When I attended the vigil Mass this past Saturday, there was a prominent display of the painting of Jesus as Divine Mercy in the sanctuary, since this was the first Sunday after Easter, also known as Divine Mercy Sunday. I was a bit troubled, because the image of Our Lord was not the same as the original painting described by St. Faustina. As you may know, St. John Paul II had a special devotion to Sister Faustina and the image of the Divine Mercy, and it was during his pontificate that Sister Faustina was beatified and canonized. Sister died in 1938, probably from tuberculosis, in a convent in Krakow, Poland when she was only 33 – the same age as Our Lord when he was crucified.
As we are familiar with the cause for canonization of our own Father Michael J. McGivney, any such cause begins with an investigative process to assess the live and virtues of the individual. In 1965, Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Kraków Poland began, with the approval of the head of the Holy Office, the informative process on Sister Faustina’s life and virtues. In 1967 he submitted his findings to the Vatican and officially requested the start of the official process of her beatification. Sister Faustina was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday (April 18) 1993 and canonized by him on Divine Mercy Sunday (April 30) 2000, also on that date declaring the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday for the Universal Church. Pope John Paul II died in April 2005 on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, was himself beatified by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2011 (May 1), and was canonized by Pope Francis on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2014 (April 27).
But what about the image? The image with which we are all familiar, since it is the most reproduced, hangs in the Basilica of Divine Mercy in Kracow, Poland, where Sister Faustina’s remains are also interred. It was painted in 1943 by Adolph Hyla as a votive offering in thanksgiving for his family’s survival during WWII. The original image, the only one which Sister Faustina ever saw, was painted by Eugene Kazimierowski at the direction of Sister Faustina. Today it hangs above the altar in what was a small parish church in Vilnius, Lithuania.
I found the story of the image of Diving Mercy fascinating. Its story begins with a 19 year old girl named Helena Kowalska attending a dance in the city of Łódź, Poland in 1924. Helena later said that while at the dance, she had a vision of a suffering Jesus. She then went to the Cathedral. From there, she said Jesus instructed her to depart for Warsaw immediately and to join a convent. She took a train for Warsaw (around 85 miles away) without gaining the permission of her parents, knowing anyone in Warsaw, or bringing any belongings other than the dress she was wearing. After she arrived, she entered the first church she saw [Saint James Church in Warsaw] and attended Mass. She asked the priest, Father Dąbrowski, for suggestions, and he recommended staying with a Mrs. Lipszycowa, a local woman whom he considered trustworthy, until she found a convent.
Helena approached several convents in Warsaw, but was turned down every time, in one case being told that “we do not accept maids here”, referring to her poverty. Helena could read and write, but had only three or four years of education. After several weeks of searching, the mother superior at the convent of Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy decided to give Faustina a chance and conditionally accepted her, if she could pay for her religious habit. Helena knew nothing of the convent she was entering except that she believed she was led there.
For the next year, she worked as a housemaid to save money, making deposits at the Convent throughout the year, and finally gained acceptance. On 30 April 1926, at the age of 20 years, she received her habit and took the religious name of Sister Maria Faustina of the Blessed Sacrament.
For the next few years, Sister Faustina served the religious community, typically working in the kitchen or the vegetable garden. Then it happened. As Sister later recorded in her diary for February 22, 1931:
“In the evening, when I was in my cell, I became aware of the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment. One hand was raised in blessing, the other was touching the garment at the breast. From the opening of the garment at the breast there came forth two large rays, one red and the other pale. In silence I gazed intently at the Lord; my soul was overwhelmed with fear, but also with great joy. After a while Jesus said to me, ‘paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the inscription: Jesus, I trust in You.'”
Later, Our Lord again spoke to her:
“The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous; the red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls. These two rays issued forth from the depths of My most tender Mercy at that time when My agonizing Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross….Fortunate is the one who will dwell in their shelter, for the just hand of God shall not lay hold of him.”
As instructed, since she was not a painter herself, Sister tried to find someone to paint the image. She was finally successful when she was assigned to the convent at Vilnius.
Shortly after arriving in Vilnius, Faustina met Father Michael Sopoćko, the newly appointed confessor to the nuns. Sopoćko was also a professor of pastoral theology at Stefan Batory University (now called Vilnius University).
When Faustina went to Sopoćko for her first confession, she told him that she had been conversing with Jesus, who had a plan for her. After some time, in 1933 Father Sopoćko insisted on a complete psychiatric evaluation of Faustina by a psychiatrist and a physician associated with the convent. Faustina passed the required tests and was declared of sound mind.
Thereafter, Father Sopoćko began to have confidence in Faustina and supported her efforts. He also advised Faustina to begin writing a diary and to record the conversations and messages from Jesus that she was reporting. Faustina told her confessor, and now spiritual advisor, about the Divine Mercy image, and in January 1934, Sopoćko introduced her to the artist Eugene Kazimierowski who was also a professor at the university.
The first public exposition of the painting was on 26–28 April 1935, at the church of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius. In 1937, on the Sunday after Easter, the current Feast of Divine Mercy, the picture was put on display beside the main altar in St. Michael’s Church, Vilnius. Due to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania after the Second World War, the painting remained hidden from public view for many years. It was during this time that the Hyla image was painted and gained notoriety. Amazingly, though in the possession of the atheist Soviet authorities all during the Cold War, the original image was saved from destruction. Finally, in 1986, it was rescued from an abandoned church in Belarus near the Russian border by a local parish priest, who today is the archbishop of Moscow. In 1970 the Soviet authorities had closed this church and removed the entire contents of the church, but by some extraordinary miracle they overlooked the Image of Divine Mercy.
The image was secretly returned to Vilnius, where today, the painting is displayed above the altar in Holy Trinity Church, a Gothic single-nave church built in the 15th century. On Divine Mercy Sunday, 18 April 2004 under the care of his Eminence Cardinal Audrys Bačkis, the church was restored, blessed, and given the title Shrine of Divine Mercy.
Regardless of which image of Divine Mercy is venerated, we have it on good authority that the image itself is not of utmost importance. As Sister Faustina tells us in her diary:
“Once, when I was visiting the artist [Eugene Kazimirowski] who was painting the image and saw that it was not as beautiful as Jesus is, I felt very sad about it, but I hid this deep in my heart. When we had left the artist’s house, Mother Superior [Irene] stayed in town to attend to some matters while I returned home alone. I went immediately to the chapel and wept a good deal. I said to the Lord, “Who will paint You as beautiful as You are?” Then I heard these words: Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace.”