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  Admire God's Creations

“My Gaze Rests On Him” (Jesus to St. Faustina) (15/2010)

Never in history had Jesus charged a person with the task of having a picture of Himself made and shown the precise manner in which it should be painted. This happened on February 22, 1931, in Płock, Poland. The recipient of His instruction was Sister Faustina Kowalska.

When Sister Faustina revealed her vision to her confessor, he understood its message in a figurative sense. In His next revelation, Jesus expressed His wish more concretely: “I want this image, which you will paint with a brush, to be solemnly blessed on the first Sunday after Easter. That Sunday is to be the Feast of Mercy. I desire my priests to proclaim my great mercy toward the souls of sinners. Let the sinner not fear to approach me. The flames of mercy consume me — clamor to be spent. I want to pour them out on these souls” (Diary, 49-50).

Sister Faustina was terrified by the task entrusted to her. Having never had anything to do with drawing and painting, she begged Jesus, “Do not entrust such great things to me. You see that I am inept — a mote of dust” (Diary,  53).

Time marched on, and Jesus continued to entreat Faustina to carry out His request. He “insisted the image of the Merciful Jesus be painted, and I could find no peace,” writes the visionary (Diary, 74). Jesus promised her help. He spoke to her of another confessor. “There is visible help for you on earth. He will help you carry out my will on earth.” Later he said of Fr. Michael Sopoćko: “My gaze rests on him day and night. His crown will embrace as many crowns as there will be souls saved by this work” (Diary, 90). And so it happened. On being transferred to Vilnius by the convent superiors, she was entrusted to the spiritual direction of Fr. Sopoćko. In him she found strength and assurance that by remaining in perfect obedience to his direction she would safely carry out of God’s plans.

Meanwhile, Jesus persisted: “Know that if you neglect the painting of the image and the whole work of mercy, you will have to answer for a great many souls on the Day of Judgment” (Diary, 154). When Faustina repeated these words to her confessor, Fr. Michael realized he had to take the matter in hand. In Vilnius he knew of a painter by the name of Eugene Kazimirowski. Though Vilnius was then home to artists of the highest caliber, Kazimirowski was not one of these; and yet it was he whom Fr. Sopoćko commissioned to paint the image. Perhaps this was God’s will. A great artist might have wished to impose his own vision, while Eugene Kazimirowski, on assuming this work, followed the visionary’s instructions conscientiously, for she remembered every detail of her vision.

Work on the image began on January 2, 1934. Once or twice a week, Sister Faustina accompanied by her superior or another nun would visit the artist’s studio. Fr. Sopoćko also took part in these meetings. At times he even posed for the artist to help him to render the correct arm gesture or disposition of the garment. Though Sister Faustina oversaw every detail of the work to its completion, she was never happy with it. “Once, on visiting the artist and seeing that the image fell short of the true beauty of Jesus, I felt greatly saddened, but I hid this deep in my heart.” Upon returning to the convent, she went straight to the chapel and wept hard. “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 brushstroke lies the greatness of this image, but in my grace’” (Diary, 313).

Vessel of grace

God intended the image to focus attention on the truth of mercy, God’s greatest attribute, and to move hearts to know, believe in, venerate, and imitate the mercy of God.

The image portrays Jesus approaching mankind. With His eyes fixed upon us, He bears us His infinite love and lights the way for us. (The backdrop is dark, while He walks in the light.) To Faustina, he explained the meaning of the rays emanating from His heart. “The two rays denote blood and water. The pale ray stands for the water that makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the blood, which is the life of souls. These two rays streamed from the depths of my tender mercy when the lance opened my agonized heart as I hung on the cross. These rays shield souls from my Father’s wrath. Happy is he who abides in their light, for the just hand of God will not lay hold of him” (Diary, 299). Concerning His gaze, He told Faustina, “My gaze from this image is like my gaze from the cross” (Diary, 326).

At one point, the question arose as to the painting’s subscription, i.e. whether it was really necessary. Jesus then reminded Faustina that He had intended the words “Jesus, I trust in you” to be visible on the image from the very beginning: “I offer the world a vessel with which to keep coming for graces to the fountain of mercy. That vessel is this image with the subscription: ‘Jesus, I trust in you’” (Diary, 327).

Not long afterwards, Jesus revealed to the visionary the intimate connection between the image and the mystery of the Eucharist. “During Mass,” she would record in her diary, “when Jesus was exposed in the Blessed Sacrament, before Holy Communion, I saw two beams radiating from the Blessed Host, just as they appear on the image, one red, the other pale. And they were reflected on each of the sisters and the convent wards, but not in the same manner” (Diary, 336).

The subscription “Jesus, I trust in you” is an invitation to a direct encounter with Jesus. He approaches us with His grace as shown by the rays of light. We can only answer Him with our trust, for what, apart from trust, do we in our wretchedness have to offer the King of Mercy?

When Fr. Sopoćko ordered his spiritual charge to ask Jesus what title they should give the image, Faustina received the answer, “The King of Mercy.”

