In order to understand the life of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska and the remarkable spread of her devotion to The Divine Mercy throughout the world, it helps to begin by learning the story of someone else first: a priest, Fr. Michael Sopocko, who was beatified Sept. 28, 2008, in Bialystok, Poland. This learned, energetic, and well-respected priest, was appointed to be the usual confessor to the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Vilnius in 1933. That's where he met the nun whom the world knows today as St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, the "Apostle of Divine Mercy." The following excerpt is from the book Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press), by Robert Stackpole, STD:
One day, when Fr. Sopocko was hearing confessions at the convent, a sister entered the confessional by the name of Sr. Faustina of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Father Sopocko had heard her confessions before, and he had admired her honesty and her love for Jesus. But this time he was completely stunned by what she had to say. She told him:
In the evening, when I was in my cell, I saw the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment. One hand [was] raised in the gesture of blessing, the other was touching the garment at the breast. From beneath the garment, slightly drawn aside at the breast, there were emanating two large rays, one red, the other pale. In silence I kept my gaze fixed on the Lord; my soul was struck with awe, but also with great joy. After a while, Jesus said to me, 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. ... I am offering people a vessel with which they are to keep coming for graces to the fountain of mercy. That vessel is this image. ... By means of this image I will grant many graces to souls (Diary, 47-48, 327, and 742).
At this point in the story, it helps to imagine oneself in the place of Fr. Sopocko. Sister Faustina was in his confessional pouring out this tale about an apparition of the Lord Jesus, and Jesus was supposedly asking for a new image of Himself to be painted and venerated throughout the world. Father Sopocko asked her the obvious question: Could she paint? No, she said, she could not paint — and even if she could paint, how could she possibly disseminate the image "throughout the world," as Jesus supposedly had commanded? After all, she was a religious sister, confined mostly to the convent. The whole thing sounded terribly improbable. As a result, Fr. Sopocko was not inclined to believe her at first. He wondered whether she might be imagining things, or whether she had simply misinterpreted the Lord's message to her.
Then the situation became worse.
The religious sister later went on to tell him that one of her previous confessors would not believe her, but that Jesus had told her not to worry, because He was going to send her a confessor who would help her to fulfill God's will in these matters. In fact, Jesus had given her a vision of this priest, and the priest in that vision had looked just like him — Fr. Sopocko — and that was why she was confiding all these things to him now. Moreover, Jesus not only wanted a new image of Himself to be painted and spread throughout the world, He also wanted a new feast day in the liturgical calendar: a Feast of The Divine Mercy, to be celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter by the whole Church.
Once again, we can imagine ourselves in Fr. Sopocko's predicament. On the one hand, he knew very well that the Lord does, on rare occasions, give extraordinary private revelations and prophecies to chosen souls for the good of the whole Church. In the 17th century, for example, as we have seen, St. Margaret Mary received from Jesus Himself the special revelations of His Sacred Heart. These revelations were meant to rekindle in the hearts of the faithful an appreciation of His ardent, tender love for souls in an age in which an arid rationalism — if it did not destroy belief in God altogether — portrayed Him merely as the indifferent "Watchmaker" of the universe (Deism) or the Supreme Governor of a system of strict justice and predestination (Jansenism, Calvinism). Sometimes, God does indeed send prophetic revelations to His Church to return His people to the truths of the Gospel.
On the other hand, Fr. Sopocko knew that for every such authentic revelation or prophecy, there are many false ones. Besides, given the obvious practical difficulties in fulfilling the Lord's alleged requests this time, the odds seemed all against authenticity in the case of Sr. Faustina. Hence, Fr. Sopocko did what any devout and prudent pastor would do in such a circumstance: He inquired about Sr. Faustina's character with the superiors of her religious order, and he also sent her to a psychiatrist for a complete mental health exam.
It turns out that the psychiatrist who examined Sr. Faustina gave a positive opinion that she was in perfect mental health. Moreover, the references from Sr. Faustina's superiors were also overwhelmingly positive. They told Fr. Sopocko that Sr. Faustina (Helena Kowalska) was brought up in a family of peasant farmers. Although she had loved her parents dearly, without their permission and without a penny to her name, she had journeyed to the Mother house of the order in Warsaw to follow a vocation to the religious life. Sister Faustina had then endeared herself to almost everyone because of her cheerfulness, her sincerity, and her hard-working nature. "She is a happy child of God," one of her superiors said. In fact, her superiors knew that she had a special devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist (hence her chosen religious name: Sr. Faustina of the Most Blessed Sacrament), and they had also helped guide her through "the dark night of the soul," so they knew she had a deep and rich mystical life as well. In short, they looked upon Faustina as an extraordinary and model sister.
Father Sopocko was then torn within himself. Evidently, this sister who had reported to him these extraordinary revelations from Jesus Christ was not only perfectly sane; she was also one of the most prayerful and virtuous nuns in the order. What could he do?
He decided to withhold judgment. He prayed for more light. He also put her to the test. Yet she was always willing to obey him, and she told him that Jesus had expressly commanded her to entrust herself completely to his spiritual direction.
Then Fr. Sopocko did a very wise thing, for which future generations will always be grateful. He asked Sr. Faustina to begin to write down, in a diary, all the conversations between herself and the Lord, beginning from the very first stirrings of the spiritual life within her. This she did under obedience, although she found it very difficult to express herself in writing, since she had barely three years of formal education. As a result, she wrote very plainly and without ornament, like a child.
Nevertheless, Fr. Sopocko became more and more astonished at what she was writing. Some years later, he wrote:
I was amazed that she, a simple nun, with hardly any education, and without the time to read ascetic works, could speak so knowledgeably of theological matters, and such [difficult] ones as the mystery of the Holy Trinity, or the Divine Mercy and other attributes of God, with the expertise of a consummate theologian (as quoted in the biography of St. Faustina by Maria Tarnawska, Saint Sister Faustina: Her Life and Mission, 4th edition, p. 425).
On page after page, the Diary of St. Faustina proclaims the message of God's merciful love as the very heart of the Gospel. It was not a new teaching, of course. It is just a new expression and a clear focus on the center of the Catholic faith: the loving kindness and compassion of God. In private revelations recorded in her Diary, Jesus had spoken to her words such as these:
I am love and mercy itself. ... Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet. ... My mercy is greater than your sins, and those of the entire world. ... I let My Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of mercy for you. Come then with trust to draw graces from this fountain. ... The graces of My mercy are drawn by the means of one vessel only, and that is trust. The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive (Diary, 1074, 699, 1485, 1578).
Sister Faustina's devotional life was driven by her sincere desire to put her complete trust in the Lord's mercy in every aspect of life. For her, Jesus was "Mercy Incarnate," and the Lord had given her a mission: to proclaim this message of The Divine Mercy throughout the world, especially by spreading the Image of Mercy and the celebration of the Feast of Mercy. Moreover, this message and devotion was to be a fresh call to her, and to all people, to be merciful to one another. Jesus had said to her:
My daughter, look into My Merciful Heart and reflect its compassion in your own heart, and in your deeds, so that you who proclaim My mercy to the world may yourself be aflame with it (Diary, 1688).