|Icon written by Daniel Nichols|
Sister Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938)
People who use words like 'Low Sunday' or 'chasuble' or 'stole' are insufferable to me. If they pronounce the word 'mass' to rhyme with 'arse' I want to hit them in the face. Nor do they efface that reaction if they wear boaters or belong to the ghastly University G & S society. When John Paul II turned the Sunday after Easter into 'Divine Mercy Sunday' I did not care one way or the other. Not so a young man who came into my office in April 2000 - then a high Church Anglican and now a pillar of Scottish traditional Catholicism. He was appalled that, as he put it, 'Low Sunday,' had been eviscerated for the sake of 'a foreign, semi-literate nun.' Our chaplain remarked that the gentleman managed to combine in one sentence xenophobia, misogyny and contempt for simple people.
John Paul II was actually no liturgical traditionalist - he authorized altar girls, casually added an extra Mystery round to the Rosary, celebrated rowdy World Youth days, and, as we have seen, abolished 'Low Sunday' for the sake of the 'divine mercy' devotion initiated by one of his compatriots, Sister Faustina. It is unusual for a professional philosopher and still more a Cardinal to so far to appreciate the charismatic aspect of religion, but Catholics have been lucky in our last three popes, Francis, Ben, and JPII.
At the time of the conversation, I had no idea what it was about. Having no interest in the liturgy, popular devotions or the insides of churches built after 1850, I only vaguely - if at all - connected 'Divine Mercy', the Polish nun Sister Faustina and the horrible painting of Jesus with red and white stripes emanating from him which had become customary to see near the lectern of many Catholic Churches. Many popular devotions invented through the visions of holy nuns have been aesthetically disastrous - think of the Sacred Heart.
In Holy Week we read the lines - and I do not quote from the appalling translation we heard last week - '...he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not' (Isaiah 53.2-3).
Later, when I was supervising a PhD about another 20th century mystic, Adrienne von Speyr, I recommended to my student that she watch a movie about Sister Faustina. I believe that is how the DVD came into my possession; I cannot think how else it could have done so.
I saw it many years later with graduate students in the Mid West, who told me that, as 'saint movies' go, it is really not that bad. All I remember from it is many scenes of burning, apocalyptically haunted cornfields, with red suns: these are supposed to indicate the visions. I also recall the scenes showing the psychiatric tests which were imposed on the good Sister by her confessor, and the hard work she had to do extracting vegetables from their conventual garden for the nuns' sustenance. Given that the naturalistic genre doesn't really work well for depicting miraculous events such as visions and conversations with Jesus Christ, it is not a bad movie, and one can recommend it for getting some sense of the Saint's biography.
Sister Faustina was born Helena Kowalska in 1905 in Krakow, the city where Karol Wojtyla would later be a University professor. Her parents turned down her early requests to join a convent. They were poor people and they needed her to work to help support them. She came from what we today would consider real poverty. When in 1924, she heard Jesus telling her to leave town to get into a convent, she did a runner to Warsaw. Several convents turned her down on account of her poverty. Its hard to imagine that happening today, when convents seem desperate for young vocations. But to be fair, in any era, its not normal for postulants to present themselves at the convent door saying they've been instructed by Jesus to join a convent in this city. Most Catholics in any era would think that is a sign of madness. We have never simply welcomed visionaries with open arms. They need to smash their way in or come in through the back door.
The Order which Sister Faustina eventually joined, 'The Congregation of our Lady of Mercy,' would not take her until she had her own habit, so she spent a few years saving up for it and sewing it. Again, it makes for a remarkable contrast with the earnest young women who do the rounds of the convents to find out what suits them.
So it was not until 1926 that she joined her order; she took her vows in 1928. At this time, Lithuania was a sort of inferior subsection of Poland, like Ireland and the United Kingdom. She was packed off to the order's house in Vilnius to work as a cook, which perhaps indicates what the other Sisters made of their new colleague. She was then sent back to the dismal sounding township of Płock. It's a Yiddishy name: most of the inhabitants of Płock had been Jewish since the 13th century. Most would die in the Shoah. No wonder Sister Faustina burned with visions of fire in the 1930s. Later on, in 1939, the first seeds of the validation of her vision of the 'Divine Mercy image' would be Archbishop Jałbrzykowski's recognition that she foresaw the coming tragedy.
