Born: November 1, 1888 in Nowosady (near Vilnius), Lithuania
Died: February 15, 1975 at Białystok, Poland
Beatified: September 28, 2008 by Cardinal Angelo Amato at Białystok, Poland
The world might never have heard of Blessed Michał Sopoćko had it not been for a humble, uneducated Polish nun who we now know as St. Maria Faustina. Fr. Sopoćko was the confessor at the convent of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Vilnius, Lithuania. St. Faustina had been sent there in May of 1933, and it was there that they first met.
“She attracted my attention with an unusual subtlety of her soul and a close union with God,” he wrote. “There was mostly no matter for absolution and she never offended God with a deadly sin. Already at the beginning she stated that she had known me for a long time from a vision, that I was to be her spiritual leader and I had to carry out some [of] God’s plans that were to be presented to me through her. I ignored her story and I put her to some test which made s. Faustina start looking for another confessor, with the permission of the Mother Superior. After some time she returned to me and she said that she was prepared to bear everything and she would never leave me again.”2
Fr. Sopoćko was to serve as St. Faustina’s spiritual director during the entire time she lived in the Vilnius convent – from 1933 to 1936. Though he was sceptical about her visions at first, he ultimately became one of her greatest supporters and advocates. As he later wrote in his diary, “There are truths that are know[n] and often heard, but not understood. It applied to me with regard to the truth about the Divine Mercy. So many times I spoke about this truth in my preaching, thought about it during retreats, repeated [it] in church prayers – especially in psalms – but I neither understood its meaning nor buried myself in its essence – the highest attribute of God’s external activity. It was only the ordinary nun Sister Faustina from the Congregation of the Sisters of Mary Mother of Mercy (Magdalens), who, following her intuition, told me about this truth, repeating it briefly and often, activating me to research, study and think about it frequently. (…) at first, I was not sure what it was, I listened, distrusted, contemplated, researched, sought advice from others – just a few years later I understood the significance of this work, the greatness of this idea, and I became convinced about the effectiveness of this old, but neglected, life-giving devotion calling for its renewal in the present world. (…) Trusting in the Divine Mercy, spreading the devotion to this Mercy among others, and unconditionally devoting to it all my thoughts, words and works – will be the main principle of my further life, with the assistance of this immense Mercy.”3
So what do we know of this man who was chosen by God to be one of His Apostles of Divine Mercy?
Michał Sopoćko was born into a deeply religious family on November 1, 1888 in the village of Nowosady, Lithuania. His family was very poor, and though they tried to earn a living by working in the fields, it was sometimes a struggle for them to survive. But they were very devout and prayed together every day. The family frequently attended Mass, travelling 18 kilometers by horse and buggy – even in bitterly cold weather – to get to the closest church.
Michał was a very pious child, and he heard the call to the priesthood early in life. Although his family couldn’t afford to send him to the seminary, a special allowance awarded to him by the rector allowed him to begin a 4-year course of studies at the Theological Seminary in Vilnius in 1910. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 15, 1914.
Fr. Sopoćko’s first assignment was to the parish of Taboryszki, near Vilnius. But shortly after his ordination, World War I broke out, and in the summer of 1915 the Eastern Front reached the town. Fr. Sopoćko had been working hard to create educational opportunities for young people, and he had been hiring teachers and opening new schools in neighbouring areas around Taboryszki. His activities soon attracted the attention of the Germans. At first they were supportive, but over time, their attitude changed. They persecuted him to such an extent that he was ultimately forced to leave. Fr. Sopoćko subsequently began working as a chaplain in the Polish army (in 1918), serving soldiers on the front line; he later served as military chaplain in the Training Camp for officers in Warsaw.
