religious congregation devoted to the Divine Mercy. In December, she visited a house in Vilnius that she had seen in a vision as the first convent for the new congregation.

The next month, Faustina visited Archbishop Jałbrzykowski to discuss the new congregation, but he reminded her of her perpetual vows to the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. In March, 1936, after telling her superiors of her thoughts about leaving her order to found a new order, she was transferred to Waldenow, which is southwest of Warsaw.

The first Divine Mercy pamphlet, which contained the image was created by Fr. Sopocko and given an imprimatur by Archbishop Jałbrzykowski. Copies were sent to Faustina in Warsaw.

Later in 1936, she became ill with what is believed to be tuberculosis and she was moved to the sanatorium in Pradnik, Krakow. She prayed the chaplet frequently for the conversion of sinners and kept her diary for the remaining 2 years of her life. In August of 1937, Fr. Sopocko asked Faustina to write the instructions for the Novena of Divine Mercy, which she received in a vision from Jesus on Good Friday of 1937.

The message of Divine Mercy grew in 1937. That year, the first holy cards with the Divine Mercy image were created, a pamphlet was published entitled Christ, King of Mercy, and on November 10, 1937, Faustina’s Mother Superior showed her the booklets while Faustina lay in her bed, her health deteriorating. The booklets contained the novena, chaplet, and the Litany of Divine Mercy. Meanwhile, her visions became more intense and she could sense the end of her life was near. By June of 1938, she was so ill that she could no longer write.

In September, Fr. Sopocko visited her in the sanatorium, finding her in very poor health, but in ecstasy, praying. In September, she was transferred back home to Krakow as her end was near, where Fr. Sopocko visited her one last time in the convent. On October 5, 1938, Faustina made a final confession and died in Krakow. She was buried on October 7 and now rests at the Basilica of Divine Mercy in Krakow.

The Divine Mercy Devotion

Divine Mercy Image

In 1942 Archbishop Jałbrzykowski was arrested by the Nazis, but Father Sopocko and other professors went into hiding near Vilnius for about two years. Sopocko used his time in hiding to establish a new religious congregation devoted to the Divine Mercy. After the War, Sopocko wrote the constitution for the congregation and assisted in founding the Congregation of the Sisters of the Divine Mercy. By 1951, there were 150 Divine Mercy centers in Poland.

After Faustina died, her sister nuns sent her writings to the Vatican. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani tried unsuccessfully to persuade Pope Pius XII to condemn the writings. In 1959 he included her writings on a list he submitted to the newly elected Pope John XXIII in 1959. The Pope signed the decree placing her work on the Index of Forbidden Books. The Vatican forbade the Divine Mercy devotion, and reprimanded Sopocko, suppressing all of his work. The Divine Mercy writings remained on the Index until it was abolished on June 14, 1966 by Pope Paul VI.

In 1965 Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow who would later become Pope John Paul II opened a new investigation. In 1967 he submitted some documents about Faustina to the Vatican, requesting the start of the process of her beatification. The case was accepted for review in 1968.

In 1977, just before he was elected as John Paul II, Wojtyla asked the Vatican to reconsider the ban on the Divine Mercy devotion. In April 1978, the Vatican lifted the ban, and identified misunderstandings created by a poor Italian translation of Kowalska's Diary. Afterward, the questionable material could not be correlated with the original because of difficulties stemming from World War II and the subsequent Communist era.

Faustina was beatified on April 18, 1993 and canonized on April 30, 2000 - the first saint in the 21st century. Divine Mercy Sunday is now celebrated on the Sunday after Easter.