It was in Płock in 1931 that Jesus first appeared to Faustina in the white garment with the Red and Pale lights sticking out of it. He told her to paint his image as the 'King of Divine Mercy,' and to engrave on the painting the legend, 'My Jesus I trust in you.' He asked for this image to be venerated, and he promised that 'the soul that will venerate this image will not perish', that is (I'm guessing), not be damned to hell. So it's very important to venerate this image. Faustina did not know how to carry out the instruction because she could not paint. This part of the story is reminiscent of Bernadette of Lourdes' saying that some representation of the Apparition was quite unlike Our Lady.
After taking her final vows in 1933, Faustina was sent back to Vilnius (do you get the feeling the sisters kept moving her around? - maybe not, maybe they just thought she was a useful little creature), where she worked in the garden - as I mentioned, the movie brings out well what hard toil it is to raise one's food from the soil. The return to Vilnius was a providential move for Faustina, because she was befriended by the convent's confessor, a professor of pastoral theology named Michael Sopocko. On hearing that she regularly conversed with Jesus, he ordered a psychiatric examination, which she passed. He encouraged Faustina to write down the conversations in a journal, and put her in touch with a painter-professor friend, Kazimirowski.
|Photo of image painted|
by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski
Kazimirowski painted the image as described to him by Faustina. It was first exhibited, and the 'divine mercy' devotion performed in the First Sunday after Easter, ie what the young gentleman would have called 'Low Sunday', in 1935. The idea of the devotion was to be given mercy by Jesus, to have faith in Jesus' mercy, and to show mercy to other people, even including high churchmen.
Faustina wanted to start a new Order, the Congregation of Divine Mercy. But the Catholic Church is not like that. There are rules, as the Archbishop Jałbrzykowski reminded the young woman: for instance, you have to stick with the religious Order you have joined (not that this proved much of an obstacle for Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, or Saint Dominic). She was packed off to a different convent, in Walendow. But Jałbrzykowski and Father Sopocki did continue to spread her devotion to the divine Mercy.
Sister Faustina died, aged only 33, in April 1938. By 1939, Cardinal Jałbrzykowski saw that she had accurately predicted the Second World War, with its invasions of Poland. This gave him a good pretext for further extending the display of the Divine Mercy image and encouraging devotions to it.
After the War, Sopocko was able to start the Congregations of Divine Mercy which Faustina had wanted.
But it was the 1950s, a time when the most damaging thing a Roman cleric could say about an idea was that it was 'dangerous.' Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani at what we now call the C.D.F., but which then was called the Holy Office forbade the further spread of 'images and writings that promote devotion to the Divine Mercy in the forms proposed by Sister Faustina.' Maybe the authorities feared that people saw the image and the devotion as a 'get out of hell free' card. The image and devotion to it were 'Indexed' from the 1959 to 1978. This was despite its being championed by Cardinal Wojtyla, first as Archbishop of Krakow and later as Pope JPII. The prohibition was lifted in 1978. One can see from this how much it meant to John Paul, and why it was not a casual act of liturgical vandalism for him to replace 'low Sunday' with Divine Mercy Sunday.
Over a hundred million Catholics are now attached to the Divine Mercy image and practice the devotion and the Novena.
I still don't much like the image Kazimirowski produced. I don't like this shiney, doe-eyed Jesus. A few years back now, the iconographer Dan Nichols produced for me an 'Icon' version of the image, and I keep it in my office. It was on the cover of a book I co-wrote called 'Illuminating Faith.' When I told one of my co-authors, the son of an art historian, that I planned to put the 'Divine Mercy' image on the cover of our book, he said, 'no it's kitsch.' Its one of the great things about Catholicism that we have kitschy stuff. You could even say that our conception of God is pretty kitschy by some standards. Sister Faustina was a great saint, and therefore a great individual. I mean no disrespect to this individuality to say that she was one of a great wave of Charismatics which the Church has known in the past hundred and twenty years. This new outpouring of visions and auditions is here to help the Church in our difficult times.
Grumpy teaches Systematic Theology in the Mid-West. She also wrote about St. Thomas Aquinas for this series.