Sr. Faustina Kowalska: A Model for Eucharistic Spirituality
by Sr. Madeleine Grace, C.V.I.
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Few Roman Catholics remain ignorant of the influence of Helena Kowalska, known by her religious name Sr. Faustina, largely because of the Divine Mercy devotion. Our recent pontiff, John Paul II, visited her shrine daily when he worked as a young man in the Solvay factory1 and later had her autobiography retranslated,2 opening the way for her canonization and bringing much notoriety to the short life of this simple Polish religious. John Paul's encyclical Dives in Misericordia, having preceded the canonization by twenty years, provided the immediate pathway for reiterating the importance of Divine Mercy within the plan of salvation. However, few Catholics know how Sr. Mary Faustina of the Blessed Sacrament relied on the Eucharist in her spiritual journey.
Within the Kowalska household, only six of ten children survived infancy. Helena's parents said that she sanctified the womb, as hers was the first uncomplicated birth. She came from a deeply religious home, typified by her father's practice of beginning each day with the singing of the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception. She herself received the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist at the age of nine. She received the sacrament of penance weekly and would get up early to do her chores so that she could get to Mass each Sunday. She worked as a maid for various families and, after engaging in this role for a short time, she conveyed to her parents her desire to enter a convent. She was refused entrance on the grounds that her father did not have a dowry.3
However, Helena's call to religious life became steadily stronger. In fact, she envisioned Christ at her side stripped of his clothing and covered with wounds, saying: "How long shall I put up with you and how long will you keep putting me off?"4 After praying for enlightenment, she came to know that she was to go to Warsaw and there enter a convent.5 She left for Warsaw through her uncle's he with only the clothes on her back, terrified at what the future would bring. After attending Mass there in the city and seeking the counsel of a priest, she was directed to a family where she served as a maid. Following the direction of a woman she was working for, she knocked on several convent doors, only to be refused because they did not accept maids. However, the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy told her to go to the chapel to ask the Lord if he accepted her. Helena came back with an affirmative answer.6 Yet Helena's poverty remained a major obstacle. While the Holy See could dispense the requirement for a dowry, she still needed a wardrobe, so the Mother Superior suggested she work to pay that expense. A year later she took a private vow of chastity at Vespers on the feast of Corpus Christi, June 25, 1925. Her favorite hymn at this time reflected her commitment:
Jesus hidden in the Blessed Sacrament
Him I must adore;
Renounce everything for his sake,
Live only by his love.7
Although her sister Genevieve attempted to "rescue" her from the religious life, Helena remained steadfast and entered the convent August 1, 1925. The congregation was little more than a hundred years old then, having been founded in imitation of Christ to extend the Lord's mercy to those who are in spiritual misery.8 After only three weeks in formation, she experienced a strong temptation to leave, but again she sensed the Lord saying to her, "It is you who will cause me this pain if you leave this convent. It is to this place that I called you and nowhere else; and I have prepared many graces for you."9 During her postulancy, she suffered from ill health and was sent to a summer home for the sisters, where she prepared meals. There she experienced visions of the souls in purgatory, for whom she offered her sufferings.10 The novitiate followed, and Sr. Faustina managed her difficult physical work through the Lord's assistance: "From today on you will do this easily: I shall strengthen you . . . I change such hard work of yours into bouquets of most beautiful flowers, and their perfume rises up to my throne."11 Yet, during the end of her first year of novitiate, she began to experience a "dark night of the soul" that lasted six months. At that time she chose to empty herself before the Lord by an active love.12 As a temporary professed sister, Sr. Faustina's poor health did not improve. While her superiors were very solicitous toward her, rumors reached her that she was only pretending illness. She was then told by the Lord that other souls would profit from her sufferings.13
The first image of Divine Mercy came to Sr. Faustina on February 22, 1931. After seeing this image, she was told to paint it and include the words "Jesus, I trust in you." She was further instructed to have the image venerated in the sisters' chapel and around the world. Christ himself would defend the image. Sr. Faustina's confessor, however, told her to paint the image in her soul and nothing more. The Lord then conveyed to her that the image was already in her soul and that the Sunday after Easter was to be the feast of Divine Mercy. Sr. Faustina's sisters began to openly speak to her as if she was hysterical, and her superior asked for some sign. In all of these trials, the Lord was a great spiritual strength to her, especially through the reception of the Eucharist.14 To her great surprise, after her sufferings within the community, she was permitted to make final vows. It was during this preparation period that the Lord called her to be a victim soul for others. She suffered the stigmata within her heart and body, a fact known only by her confessor because no external signs conveyed this suffering. She was urged to pray this prayer for sinners that they might know the grace of conversion: "O blood and water, which gushed forth from the heart of Jesus as a fount of mercy for us, I trust in you."15 She made her final vows in 1933, stating to the Lord that she was leaving the novitiate but would always be his novice, attentive to his lectures.16
Sr. Faustina was sent to Vilnius in 1933 where she served as chief gardener. There she met the spiritual director, Father Sopocko, whom she had seen in previous visions. Through his intervention, the image of Divine Mercy was placed on canvas. Sr. Faustina continued to suffer all sorts of persecution. She looked upon humiliations as her daily food and feared that if she ever had a day without the Eucharist, she could not continue.17 At one point, on October 26, 1934, when Sr. Faustina was receiving the vision of Divine Mercy, one of the sisters saw rays of light, but not the image of Christ, leading Sr. Faustina to make a statement regarding it.