After the war, while still serving as military chaplain, Fr. Sopoćko resumed his studies. In 1923, he received his Master’s degree in Theology, and in 1926, he went on to complete his doctoral work in moral theology at the Pedagogical Institute in Warsaw. After he was appointed spiritual father and confessor of the seminary (1927) and head of the Department of Pastoral Theology at Vilnius University (1928), he gradually withdrew from his military chaplaincy duties.4
Fr. Sopoćko – the man
“[Fr. Sopoćko] was an energetic, intensely spiritual priest who was happy in his pastoral duties,” we are told.5 “ ‘He was a priest’s priest,’ says Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC … ‘He was a professor of theology. He was a mentor and teacher to many. He was confessor to a number of convents, and he was a military chaplain.”6 It was Fr. Sopoćko who first encouraged St. Faustina to write down her mystical experiences in a diary, and it was with him that she shared her visions and the message of Divine Mercy that God had entrusted to her. Fr. Sopoćko was the one who helped her fulfill Jesus’ request that an image of Divine Mercy be painted and venerated throughout the world, and he was instrumental in bringing about the establishment of the Feast of Divine Mercy, now celebrated each year on the Sunday following Easter.
But the road was not easy. Like St. Faustina, he shared in the suffering of Jesus because of his role in spreading devotion to Divine Mercy. St. Faustina wrote, “[Once] when I saw how much my confessor … was to suffer because of this work which God was going to carry out through him, fear seized me for the moment, and I said to the Lord, ‘Jesus, this is Your affair, so why are You acting this way toward him? It seems to me that You are making difficulties for him while at the same time ordering him to act.’ [To which Jesus responded,] Write that by day and by night My gaze is fixed upon him and I permit these adversities in order to increase his merit. I do not reward for good results but for the patience and hardship undergone for My sake.”7
Fr. Sopoćko and the Image of Divine Mercy
How did Fr. Sopoćko come to have a role in the painting of the image of Divine Mercy? On Feb. 22, 1931 – a few years before they met – St. Faustina had a significant vision. She wrote, “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] through the world. … I desire that there be a Feast of Mercy. 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.”8
St. Faustina tried to paint Christ as she had seen Him in her vision, but she had no idea how to go about it. She even asked her friend, Sr. Bozenna (who worked with her in the bakery) if she could help, but the nun told her she had never painted anything in her life; she offered to give her a picture of Jesus instead. St. Faustina had no choice but to wait for the one God had promised He would send to help her.9
From the moment she met Fr. Sopoćko, she was insistent that “God had placed him in her path and that He wanted the Merciful Jesus image to be venerated all over the world. Fr. Sopoćko recalled: ‘Driven by my curiosity as to what the picture would be like, rather than by a belief in the authenticity of Sr. Faustina’s visions, I decided to set about having the picture painted. I came to an understanding with an artist, Eugeniusz Kazimirowski [a well-known artist in Vilnius], who lived in the house I lived in. He undertook to paint the image for a certain sum. I also obtained permission from Sr. Faustina’s superior to allow her to visit the artist twice a week to describe the image that he was to paint.’ ”10 Kazimirowski worked on the painting from January to June, 1934, with Fr. Sopoćko posing for him.11
But when the painting was finished, St. Faustina was devastated. It wasn’t nearly as beautiful as her vision had been, and she felt that it didn’t come close to reflecting the Saviour’s beauty. But Jesus reassured her, saying, “Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace.”12
At first, “Fr. Sopoćko put it in a dark corridor at the Bernadine Sisters’ convent, near St. Michael’s Church, where he was the rector. He recalled: ‘The painting contained new elements, so I could not hang it up in the church without the archbishop’s permission. But I was ashamed to ask and even more ashamed to speak of its origins.’ Sr. Faustina did not give up, however, and she told her confessor that Jesus demanded that His image be displayed for public veneration. …
“Sr. Faustina’s confessor was wondering how Jesus’ demand could be fulfilled when, all of a sudden, the parish priest of Ostra Brama13, Canon Stanislaw Zawadzki, asked him to give a homily during the Triduum. Fr. Sopoćko agreed, but on condition that the Merciful Jesus image would be placed in the Ostra Brama cloister window. And so it was. In the priest’s opinion: ‘It looked impressive, and it drew everyone’s attention more than the Mother of Mercy image.’ On the first day of the Triduum, Fr. Sopoćko gave a fiery homily about God’s mercy, emphasizing that it demanded public veneration. He frequently pointed to Kazimirowski’s painting during the homily.”14 While he was speaking, St. Faustina experienced yet another miraculous vision. The image suddenly came to life, and she saw the rays from Jesus pierce the hearts of the people gathered there. There could be no doubt that Jesus was pleased that His wish had been fulfilled.
