Saint of the Day – St. Faustina Kowalska and The Divine Mercy
October 5 is the feast day of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905 – 1938) whose brief life and spiritual journal inspired The Divine Mercy Movement in the Catholic Church. She was baptized Helen Kowalska and came from a small village Glogowiecz near Lodz, Poland. She was the third of ten children and had only 3 years of formal education. At 14 she began working in well to do house holds as a governess. (Given her limited education she was probably more of a domestic servant.) Helen Kowalska was known as a pleasant, cheerful, and talkative young woman. When she was almost 20 she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy in Cracow as a lay sister on August 1, 1925. She worked mainly in the kitchen and the garden. She pronounced her first vows on April 30, 1926 and became Sr. Mary Faustina of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
In the convent she was pleasant, cheerful, and obedient according to her fellow sisters. She was pleasantly unremarkable until the evening of February 22, 1931 when she had her first vision of Christ, as the King of Mercy. In the years that followed she received her call to be an apostle and secretary of Christ in promoting an awareness of the Divine Mercy and living a life a life of mercy. It was not smooth sailing by any means. She was honest with her spiritual directors and confessors but no one could reassure her that the visions were really legitimate. Her fellow sisters generally viewed her experience with a high degree of skepticism. St. Faustina kept her pleasant disposition and continued to carry out all of her tasks with industry. Nevertheless, she became a social outcast and her life became miserable. Understandably, she identified with Christ in His Passion.
Relief came in 1933 after St. Faustina professed her perpetual vows. Her spiritual advisors helped her to have confidence in the visions and her relationship with Christ. When the first painting of her vision was completed she was disappointed that it conveyed very little of the great beauty of her vision. The painting was first publicly displayed in 1935 in Vilnius which was in Poland at the time and is now the capital of Lithuania. The devotion really took off with outbreak of World War II in 1939 a year after St. Faustina’s death and grew steadily for the next 20 years. The Holy See banned the devotion in 1959 due to wording in translations of devotional material. Carol Wojtyla the Archbishop of Cracow worked unceasingly for 20 years to get the ban lifted. He succeeded six months before he was elected Pope John Paul II.
In a way it not surprising that Pope John Paul II the first Polish pope, would have been inspired by her as young man. In fact John Paul II canonized (declared her a saint) St. Faustina in 2000 as the first saint of the new millenium and as a model for Christians in the third millenium. The pope also designated the second Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday for the entire church. The day the Pope made these pronouncements, he said that it was the happiest day of his life. John Paul II would later die on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005.
What is surprising is that such a devotion, which focuses on helping others in physical and spiritual need, would become so strong in Poland at a time when it was about to be ripped asunder by Hitler and Stalin and would reappear in a different shape and location behind the Iron Curtain as a Communist country.
Unlike many devotional movements in the Catholic Church which focus on the individual’s relationship with Christ, the Divine Mercy movement emphasizes a ministry of service to others and society. Christians are called to be the compassion of God here and now. The movement focuses on the spiritual and corporal works of mercy as outlined in Matthew 25: 35-46. ( For a list of the Works of Mercy, please scroll down to the bottom of this link in American Catholic.)
Like many Catholic devotional movements, there is an emphasis on a particular image of Christ, there is a chaplet of prayers, and a novena. Divine Mercy Sunday is now becoming a day of special devotional observance in churches which enshrine the image. The challenge for Catholic culture will be to meet the discomfort and privation of the following of Christ as promoted and lived by St. Faustina Kowalska and Pope John Paul II. If the Divine Mercy becomes yet another icon of personal comfort we will have found yet another way to say no to Christ politely.