Drama and the Divine Mercy: The Life of Fr. Sopocko

While many have heard of the Divine Mercy devotion and Saint Faustina, few have heard of Fr. Michał Sopoćko (So-poch-ko, now Blessed), the Polish priest who first transmitted the Divine Mercy message to the world. He commissioned the Divine Mercy painting and spread its devotion. St. Faustina’s Diary records Christ’s words of Fr Sopoćko: “He will help you carry out my Will on earth,” adding, “His thoughts are closely united to Mine, so be at peace about what concerns My work. I will not let him make a mistake, and you should do nothing without his permission.1

Fr. Michał Sopoćko lived in dramatic times. He was born in 1888 in Nowosady, in Belarus, then part of Russian Empire and within the Archdiocese of Vilnius. There were no Catholic schools there, so he had to attend a Russian Orthodox School. Describing Fr. Sopoćko in Endless Mercy: God’s Way to Holiness (2013), Bishop Henryk Ciereszko notes the future priest’s poverty and reliance on Divine Mercy, which laid the groundwork for his meeting Sister Faustina.2

After graduating from the Orthodox School in 1906, Michał found himself unable to pursue further education. The rented family farm had been confiscated by the Russians, forcing them to rent other land to survive. In 1907, Michał was offered a low-paying teaching job, but the school soon closed. He went to Vilnius in 1908 and met Jozef Zmitrowidcz and Jadwiga Waltz, who ran a boarding school, offering him work as a Russian tutor with accommodation. His heart was set on being a priest and despite many difficulties, he entered the Vilnius Seminary in 1910 and was ordained a priest on June 15, 1914. His first Mass was in a parish church in Lebeidzeiwo, where his father was working.

From the outset, Fr. Sopoćko confronted dark times. It is impossible to describe all he did, intertwining work, study, avoiding bombs and constant action. In Taboryszki, his first parish, he organized a choir, library, meetings, established many schools and new chapels in outlying areas. In his Journal, he reflected that “without the help of God’s Divine Mercy, I could not have succeeded.”3

In 1918 he went to study in Warsaw University but as classes were suspended there because of the war with Bolshevik Russia, he became a military chaplain, asking for a battlefront posting. He served in Kosciuszko Training camp, in a military hospital, and gave spiritual solace to soldiers fighting Communism.

After the war, the Vilnius Education Office asked Fr. Sopoćko to give lectures in psychology and pedagogy. He did so, then went to Warsaw University in 1926 and completed his PhD in moral theology, his dissertation entitled “Families and the Law.”4 Returning to Vilnius later that year, he became spiritual director of the Vilnius Seminary, moderator of the Eucharistic Association of the Franciscan Third Order, head of the Clergyman’s Missionary Association, leader of a sobriety drive, remaining a military chaplain for the Vilnius region until 1932. He lectured in Pastoral Theology at Stefan Batory University, completing a habilitation dissertation at on the spiritual and educational insights of Mikołaj Łęczycki, published in 1935.5 He continued his academic work, until the university closure during World War II. One student recalled:

He did the very best he could for us . . . whether directly or indirectly, he always focused and encouraged us to try to be saintly. He had an abundant heart, and an abundant heart lets the spirit speak aloud.6

Then one day in 1933 he went to hear confessions at the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy at 29 Senatorska Street (present-day Grybo Street) in Vilnius. He listened to Sister Faustina for the first time, hearing of her extraordinary mystical experiences. Doubtless, he was quietly astonished that she had already seen his face. Her Diary records: “God had allowed me to see him in an interior vision even before I came to Vilnius.”7 Fr Sopoćko’s own Journal states:

I met Sr. Faustina in 1933. She immediately told me that she knew [sic] me a long time and that I was to be her spiritual director and the one who would tell the world the truth about the Divine Mercy.8

Sister Faustina had seen Christ in a way no previous visionary had. On February 22, 1931, she saw Him walking through the wall of her convent room in Płock, near Warsaw, clothed in a white garment, one arm raised, with red and white rays emanating from his heart. Christ asked for a painting to be made of what she saw, for worldwide veneration, saying, “I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish.”9 Christ Himself had commissioned a painting.

Sister Faustina certainly had a problem, as she did not know any painters. Christ reassured her that He would help her, though she did not know how. Fr. Sopoćko listened to her, spoke to the sisters, and asked for a psychological evaluation (which concluded she was mentally balanced). He studied what she related in the light of the Gospels, understanding it as a message for the times. Interestingly, he knew a painter, Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, and engaged him throughout 1934 to paint the image commissioned by Christ Himself, who said: “Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace.”10 At one stage when the painting was not going so well, Fr. Sopoćko became the model, a priest standing in for Christ. From then on, things went a lot better.