Congregation of the Sisters of the Merciful Jesus Christ the Redeemer
On Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 1935, Jesus entrusted St. Faustina with yet another mission. He told her that He wanted her to found a new congregation. “By your entreaties,” Jesus said, “you and your companions shall obtain mercy for yourselves and for the world.”15 St. Faustina spoke to Fr. Sopoćko about Jesus’ request when she met with him a few weeks later. She expected him to tell her that she was incapable of doing it, “that the Lord Jesus did not use miserable souls like me for the works He wanted done.”16 But instead, Fr. Sopoćko told her that, “It was just such souls that God chooses most frequently to carry out His plans.”17
By November 1936, St. Faustina had outlined a draft of the rules for the new contemplative convent. Fr. Sopoćko did everything he could to help the cause. He even tried to rent a building at 12 St. Anne’s Street, thinking that he would restore it as a home for the new congregation. But for whatever reason, it didn’t work out. When he assessed his own efforts to help St. Faustina, “he admitted quite frankly, ‘At the moment, I cannot see any progress as regards the creation of conditions that would be propitious for the setting up of the new congregation, but I do not lose hope and I continue to do what I can in this matter.’ ”18
It would not be until a few years later – in the summer of 1940 (after St. Faustina had already died) that a young woman from Stefan Batory University in Vilnius would approach Fr. Sopoćko to ask for help. Jadwiga Osińska wanted to become a nun but had been unable to find a suitable congregation. He sent her to discern her vocation at the convent of the Sisters of the Angels in Pryciuny. When she returned, she told him that she wanted to devote her life to “worshipping God in His infinite mercy.”19 The congregation envisioned by St. Faustina had begun to unfold.
Jadwiga made her private vows on October 15, 1940, taking Faustina as her religious name. By January 1942, five more women had joined. “Fr. Sopoćko gave them their religious names, wrote the regulations for them, and established their prayer routine. Everything was done secretly, for such things were banned by the occupying forces. [World War II had broken out on September 1, 1939.] … On April 11, 1942, on the eve of the Feast of Divine Mercy, the sisters made temporary religious vows and took the name Congregation of the Sisters of the Merciful Jesus Christ the Redeemer. … In a letter from Czarny Bór [where he had fled to avoid capture by the Nazis because he had been helping Jews], Fr. Sopoćko informed them that he had been praying daily for five years – during every Mass – for the establishment of the congregation.”20
Suppression of the Message of Divine Mercy
Fr. Sopoćko never gave up in his efforts to establish a feast day in honour of God’s mercy. With the financial support of August Cardinal Hlond (the Polish primate), he published a Latin treatise in 1947 entitled, On Divine Mercy and the Establishment of Its Feast. In addition, the Cardinal sent him to the Vatican “to promote the idea of introducing a new feast day in the liturgical calendar.”21
Devotion to Divine Mercy had spread rapidly during the wartime years (1939-1945), but in 1951 obstacles emerged. One of the biggest problems was that the Holy See had used inaccurate copies of the manuscript of St. Faustina’s diary in assessing her work. “Archbishop Jalbrzkowski, who had heard Sr. Faustina’s confessions in Vilnius many times before the war, issued an unfavourable opinion about the devotion as advocated by her. … He wrote: ‘Theologians are strongly opposed to elevating one attribute of God’s perfection above another, since all are infinitely perfect. Fr. Sopoćko’s reference to St. Thomas Aquinas is not justified and [is] groundless. … For the above reasons I have categorically forbidden Rev. Prof. Sopoćko to publicize Sr. Faustina’s quasi-visions or to propagate the devotion.’ ”22 Even the image of the Divine Mercy came under criticism, and many images were removed from churches after the Polish episcopate’s plenary conference in September 1953.