After ten years of religious life, Sr. Faustina was given the opportunity to visit her family, as it was feared her mother was at the point of death. In fact, her mother became well on seeing her and went to Mass with the family the next day. Sr. Faustina was able to visit with all the family save two sisters who the Lord promised would receive necessary and special graces.18
During the last three years of her life, Sr. Faustina was seized by the belief that the Lord wished her to found a new community. This belief originally came to her on Pentecost of 1935. Six months later, when the local archbishop heard of this request to leave her congregation to establish a new one, he referred to it as a serious interior temptation. One of her confessors later echoed this belief. She, in turn, prayed for each of her confessors. Sr. Faustina herself found that something in her resisted this movement and she entered into a deep interior struggle. When she conveyed this struggle to her Superior, she was told, "Sister, I am locking you in the Tabernacle with the Lord Jesus; wherever you go from there, that will be the will of God."19 During this interim, the Lord taught Sr. Faustina the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Through the intercession of her regular confessor, Father Sopocko, this devotion was gradually made known to the local Catholic population. It was a time, however, when she was taunted by the devil and physical suffering. In fact, the first signs of tuberculosis appeared in December 1936. She was likewise given a vision of heaven and called forth to practice mercy, especially in the sanatorium for TB patients. She found herself being taken back and forth from the sanatorium to the convent as 1936 moved toward the new year.20
When Sr. Faustina found that her physical condition was most vulnerable, she prayed that she might have strength enough to receive the sacrament:
My Master, I ask you with all my thirsting heart to give me, if this is according to your holy will, any suffering and weakness that you like — I want to suffer all day and all night — but please, I fervently beg you, strengthen me for the one moment when I am to receive Holy Communion. You see very well, Jesus, that here they do not bring Holy Communion to the sick; so, if you do not strengthen me for that moment so that I can go down to the chapel, how can I receive you in the Mystery of Love? And you know how much my heart longs for you. O my sweet Spouse, what's the good of all these reasonings? You know how ardently I desire you, and if you so choose you can do this for me.21
Sr. Faustina found herself "perfectly well," for her faintings and weakness had ceased. However, as soon as she returned from the sanatorium to the convent, these afflictions were waiting for her. Yet Sr. Faustina did not fear illness as she had been nourished by the "Bread of the Strong."22 She grew in the awareness that a sacrificial love was for the salvation of souls. The fruit of her prayer is seen as she entered into a spiritual marriage with the Lord and gained a greater knowledge of the unity of the three persons of the Trinity.23 On August 22, 1937, she had a vision of St. Barbara, who recommended that she offer Holy Communion for nine days for her country, thus "appeasing God's anger."24 On the first Friday of September, Sr. Faustina chose, during the time of reception of the Eucharist, to offer herself in total abandonment to God's will. She thus composed her own Act of Oblation which is found in its fullness in her Diary:
Jesus-Host, whom I have this very moment received into my heart, in this union with you I offer myself to the Heavenly Father as a sacrificial host, abandoning myself totally and completely to the most merciful holy will of my God. From today onward, your will, Lord, is my food. You have my whole being; dispose of me as you please . . . I no longer fear any of your inspirations, nor do I probe anxiously to see where they will lead me . . . I have placed all my trust in your will which is, for me, love and mercy itself.25
Sr. Faustina was moved from gardener to gatekeeper due to her poor health. Since the times in Poland were so unsettled, she asked the Lord not to send evil persons to the gate. She was told that a Cherub was there to guard it; "Be at peace." When she returned to her gate, she saw a little white cloud and a cherub in it with folded hands. His countenance was like lightening, reflecting the fire of the love of God.26
Even though Sr. Faustina saw all suffering as redemptive and therefore graciously took this mission on, her consolation and delight were found in her spiritual union with the Lord through the Eucharist. One incident of this mystical union she recorded in her Diary:
I receive Holy Communion in the manner of the angels, so to speak. My soul is filled with God's light and nourishes itself from him. My feelings are as if dead . . . The Lord gave me knowledge of the graces which he has been constantly lavishing on me. This light pierced me through and through, and I came to understand the inconceivable favors that God has been bestowing on me. I stayed in my cell for a long act of thanksgiving, lying face down on the ground and shedding tears of gratitude. I could not rise from the ground because, whenever I tried to do so, God's light gave me new knowledge of his grace. It was only at the third attempt that I was able to get up. As his child, I felt that everything the Heavenly Father possessed was equally mine. He himself lifted me up from the ground up to his heart. I felt that everything that existed was exclusively mine, but I had no desire for it all, because God alone is enough for me.27