On April 26–28, 1935, one week after Easter, the Image was shown to the world for the first time in Vilnius at the Marian shrine of Ostra Brama (in Lithuanian, Aušros vartai). From a small chapel, as hidden as Bethlehem, Jesus gazed (“like My gaze from the Cross”) at the amazed, curious crowds, one arm raised in greeting, alongside the revered Icon of the sad, serene Madonna of Ostra Brama, the Mother of Mercy. Sister Faustina records that the Divine Mercy image, with Jesus in white robes of a divine healer, came alive with rays piercing all present, looking out onto a world hurtling toward the darkness of war. Faustina herself had seen visions of the concentration camps and frenzied cruelty to come. She died in 1938. Some holy cards depicting the image had been printed by Fr. Sopoćko, and during the war people clung to them, telling later of miraculous escapes.

Early in the war Fr. Sopoćko secretly taught Catechetics, often nearly getting caught, and once being imprisoned and then released.11 In March 1942, when the Germans planned to arrest all professors and seminarians at the Vilnius Seminary, Fr. Sopoćko was saying Mass at the Bernardine Convent in the city. The Gestapo went to his lodgings and waited for him, but a neighbor went quickly to the Bernardine Convent to warn him. Fr. Sopoćko was taken by horse and cart, hidden under straw, to an Ursuline Convent outside Vilnius. Then he stayed in an abandoned cottage deep in the forest owned by the family of one of the nuns. Here he stayed with a false ID as carpenter and gardener until the Germans left Vilnius in 1944, meanwhile writing about the Divine Mercy.

Drama also enveloped the Divine Mercy painting, involving a chain of co-operation by clergy and laity to save it. Fr. Sopoćko, after being pursued by various armies and hiding in forests, was under Soviet threat of deportation. Polish Archbishop Jalbrzykowski asked him to move to Białystok in 1947 Poland for safety. Fr. Sopoćko had hung the Divine Mercy image in St. Michael’s church in Vilnius during the war. In 1948, however, the Communist leaders closed the church, methodically clearing out its contents. The Image’s fate was uncertain until two women, Divine Mercy devotees, one Lithuanian, the other Polish, bribed a worker to obtain the painting, with a little money and, some say, a little vodka.12 They cut the painting out of its frame, rolled it up, and hid it in a friend’s attic. Later, they gave it to the Dominicans where they attended Mass — the church of the Holy Spirit in central Vilnius.

A friend of Fr. Sopoćko, Fr. Jozef Grasewicz, on returning from a Soviet gulag in 1956, heard of the painting. Newly posted to St. George parish in the Belarus town of Nowa Ruda, he asked the Dominicans if he could take it there, and they agreed. Once in Nowa Ruda, he saw scaffolding in the church for roof repairs and was able to climb up and hang the painting from the roof, above the altar, where all could see it.13 Fr. Grasewicz held Divine Mercy prayer meetings there, though locals did not know they had the original Image.

In 1970 the Communist authorities in Nowa Ruda decided to convert this church into a warehouse. Furnishings were removed, but no ladder could reach the painting, so it stayed there. Fr. Grasiewicz had to leave before he could attempt any recovery of it. Meanwhile, Fr. Sopoćko, hearing of this in Białystok, asked local priests to bring the painting back to Vilnius. However, there was reluctance and dire punishments if caught. So the painting commissioned by Christ gathered dust in Nowa Ruda. Covert plans to retrieve it by religious and laity came to no avail.14

One dark November night in 1986, however, a group of Divine Mercy devotees managed to climb up, took the painting, and replaced it with a copy prepared beforehand, with added dust so no one would notice.15 The original was taken secretly the next day at dawn to Grodno near the Lithuanian border and then to the church of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius. There it remained until 2005 when Cardinal Audrys Backis, Archbishop of Vilnius, moved it to a new International Shrine for the Divine Mercy. Fr. Sopoćko had been a rector there for a time in Vilnius, preaching on Divine Mercy and most likely Sr. Faustina had been there.

Meantime other copies of the Image were painted. Fr. Sopoćko said that the one painted by Adolf Hyła after the war was not exactly according to Our Lord’s instructions; there should be a dark background, Christ should be depicted more coming toward us, the hand no higher than shoulder level, the eyes looking down as if from the Cross. Fr. Sopoćko himself organized a competition where painters could faithfully copy the original. The winner was Ludomir Sleńdziński (1889–1980) whose painting was eventually installed in the cathedral in Białystok in 1973, in a ceremony attended by Fr. Sopoćko.16

There were even more difficulties concerning misinterpretations of Saint Faustina’s writing, with a ban imposed on their promulgation from 1959 onwards. Repeated submissions to the Vatican to explain their theology were unsuccessful. In 1965, however, Fr. Sopoćko approached a certain Archbishop Karol Wojtyła in Kraków, who requested further information about them.