On November 19, 1958, the Congregation of the Holy Office issued a decree that “ruled out the possibility of establishing a feast day in honour of God’s mercy. … Moreover, the congregation instructed the Polish primate, Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, to reprimand Fr. Michał Sopoćko severely, and to instruct him not to spread information about Sr. Faustina’s alleged revelations. Shortly afterwards, the mystic’s former confessor was summoned before the primate, who read the Vatican decree to him. After a moment of silence, Fr. Sopoćko said: ‘I await my punishment.’ The cardinal said that the reprimand was a sufficient punishment in itself.”23 It was not long afterwards – on March 6, 1959, that “the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office issued another document forbidding the propagation of the Divine Mercy devotion in forms communicated by Sr. Fausutina. It ordered forbearance from propagating the devotion until there was a definitive decision about the matter.”24
But the Holy See’s decision didn’t deter Fr. Sopoćko. “On the contrary, in a letter to the primate, he wrote: ‘I was glad that that which Sr. Faustina had foretold had come about.’ For in 1935, during a discussion with her spiritual director, she had a revelation as to the great obstacles the Divine Mercy devotion would face in the future. She told Fr. Sopoćko of the great suffering that awaited them in connection with it. She said that there would come a time when it would seem as if the work had been utterly destroyed. Then God would act and convince people of the authenticity of the devotion.”25
But it wasn’t until April 15, 1978, that the ban on propagating the devotion to Divine Mercy was withdrawn. And it would be another 22 years – April 30, 2000 – before St. John Paul II would canonize St. Maria Faustina and establish the Sunday following Easter as the Feast of Divine Mercy. Fr. Sopoćko did not live to see any of it. He died on February 15, 1975 at the age of 87.
Joy in Eternity
Neither St. Faustina nor Blessed Sopoćko lived to see the fruit of their work in promoting Divine Mercy. But as St. Faustina wrote in her Diary, “God, in his unfathomable decrees, often allows it to be the case that those who have expended the most effort in accomplishing some work do not enjoy its fruits here on earth; God reserves all their joy for eternity. But for all that, God sometimes lets them know how much their efforts please Him. And such moments strengthen them for further struggles and ordeals. These are the souls that bear closest resemblance to the Savior who, in the work which He founded here on earth, tasted nothing but bitterness”26
Cardinal Angelo Amato beatified Fr. Michał Sopoćko on September 28, 2008 in the Divine Mercy Church at Białystok, Poland.
for obtaining graces through the intercession of the blessed Father Michael Sopoćko
Oh Merciful God, you have made your blessed Fr. Sopoćko, the apostle of your endless Mercy and the worshipper of Our Lady, the Mother of Mercy. Grant, through his intercession, that by praising your Mercy and arousing trust in your fatherly goodness, I will obtain the grace of …………………… . I ask this through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
1 In iconography, some Christian saints are traditionally represented by an iconic symbol – also called an “attribute” – to help identify them. For example, St. Joseph is generally depicted wearing a brown mantle, carrying the Child Jesus, and holding a lily. St. Peter is associated with the keys of heaven, a boat, fish, rooster, and an inverted cross; he is typically depicted with a bushy white beard and white hair, wearing a blue robe and yellow mantle. For more information about saints and their symbolism, see Arun Oswin Kostka, “Saint Symbols,” All Saints and Martyrs [blog]; available from http://saintscatholic.blogspot.ca/p/saint-symbols.html; Internet; accessed 6 January 2016.