With the image completed, Jesus desired to have it presented to the world as soon as possible. But since the archbishop’s permission was required for an image to be displayed in a church, Fr. Sopoćko had it temporarily installed in the gallery of the Bernardine Convent attached to St. Michael’s Church, of which he was rector. And there for a time the matter stood.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1935, Jesus made clear His wish to have the image displayed for public veneration. This should take place during the Easter Triduum and on the First Sunday of Easter, and the image should be visible to all the faithful at Ostra Brama [Vilnius’ famous Gate of Our Lady of Mercy — ed.] Everything fell into place. Ostra Brama’s custodian invited Fr. Sopoćko to deliver a series of public teachings on these days, and the latter agreed — provided the image of the King of Mercy be duly displayed. And that is what happened. Fr. Sopoćko proclaimed the greatness of Divine Mercy. The image, beautifully decked with flowers, drew the attention of all the faithful, and the sermons moved hearts. There could be no doubt during those days that the truth of God’s infinite mercy toward sinners — even the worst sinners — was reaching the hearts of people hungering for love, forgiveness, comfort, and hope. In a vision, on Good Friday, Sister Faustina saw the face of Jesus on the image come to life and the rays emanating from His heart penetrate the hearts of the men.

With the solemnity over, the image had to return to the Bernardine Convent, as permission to have it installed in the church was not forthcoming. As yet unconvinced of the authenticity of Sister Faustina’s revelations, the more so, as these were still in progress, the Archbishop of Vilnius, Romuald Jalbrzykowski, delayed his decision. Meanwhile, Jesus demanded ever more persistently that the “vessel of grace,” which He had given to the world, be made available to it. Only after many strenuous efforts, did Fr. Sopoćko finally succeed in having the image blessed and installed in St. Michael’s Church in Vilnius — this on the First Sunday of Easter, April 4, 1937.

Late that year, Jesus said to Faustina: “Already this image is drawing many souls to my love. Through this work, my mercy works on men’s souls” (Diary, 1379). But by then, Sister Faustina was in Krakow, where she had been moved owing to her worsening health. After her departure from Vilnius, Fr. Sopoćko continued his efforts to spread the devotion to Divine Mercy. Leaning on the Church’s teachings, he wrote a pamphlet on this attribute of God, and then published it with a copy of the image of the King of Mercy on the cover. He wanted this work to reach the hands of those who, having adopted the devotion to Divine Mercy, would pass it on to others. Sister Faustina, now seriously ill, was delighted to see the booklet. She wrote to her spiritual director: “O how overjoyed was my soul in God, when I saw this work, in which God’s wishes are so faithfully and deeply reflected. I feel and I know the great effect it is having on souls, for the breath of God is in it.”

Fr. Sopoćko did not stop at this one publication. He wrote articles, delivered sermons, and gave out holy cards bearing the image of the Merciful King and the text of prayers, which Sister Faustina had earlier dictated to him. From the church authorities and clergy, he received little positive response. Relative to the amount of effort he put into the matter, the official results were negligible. But God’s work grew from the bottom up. Jesus Himself assured Faustina of this. Many times she experienced the great graces, especially conversions of souls, flowing from fervent prayer before this image. In one of her last diary entries, in June of 1938, she wrote: “Today I saw the glory of God that flows from the image. Many souls receive graces, though they do not speak of it openly. Despite the work’s vicissitudes, God receives glory because of it; and the efforts of Satan and evil men are shattered and come to naught. In spite of Satan’s anger, the Divine Mercy will triumph over the world and will be worshiped by all souls” (Diary, 1789).

Sister Faustina died in Krakow on October 5, 1938.

Trust under the greatest pressure

The task of spreading a deeper devotion to the Divine Mercy now fell entirely on the shoulders of Fr. Michael Sopoćko. Alas, the time was not favorable to formal petitions and appeals. Everyone’s attention was focused on the growing threat of war. And yet, it was precisely this peril hanging over the nation that prompted souls to seek hope and comfort by turning to Divine Mercy. Prayer cards bearing the image of the Merciful King passed quickly from hand to hand. They were distributed by the Sisters of the Congregation of the Mother of Mercy in Vilnius and Krakow. Sister Faustina’s short prayers printed on the back of these cards entered the repertoire of everyday prayer. Surrounded by a sense of looming danger and lack of trust in the power of pacts and allies, people sought comfort in the Merciful and Almighty.

World War Two broke out. Bloody battles, then terrors lurking throughout the whole occupied land: mass displacement, roundups, deportations, executions, transportations to camps and gulags, forced labor — all this aroused a desire to have on one a visible reminder of the Merciful Jesus; to be able to repeat without cease, “Jesus, I trust in you.” Along with its venerators the image traveled far beyond the borders of Poland and Europe. A lively devotion to Divine Mercy arose in the United States. Little photographs of Eugene Kazimirowski’s image were printed in thousands of copies. Blessed Natalia Tulasiewicz took such a little picture with her to Germany so as to be with her fellow countrymen who had been transported there for forced labor. That very picture became the centerpiece of a small altar, where the barrack inmates gathered to pray together. During the Warsaw Uprising, neighbors gathered around improvised altars in the courtyards, to pray to the Merciful King for victory and an end to the fighting.