Meantime came the fulfillment of a request Saint Faustina received from Christ for a new religious order. In 1939, a student at Stefan Batory University, Jadwiga Osińska, was drawn by hearing a talk by Fr. Sopoćko, mentioning Jesus’ desire for a new order. She approached the priest, saying she wanted to start such a group based on the Divine Mercy. Then came a friend, Izabela Nabororowska, who also wished to join. Fr. Sopoćko gave them spiritual direction soon four more candidates expressed interest. In 1942, with war surrounding them, the six girls took temporary vows, renewing them each year. On November 16, 1944, when out of hiding, Fr. Sopoćko led a solemn profession of vows that began the new Congregation of the Sisters of Merciful Jesus. After World War II, the sisters left for Poland. Fr. Sopoćko wrote the Constitutions for the new Congregation which was established in Myślibórz, and approved in 1955. It has now spread to twelve countries.17

Early in the war, an American priest, Fr. Joszef Jarzebowski from the American Congregation of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, was in Mariampole, Lithuania.18 He met seminarians who told him about the Divine Mercy messages. Fr. Jarzebowski visited Fr. Sopoćko, and after concelebrating Mass with him before the original Divine Mercy image in Vilnius, he received Fr. Sopoćko’s copies of the Image, his writings, and his submissions to Rome. Promising Fr. Sopoćko he would promote the Divine Mercy if he escaped war-torn Europe, four months later Fr. Jarzebowski did escape. He arrived in San Francisco, having kept a Divine Mercy holy card in his breast pocket. Thus, the devotion spread beyond Europe.

After numerous theological clarifications, Pope Paul VI lifted the ban on the Divine Mercy writings in April 1978, and from October that year, with the election of Pope John Paul II, the devotions and writings became increasingly known. Sister Beata, a postulator for the future saint, recalls meeting Sister Faustina’s family decades before, noting down interviews, working against time, collecting information before those who had known her died.19 The first saint of the new millennium was canonised on April 30, 2000, and Divine Mercy Sunday became an official feast day on the first Sunday after Easter that year. Pope John Paul said at the canonization:

By divine Providence, the life of this humble daughter of Poland was completely linked with the history of the 20th century, the century we have just left behind. In fact, it was between the First and Second World Wars that Christ entrusted his message of mercy to her. Those who remember, who were witnesses and participants in the events of those years and the horrible sufferings they caused . . . know well how necessary was the message of mercy.20

Fr. Sopoćko was also deeply immersed in the past century’s history and brought these words concerning the Divine Mercy to the world, despite the Nazis and Soviets, and despite misunderstanding of the message. He reflected that before meeting this “humble nun” he had not fully grasped the truth that Mercy is the greatest attribute of God. He spent his remaining years in Białystok, keeping contact with the Sisters of Merciful Jesus, the order he had helped establish.

He died on February 15, 1975, and on September 28, 2008, he was beatified at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy, in Białystok. An estimated 80,000 people attended, including the Polish president, Lech Kaczyński, and the speaker of the Parliament of Poland, Bronislaw Komorowski; even some of the Polish military attended the ceremony. This priest played such an extraordinary though hidden role in transmitting to the world the words Christ gave to a simple, primary-school educated nun — words which point to the greatest mystery, the key to the cosmos, the centre of everything, the unfathomable Divine Mercy which accompanies every breath we take and surrounds every moment of our existence.

