You probably already know about the Devotion to Divine Mercy in the Catholic Church. Divine Mercy images can be seen in churches around the world, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy is very popular, and Divine Mercy Sunday is an official feast day of the Church. The founder of the devotion, Faustina Kowalska, is even honored as a Saint.
But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, the whole devotion was actually suppressed for many years and almost lost for good. It only came back due to prayer, perseverance, and the hand of Divine Providence.
This is its amazing story.
The devotion to Divine Mercy as we practice it today came from St. Faustina Kowalska, a polish nun who lived in the early 20th century. Through regular visions of Jesus and the saints, Jesus himself gave her the details of the devotion. She wrote descriptions of what she saw and heard in her diary, which are now published in a book called The Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul.
Warning her fellow nuns that a great war was coming and that they should pray for Poland, she died at the age of 33 on October 5th, 1938.
A year later, Germany invaded Poland. Impressed by the accuracy of her prophecy, Archbishop Jałbrzykowski of Vilnius Poland allowed for public use of the Divine Mercy devotion for the first time. The devotion quickly spread through Poland and was a source of strength and inspiration during the terrible years of the war. By 1941, it was already spreading around the world and, despite the war, had made it all the way to the United States. St. Faustina’s spiritual director during her earthly years, Fr. Sopoćko [Now Blessed] who was a Polish Priest was inspired to start a religious congregation (something like a religious order) related to the devotion.
With the end of the war, the devotion spread even faster. By 1951, just 13 years after St. Faustina’s death, there were 150 religious centers in Poland dedicated to Divine Mercy. In 1955, a Polish bishop, with the approval of Pope Pius XII, started a religious congregation dedicated to spreading the devotion.
Pope Pius XII blessed a Divine Mercy image in 1956 and allowed many bishops throughout the world to give their blessing to writings about the devotion. Vatican Radio even started promoting the devotion in its programming.
Two Decades of Suppression.
But not everyone in the hierarchy approved of the devotion. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the head of the Holy Office (predecessor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith – the Vatican’s theological watchdog department), tried to persuade Pope Pius XII to sign a condemnation of St. Faustina’s works, but was rebuffed.
When Pope John XXIII was elected Pope in 1958, Cardinal Ottaviani had another chance. The Cardinal included her works on a list of books to consider banning soon after the new pope was elected. On March 6th, 1959, the Holy Office finally issued a document that forbad the use of “images and writings that promote devotion to Divine Mercy in the forms proposed by Sister Faustina.”
During the time of Pope John XXIII, the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office, in a plenary meeting held on November 19, 1958, made the following decisions:
1. The supernatural nature of the revelations made to Sister Faustina is not evident.
2. No feast of Divine Mercy is to be instituted.
3. It is forbidden to divulge images and writings that propagate this devotion under the form received by Sister Faustina.
The second decree of the Holy Office was on March 6, 1959, in which the following was established:
1. The diffusion of images and writings promoting the devotion to Divine Mercy under the form proposed by the same Sister Faustina was forbidden.
2. The prudence of the bishops is to judge as to the removal of the aforesaid images that are already displayed for public honor.
It seemed like St. Faustina’s devotion to Divine Mercy might be over with.
A Second Look
The Polish people were crushed – including many of the clergy. One such person was Karol Wojtyła. A “rising star” in the church’s hierarchy, he was influential in the drafting of several key documents of Vatican II and was appointed Archbishop of Kraków at the relatively young age of 43 in 1964. Within a year of having his new position, and with approval from the Vatican, he started a fresh investigation into her works.
He discovered that the previous condemnation of St. Faustina’s works had been mostly a result of those at the Vatican reading her works not in their original Polish but via faulty French and Italian translations.
Then in April of 1978, after decades of work and prayer by the supporters of the Divine Mercy devotion, the Vatican reversed its previous ban on her works! Catholics around the world rejoiced! Just a few months later, the now-Cardinal Wojtyła, who had led the effort, was made Pope John Paul II.
LIFTING THE BAN
SACRED CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH.
Notification regarding the devotion to Divine Mercy in the form proposed by Sr. Faustina Kowalska.
The question has arisen from different regions, especially from Poland and from those in authority, whether the prohibitions contained in the “Notification” of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, published in the AAS (1959), p. 271, regarding devotion to Divine Mercy in the form proposed by Sr. Faustina Kowalska, are considered still in force.
Having examined many original documents unknown in 1959, considering the circumstances that have profoundly changed, and having taken into account the opinion of many Polish Ordinaries, this Sacred Congregation declares that the prohibitions contained in the cited “Notification” are no longer binding.
