|| Movement once banned becomes guiding force in
a popes life
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Sr. Salvatricze, a twenty-something native of Krakow, is a convinced, enthusiastic member of the Sisters of Our Lady of Divine Mercy, and its not for lack of other options. For one thing, she is stunningly attractive, suggesting a young Audrey Hepburn in a habit. Her English is perfect, shes quick-witted and funny, and she is as polished as a high-priced lawyer. One can easily imagine her on CNN International or serving in the European Parliament.
Why, then, in a world that would lay itself at her feet, did she choose life as a semi-cloistered nun?
In an interview with NCR the day before the pope came to visit, it was clear she has a faith to move mountains -- or, more accurately, hurricanes.
Salvatricze guides groups of pilgrims around the Shrine of Divine Mercy, the center of a worldwide devotion to Gods mercy launched by early 20th century Polish nun St. Faustina Kowalska, whose diary of revelations and mystical experiences (including bi-location and a hidden stigmata) runs to more than 600 pages.
Salvatricze serves as a guide for pilgrims, and in this capacity she hears about an ever-growing number of signs and wonders attributed to Divine Mercy. For example, she said, a group of elderly women from Florida recently came, who told of a time when the National Weather Service had advised them to evacuate their coastal homes because a hurricane was bearing down. They called a local radio station and asked to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet, a prayer that Faustina believed Jesus revealed to her, over the air. They did so for an hour, until, at midnight, the storm suddenly changed course and their homes were spared.
It was Divine Mercy, Salvatricze said. There can be no doubt about it.
Such is the robust faith, which can seem either naïve or inspiring depending on ones point of view, that the Divine Mercy phenomenon inspires.
One person so inspired is clearly Pope John Paul II, who became a devotee of Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion when he worked in the nearby Solvay chemical facility during Nazi occupation, came to Poland August 16-19 largely to dedicate a new shrine built around the convent where the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy tend Faustinas memory.
In wistful remarks on Aug. 17, the pope recalled walking the fields from Solvay to the sisters chapel wearing wooden shoes. How could one imagine then that this man in wooden shoes will one day be consecrating a basilica of the Divine Mercy in Krakow-Legiewniki? he asked.
Faustinas story 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 other 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 -- Gods desire to give it, humanitys need for it, and the methods by which it could be obtained.
These, according to Faustina, are five: prayer before the Divine Mercy image, showing Jesus with two rays of red and white light pouring from his heart with the slogan Jesus, I trust in you; a special prayer known as the chaplet of divine mercy; an annual feast of Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter; an prayer recalling Christs suffering on the cross, to be said every day at 3:00 pm; and the propagation of the Divine Mercy movement throughout the world.
Although Faustinas 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 Vaticans doctrinal agency, today known as the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith) issued a cease and desist order against Faustinas diary and the devotion to Divine Mercy, a ban which was to last almost twenty years, until 1978 -- the year Wojtyla was elected pope. He had long been working to reverse the verdict, having launched the beatification process for Faustina in 1965 while he was archbishop of Krakow.
Officially, the twenty-year ban is now attributed to misunderstandings created by a faulty Italian translation of the Diary, but in fact there were serious theological reservations -- Faustinas 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.
Today too, the Divine Mercy movement is not without critics. Privately, some observers grumble that John Paul is abusing his office to impose his personal spirituality on the Catholic world. The church is not the popes private sandbox, one Roman professor told NCR. Some liturgists also complain that the Feast of Divine Mercy has no business in the Easter season, which is supposed to be about the joy of resurrection, not a sinful humanitys need for mercy.
Wojtyla, however, has brushed such objections aside. As pope, he has pushed no devotion along further or faster. He beatified Faustina 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. Peters 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.
On August 17, during the dedication Mass at the shrine, John Paul said he wished to solemnly entrust the world to Divine Mercy.
I do so with the burning desire that the message of Gods merciful love, proclaimed here through Saint Faustina, may be made known to all the peoples of the earth may this message radiate from this place to our beloved homeland and throughout the world, the pope said.
What does the pope see in Faustina, whose writings can seem like little more than a repetition of basic gospel themes?
He has said on several occasions that it is no accident that this message came to a young nun in Poland in the 1930s, a land scarred by two world wars that witnessed some of the most merciless acts humanity has ever unleashed upon itself. Auschwitz, to take the most obvious example, is less than an hours drive from the shrine. In that context, the pope has suggested, Faustinas insistence that the world will not know peace until it turns to Gods mercy is of extraordinary relevance.
Salvatricze is sure the popes right.
There are so many dwelling in darkness, suffering. There is so much pain, she said. We are wounded, we need to see God as one who loves. Jesus came to Faustina to see, I am mercy itself. Theres no more important message.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCRs Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, posted August 20, 2002