Seeing the growing cult of the King of Mercy, Fr. Sopoćko feared that people were beginning to treat the image as a kind of amulet, protecting them from the dangers of war. Happily, this did not happen. The faithful correctly understood the image’s message. With its subscription “Jesus, I trust in you,” it called them to prayer, faith, trust, and consecration of their lives to God. It pointed to Jesus who stood close to them, especially in their affliction.

Then came the postwar period with its grim litany of reversals and misfortunes: Communism imposed on the nation, Church-State tensions, the attendant struggle with genuine patriotism and national culture, militant state-imposed atheism. All this deepened the need for trusting the King of the Universe, History, and Mercy. Jesus’ words spoken to Faustina in 1938 reassured the nation: “I bear a special love for Poland, and if she is obedient to my will, I shall exalt her in power and holiness. From her will come the spark that will prepare the world for my final coming” (Diary, 1732).

The miraculous image’s journey through Calvary

Fortunately, Fr. Sopoćko survived the successive occupations of Vilnius. In 1947, Archbishop Jalbrzykowski, who had moved to Bialystok two years earlier, called on him to assume a teaching post at the seminary in that city. The Sisters of the Congregation of the Mother of Mercy had also left Vilnius before this. Meanwhile, the image of the Merciful King remained in St. Michael’s Church in Vilnius.

In 1948, the authorities of Vilnius, now the capital of the Lithuanian Socialist Soviet Republic, decided to convert the church, which had been closed for some time, into a museum of architecture. All of its devotional objects were either removed or destroyed.

Three years later, while walking past St. Michael’s with a Lithuanian friend, Janina Rodziewicz, a fervent devotee of Divine Mercy, noticed the door to the church ajar. Going inside, they found the premises stripped of all devotional objects except for the image of Merciful King, which hung high on a bare wall. After much negotiation and the changing hands of a tidy sum, the building caretaker took down the picture and gave it to the women, who wasted no time in spiriting it away and entrusting it to friends for safekeeping. Shortly afterwards, Rodziewicz was arrested and imprisoned for three years. After her release, she recovered the picture, which by that time had suffered considerable damage and was in sore need of restoration. Helena Szmigielska, a conservation expert, undertook to execute this work, even though all this had to be carried out in the strictest secrecy. Szmigielska not only restored the image, but also painted a copy of it.

In 1956, Janina Rodziewicz decided to move to Poland. Before leaving, she passed on the restored painting to her confessor, Fr. Elert. One day, while visiting the latter at his private residence, a confrere of his, Fr. Jozef Grasewicz, who was also a friend of Fr. Sopoćko and a great devotee of Divine Mercy, noticed the painting. Since Grasewicz happened then to be looking for a picture for his own church in Nova Ruda, near Grodno, in neighboring Byelorussia [now Belarus — ed.], he secured the priceless canvas and hung it in a commanding place in his church. As a result, devotion to Divine Mercy began to spread in the parish very quickly. Even though Fr. Grasewicz was soon transferred elsewhere, the church in Nova Ruda remained in service until 1970. Only then did the authorities decide to convert it into a warehouse. The interior of the church was subsequently stripped bare except for the image of the Merciful Jesus, which, because it had been hung so high, no one had bothered to remove. Fr. Grasewicz, who continued to watch over the fate of the image from a distance, resolved to spirit it out of Communist Byelorussia. Knowing that the local authorities would not part with it without a fight, he secretly commissioned Maria Gawrosz, a painter in Grodno, to make a copy of it. One night in 1985, when the copy was ready, he quietly substituted the paintings, and thus the miraculous original found itself back in Vilnius, this time in the Church of the Holy Spirit. There it remained until freedom of worship was restored to the independent Republic of Lithuania in 1990. And there it remains to this day, having brought about a great new devotion to the Divine Mercy.

Fr. Sopoćko did not live to see this moment. For as long as he was able, he remained in contact with Fr. Grasewicz, who consulted with him frequently, but he never saw the image again.

Meanwhile, cut off from Vilnius by the war, the Sisters of the Congregation of the Mother of Mercy from their convent in Krakow (where Sister Faustina lies buried) had commissioned Adolf Chyly, a local artist, to execute a new painting of the Merciful King for their chapel. For this, the painter relied on the verbal description as recorded by Sister Faustina in her Diary. The resulting work differed significantly from Kazimirowski’s original, and to this Fr. Sopoćko would later draw the painter’s attention. However, the artist refused to stray from his vision and disregarded Sopoćko’s remarks. Thus we have two images of the Merciful King: the miraculous original in Vilnius and the equally wonder-working image in Krakow-Lagiewniki. [to be continued]

Teresa Tyszkiewicz

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in June 2016.

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