From the Seat of the Sacred Congregation, April 15, 1978.
+ Franjo Cardinal Seper
+ Jérôme Hamer, O.P.,
Titular Archbishop of Lorium
Why The Devotion Was Banned In The First Place.
This provides the clue as to why the devotion was banned in the first place. The fact is that the only translation the Vatican possessed of the Diary of St. Faustina in the 1950s was a faulty translation of the book into Italian, which included gross distortions of what Sister Faustina had written (for example, our Lord said to Sister Faustina, “I am Love and Mercy itself” in Diary 1074, but the Italian translation makes it appear that Faustina was making this claim about herself!).
It was almost impossible for religious documents of any kind to be smuggled out of Poland to the Vatican in the 1950s because Poland was trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and Eastern Europe lay under the grip of Stalin. Thus, the Vatican placed a ban on the message and devotion largely because it was operating without the original documents, that is, on the basis of misinformation.
Cardinal Wojtyla knew this, and when the opportunities arose later to get the correct information about Sister Faustina to the authorities in Rome, he and his confreres in the Polish episcopate did not hesitate to do so. Moreover, by 1978 the authorities in Rome also had on file the extraordinarily detailed theological analysis of Sister Faustina’s Diary written in French by Fr. Ignacy Rozycki, one of Europe’s leading Thomists and a member of the Pontifical Theological Commission.
This weighty tome by Fr. Rozycki exonerated Sister Faustina of all suspicions of heterodoxy, and must have been another factor that led the CDF to lift the ban.
Saint Faustina and Saint John Paul II.
Although they never met on earth, although both stayed in Kraków Poland for two months at the same time, they are joined by something more profound and more powerful: by spiritual ties, sensitivity to the mystery of Divine and human Mercy, the style of life and ministry in this spirit and the message of Mercy, transmitted by Jesus in the 1930s. Sister Faustina transcribed it faithfully in her Diary. Jesus told her:
“Be at peace, My daughter. This Work of Mercy is Mine; there is nothing of you in it. It pleases Me that you are carrying out faithfully what I have commanded you to do, not adding or taking away a single word” (Diary 1667).
In turn, Holy Father John Paul II as Pope, showed it to the world along with the life of Sister Faustina as “God’s gift for our times” and transmitted for the third millennium of faith.
The image of the Divine Mercy, features the characteristic pale and red rays and the caption: Jesus, I trust in You. On the one hand the image shows God’s merciful love for man, demonstrated to the fullest in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. On the other hand, the image reminds us of the Gospel urge for trust in God and active love of the neighbour, the most adequate response of man to God’s prevenient love.
Karol Wojtyła [Later Pope John Paul II] began to discover this message of Mercy already during the Second World War, when as a worker in the Solvay factory he would visit the chapel of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy [St. Faustina’s Convent Chapel] in Kraków-Łagiewniki, with a venerated image of the Merciful Jesus.
After receiving the Holy Orders, Fr. Wojtyła celebrated here devotions to the Divine Mercy, commenced by the spiritual advisor to Sister Faustina towards the end of her earthly life, Fr. Józef Andrasz SJ. It was then that he got acquainted with the message of the Apostle of Divine Mercy.
Convinced about the need of sharing this gift with the world and having made sure that the Notification of the Holy See forbidding the spread of Divine Mercy worship in the forms transmitted by Sister Faustina was lifted, he commenced the procedure aiming at raising her to the glory of the altars. The chapel, where the earthly remains of the Apostle of Divine Mercy was relocated in 1968, was entered on a list of shrines of the Diocese of Kraków.
“Right from the beginning of my ministry in St Peter’s See in Rome, I considered this message my special task. Providence has assigned it to me in the present situation of man, the Church and the world” (Collevalenza, 22 November 1981).
As Pope, he beatified Sister Faustina (18 April 1993) and canonised her (30 April 2000).
“Today my joy is truly great in presenting the life and witness of Sr. Faustina Kowalska to the whole Church as a gift of God for our time. Jesus told Sr. Faustina: Humanity will not find peace until it turns trustfully to divine mercy (Diary, 300). Through the work of the Polish religious, this message has become linked for ever to the 20th century, the last of the second millennium and the bridge to the third. It is not a new message but can be considered a gift of special enlightenment that helps us to relive the Gospel of Easter more intensely, to offer it as a ray of light to the men and women of our time”. – Pope St. John Paul II.
St. Faustina herself predicted the spread and growth of this devotion before her death, She states in her diary – “I feel certain that my mission will not come to an end upon my death, but will only begin…” (Diary 281).
For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world!
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