2 Fr. Michal Sopocko, “My Memories of the Late Sister Faustina,” The Congregation of the Merciful Sisters of Jesus [website]; available from http://www.faustina-message.com/sopocko-memories-sister-faustina.htm; Internet; accessed 12 January 2016. St. Faustina speaks of the visions of Fr. Sopoćko in her diary. She heard a voice in her soul say, “This is the visible help for you on earth. He will help you carry out My will on earth.” (Diary, #53. See also #61, 258, 263, 269, and 563.) The ‘test’ Fr. Sopoćko alluded to in his diary was a request that St. Faustina undergo a psychiatric assessment in order to determine whether she was psychologically healthy. Dr. Helena Maciejewska, a psychiatrist and the physician for the convent, examined St. Faustina and found her to be exceptionally well-balanced and psychologically healthy in every way. But despite her favourable report, there were still those who maintained that St. Faustina was mentally ill.
3 “Blessed Father Michael Sopoćko,” The Congregation of the Merciful Sisters of Jesus [website]; available from http://www.faustina-message.com/blessed-frather-sopocko.htm; Internet; accessed 13 January 2016.
4 Cf. Ibid. In addition to these duties, Fr. Sopoćko was a confessor in many congregations (including the convent on Antakalnis Hill) as well as rector at St. Michal’s, Vilnius from June 1934 to November 1938.
5 Felix Carroll, “The Priest Who First Believed St. Faustina,” Marians of the Immaculate Conception; available from http://www.marian.org/divinemercy/story.php?NID=3354; Internet; accessed 12 January 2016.
6 Ibid. Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC is one of the world’s leading experts on St. Faustina and the message of Divine Mercy.
7 St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, orig. ed. 1987, 3rd ed. with revisions, 2014), #86. See also #604.
8 Ibid., #47, #49.
9 Cf. Grzegorz Górny and Janusz Rosikoń, Trust: In Saint Faustina’s Footsteps, trans. Stan Kacsprzak (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014), 104. See Diary, #53.
10 Ibid., 120-21.
11 Ibid., 121-22.
12 St. Faustina, Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, #313.
13 Ostra Brama – the Gate of Dawn – is one of the most important religious, historical, and cultural monuments in Vilnius. It was Vilnius’ main pilgrimage centre, as the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy is contained within a chapel above the gate. Thousands of people gathered at Ostra Brama during the Triduum that year to celebrate the end of the Jubilee of the Redemption of the World. See https://swordsoftruth.com/2015/11/16/our-lady-of-the-gate-of-dawn-november-16/ for more information.
14 Górny and Roskoń, Trust: In Saint Faustina’s Footsteps, 125.
15 St. Faustina, Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, #435.
16 Ibid., #436.
18 Sister Maria Elżbieta Siepak ZMBM, The New “Congregation” of Sister Faustina: The Apostolic Movement of the Divine Mercy, 2nd ed. (Kraków, Poland: Misericordia Publication, 2005), 34. St. Faustina did not live to see the new congregation established. She died in 1938; it was formally established in 1942.
19 Górny and Rosikoń, Trust: In Saint Faustina’s Footsteps, 213.
20 Ibid., 214. The congregation was officially approved in 1955. In 1973, their name was shortened to the Congregation of the Sisters of the Merciful Jesus.
21 Ibid., 224. By this time, Fr. Sopoćko had also written and published many articles and pamphlets on the subject of devotion to Divine Mercy.
22 Ibid., 228.
23 Ibid., 236.
24 Ibid., 238.
25 Ibid. Also see St. Faustina’s Diary, #378.
26 St. Faustina, Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, #1402.
27 “Blessed Father Michael Sopocko, Biography 1888-1975,” The Congregation of Sisters of Merciful Jesus; available from http://www.faustina-message.com/biography-michael-sopocko.htm;Internet; accessed 12 January 2016.