  1. Divine Mercy in My Soul (henceforth DMS), Marian Helpers Stockbridge MA 1987), par. 53, 1408.
  2. Henryk Ciereszko, Endless Mercy: God’s Way to Holiness – The Life of Blessed Michael Sopocko, Apostle of Divine Mercy (USA: Divine Mercy Publications, 2013), 30. This is a comprehensive biography of his life and has much detail about the life of Saint Faustina. Henceforth Endless Mercy. Another excellent biographical source is Val Conlon, The Diary of Blessed Fr. Michael Sopocko (Ireland: Divine Mercy Publications, 2017). Henceforth DFMS.
  3. Endless Mercy, 30.
  4. Described in Endless Mercy, pp. 43–52.
  5. Endless Mercy, 42–50. The title of the thesis was: Mikołaj Łęczycki o wychowaniu duchowem: studjum teologiczno-pedagogiczne. (Mikołaj Łęczycki on Spiritual Education, Theological and Pedagogical Study), presented at Stefan Batory University, in four volumes, in Vilnius 1935.
  6. B. Szostalo, Moje wspomnienia o Ksiedzu Profesorze Michale Sopocce (My Recollection of Professor Fr. Michael Sopocko), a typed copy in the Bialystok Archdiocesan Archive. Quoted in Endless Mercy, 52.
  7. DMS, par. 34.
  8. Excerpt from the Journals is quoted in Endless Mercy, 65.
  9. DMS, par. 47.
  10. DMS, par. 313.
  11. He was arrested for giving instruction to some Jewish people. DFMS, 263.
  12. Andrea Gagliarducci, “The image of the Divine Mercy was exposed for the first time 85 years ago in Vilnius,” Catholic News Agency, Apr 25, 2020. www.catholicnewsagency.com/column/54158/the-image-of-the-divine-mercy-was-exposed-for-the-first-time-85-years-ago-in-vilnius.
  13. From Endless Mercy, p. 117 ff.
  14. Lori Hadacek Chaplin, “Film Uncovers Mystery of Divine Mercy Painting,” Catholic Digest, 27 May 2016. www.catholicdigest.com/news/conversation/201605-27film-uncovers-mystery-of-divine-mercy-painting/.
  15. Endless Mercy, p. 118.
  16. Endless Mercy, 120 ff.
  17. See www.divinemercy.org/elements-of-divine-mercy/introduction/127-history-of-the-sisters-of-merciful-jesus.html.
  18. Endless Mercy, 77ff.
  19. Related to the writer by Sister Beata in a 2004 interview.
  20. Homily of the Holy Father. Mass in St Peter’s Square for the Canonisation of Sr. Mary Faustina Kowalska, Sunday, 30 April 2000. https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20000430_faustina.html.
Dr. Wanda Skowronska, PhD About Dr. Wanda Skowronska, PhD

Wanda Skowronska is a Catholic psychologist and author living and working mainly in Sydney. She writes for several periodicals, being a regular contributor to the Australian Catholic journal Annals Australasia. She completed a PhD in 2011 at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, where she has done sessional lecturing. She published the first compilation of Australian conversion stories, Catholics from Down Under and All Over (2015) and is about to publish, through Connor Court publishers, a book on 1960s Catholic schooldays entitled Incense, Angels and Revolution.

Comments

  1. Glorious!!!
    Unheralded and hardly known promoter of the Divine Mercy, God works through the humblest..

    I myself was a Marian for 4 years, was part of the only class in many years to do their Novitiate at the
    Shrine of Divine Mercy in STockbridge, Mass, along with a young man named Donny Calloway…
    my journey ended with the Order but God knows what He will do in our lives!!!

  2. Avatar Charles Lewis says:

    I attempted to post a comment bit but my computer crashed. I’ll try again. It’s important to remember that Fr. Sopocko both brought Jews into the faith but just as important aided Jews when they were persecuted by the Nazis. This from a bio I found on a University of Glasgow site: “When on 22 June 1941 the German-Soviet war broke out, Vilnius soon found itself under new occupation. The Jewish people were subjected to particular discrimination. Fr. Sopocko who had become friends of the large Jewish community began assisting the Jewish people in every way he could and so became engaged in a very dangerous activity that could have far-reaching consequences for him, including the loss of his life. The Gestapo had uncovered some traces of his activities and even held him under arrest for several days, but he got away.”

    • I can empathise with the computer crash! Yes, Charles, I read about Fr Sopocko’s contact with the Jews and had I written a longer article I would have included many more marvellous aspects of his life. And many more. A life full of extraordinary zeal for God and a way of communicating about God’s mercy to others.

  3. In 2002, I was asked by Rt. Rev. Valerian D’souza, Bishop of Poona, India to promote the Divine Mercy Devotion in Poona Diocese. Ever since that I have promoted it in our diocese. We have thousands of devotees of Divine Mercy here. May it increase and may the message of God’s Mercy be sprerad.

    God bless.

    Fr. Joe Abraham, Poona, India

  4. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Thank you for a very detailed and moving insight into the life and times of Fr. Michał Sopoćko. It puts me in mind of St. John Paul II’s conviction that Poland has a particular destiny in the plan of God for the salvation of our times; and, by implication, it raises the question of the vocation of all the countries of the world. If, then, as St. John Newman believed, there is a work specific to each one of us, perhaps there is a vocation specific to each country.
    God bless, Francis.

  5. Avatar Juliet MacDonald says:

    Thank you so much for writing this and sharing it. Such a gift to all who read it!

All comments posted at Homiletic and Pastoral Review are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative and inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.

Speak Your Mind

*