US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Faustina Kowalska: A prophet of God's mercy

St. Faustina’s visions of God, while foreign to many today, remind us to reflect God’s mercy.

By Jeannine M. Pitas | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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It is due to St. Faustina Kowalska’s spiritual conversations with Christ—recorded in her 600-page diary—that Catholics all over the world celebrate the Sunday after Easter as the Feast of Divine Mercy. It is because of her that we pray the Divine Mercy chaplet on rosary beads and look to the image of Divine Mercy for inspiration.

St. Faustina was born to a low-income family; chose to live a simple life of hard labor, prayer, and self-denial as a Sister of Our Lady of Mercy; and died at the age of 33. But her interior life was filled with passionate devotion and joy. “I want to be a thurible filled with hidden fire, and may the smoke rising you to You, O Living Host, be pleasing to you,” Faustina wrote in her diary. “I feel in my own heart that every little sacrifice arouses the fire of my love for You, but in such a silent and secret way that no one will detect it.”

I first learned of St. Faustina Kowalska when I was a teenager growing up in Buffalo, NY. After a wave of church closings, the beautiful St. Luke’s, where my grandmother was baptized and married, was up for sale. Feeling a call to mercy, two Buffalonians—a restaurant owner named Amy Betros and a cancer researcher named Norm Paolini—decided to buy the building and transform it into a mission serving Buffalo’s poorest, most marginalized people.

Since 1994 St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy has opened its doors to all in need of food, shelter, companionship, and spiritual guidance. The church still houses an image of the Divine Mercy, a painting of Jesus with two rays of light emerging from his heart, and St. Faustina is the mission’s unofficial patron.
 
Over the years I have spent many Good Fridays walking in St. Luke’s yearly procession through the neighborhood, stopping at houses along the way to say a version of the rosary based on Faustina’s diaryAfter years of hearing those same excerpts, I decided to read her writings in their entirety.
 
My initial reaction to Faustina’s words was mixed. I was perplexed when I read of her ascetic practices, such as wearing a hairshirt or drastically limiting her food intake. It is hard to imagine leading the life she did. Moreover, our society leaves little room for the kind of visionary mysticism Faustina experienced.

Even during Faustina’s time few understood her religious experience. Many of her sisters questioned her frequent illnesses, wondering if she was feigning them in order to avoid manual labor. They also doubted the verity of her visions.

If Faustina were alive today, it is likely that her visions and conversations with Christ would be labeled hallucinations; she would be hospitalized and perhaps prescribed a strong SSRI. If she failed the psychological assessment many of today’s religious orders require, perhaps she would not have been allowed to enter religious life at all.

Having volunteered in a mental health hospital and cared for a loved one with psychosis, I have learned that the benchmark of one’s mental health is an ability to function in society. Under our current capitalist system, this means being able to hold down a job and care for oneself.

But what if the society, rather than the individual, is ill?

Read the rest of this essay or explore the rest of the pieces in our Unexpected Women series.

Published: 
Tuesday, June 27, 2017