e-mail us
A saint despite Vatican reservations

The story of St. Faustina Kowalska is simple enough. Born in 1905 into a Polish farm family, she had only three years of schooling before she began work as a domestic. She began to ask about being a nun at 14, but her parents were opposed. At 18 she entered the Sisters of Our Lady of Divine Mercy. To all outward appearances she led a quiet life, working as a cook, gardener and porter. Frequently ill, she died of tuberculosis in 1938.

Inside, however, she was living a dramatic spiritual adventure centering on frequent, sometimes daily, appearances of Jesus, Mary and saints. Jesus spoke to her about all manner of things (once reassuring her that she would have a single room when she had to go to the hospital), but the focal point was always mercy -- God’s desire to give it, humanity’s need for it, and the methods by which it could be obtained.

Although Faustina’s diary is the only mystical text composed in Polish, it might have ended up in the ashbin of history had it not been for Karol Wojtyla, later to become Pope John Paul II.

In 1959, the Holy Office (the Vatican’s doctrinal agency, today known as the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith) issued a cease and desist order against Faustina’s diary and the devotion to Divine Mercy, a ban that was to last almost 20 years, until 1978. Wojtyla had long been working to reverse the verdict, having launched the beatification process for Faustina in 1965 while he was archbishop of Kraków.

Officially, the 20-year ban is now attributed to misunderstandings created by a faulty Italian translation of the Diary, but in fact there were serious theological reservations -- Faustina’s claim that Jesus had promised a complete remission of sin for certain devotional acts that only the sacraments can offer, for example, or what Vatican evaluators felt to be an excessive focus on Faustina herself.

John Paul has pushed no devotion further or faster. His second encyclical, 1980’s Dives in Misericordia, was inspired by Faustina. He beatified her in 1993, and canonized her in April 2000 as the first saint of the third Christian millennium. He approved a special Divine Mercy Mass for the Sunday after Easter in 1994, and celebrated it himself in St. Peter’s Square before a crowd of 200,000 in April 2001. He assigned the Church of the Holy Spirit in Sassia in Rome as a headquarters for the Divine Mercy movement in 1994, and just this month approved a special indulgence for taking part in Divine Mercy Sunday.

Some critics say the content of Faustina’s message of divine mercy is unoriginal, even banal. But Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, John Paul’s successor as archbishop of Kraków, said in response to an NCR question Aug. 18 that Faustina “reminds us of the gospel we had forgotten.”

Macharski added that Vatican disapproval was never “absolutely negative,” but merely a “warning” to use caution. He said it was Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office, who gave a green light for a sainthood investigation in the 1960s so testimony could be collected while witnesses were still alive. He did so despite his own office’s doubts.

Macharski added that in the end it was Paul VI, not John Paul II, who reversed the ban on Faustina’s work in 1978.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002