The Lord revealed to Sr. Faustina in that same year that he is pained at the number of religious souls who receive the Eucharist "merely out of habit as if they did not distinguish this food. I find neither faith nor love in their hearts." She prayed that her love for Christ be set on fire. "Divinize me that my deeds may be pleasing to you. May this be accomplished by the power of the Holy Communion which I receive daily."28
Sr. Faustina came to know that holy cards as well as pamphlets were to be printed in honor of Divine Mercy.29 A couple of weeks later she was to know of the hour of great mercy. As the Lord told her:
At three o'clock, implore my mercy, especially for sinners; and, if only for a brief moment, immerse yourself in my passion, particularly in my abandonment at the moment of agony. This is the hour of great mercy for the whole world. I will allow you to enter into my mortal sorrow. In this hour I will refuse nothing to the soul that makes a request of me in virtue of my passion.30
Sr. Faustina recorded in her prayer on September 29, 1937 that she knew of a special grace through the Eucharist, that is the enduring presence of Christ through the sacrament:
I have come to know that Holy Communion remains in me until the next Holy Communion. A vivid and clearly felt presence of God continues in my soul. The awareness of this plunges me into deep recollection, without the slightest effort on my part. My heart is a living Tabernacle in which the living Host is reserved. I have never sought God in some far-off place, but within myself. It is in the depths of my own being that I commune with my God.31
It is quite apparent from the above that Sr. Faustina was living in a passive state of union with the Lord. She further experienced the presence of the Lord, especially through the grace of Eucharist.
Sr. Faustina came to know the following month (October 10) in her prayer that even though she had expressed a total abandonment of self to the Lord, she learned that she had not offered "that which is really yours." She was told by the Lord to offer to him her misery, as it was her "exclusive property."32
While mystical union was very much the internal fruit known only to Sr. Faustina and her Spouse, she was keenly aware of the power of Eucharistic graces in her daily interactions. She recorded in her Diary an incident of five unemployed men demanding entrance into the convent. The Mother Superior called on Sr. Faustina. She immediately knew the voice within her speaking: "Go and open the gate and talk to them as sweetly as you talk to me." Sr. Faustina did just that and the men began to speak in gentle voices and went away peacefully. Sr. Faustina credited the resolution of the incident to Christ, whom she had just received an hour before in Communion, working in the men's hearts through her. "Oh how good it is to act under God's inspiration!" she wrote.33
Sr. Faustina likewise writes in her Diary about the importance of faith within the practice of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. When her weak constitution would not allow her to participate in nocturnal adoration during the first Thursday of the month, she united herself with the sisters who were at adoration. She was awakened between four and five in the morning by a voice telling her to join the sisters in adoration. There was someone praying for her there. She was transported in spirit to the chapel and there saw the Lord Jesus exposed in the monstrance. Yet in place of the monstrance, she saw the glorified face of Jesus saying to her:
What you see in reality, these souls see through faith. Oh, how pleasing to me is their great faith! You see, although there appears to be no trace of life in me, in reality it is present in its fullness in each and every Host. But for me to be able to act in a soul, the soul must have faith. O how pleasing to me is living faith!34
Sr. Faustina's suffering intensified as 1938 began. She found solace in the Eucharist even when she was not receiving it:
I went in spirit to the Tabernacle and uncovered the ciborium, leaning my head on the rim of the cup, and all my tears flowed silently toward the heart of him who alone understands what pain and suffering is. And I experienced the sweetness of this suffering, and my soul came to desire this sweet agony, which I would not have exchanged for all the world's treasures. The Lord gave me strength of spirit and love towards those through whom these sufferings came.35
It was only after receiving the Eucharist that the Lord told her how redemptive her suffering was: "My daughter, your suffering of this night obtained the grace of mercy for an immense number of souls."36
Sr. Faustina wrote in her notebook, "My Preparation for Holy Communion":
The most solemn moment of my life is the moment when I receive Holy Communion. I long for each Holy Communion, and for every Holy Communion. I give thanks to the Most Holy Trinity. If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is Suffering.37
As Sr. Faustina approached her death, the Lord reminded her that the Eucharist is a preparation for the eternal heavenly banquet, as he stated. "But I want to tell you that eternal life must begin already here on earth through Holy Communion," he told her. "Each Holy Communion makes you more capable of communing with God throughout eternity."38 If all of us truly believed that message, how much more eager we might be to approach the altar.
During a time when the fruit of redemptive suffering is so little understood, the life of Sr. Faustina provides a readily needed example. While we live in a time when many of the Church faithful readily approach the altar for reception of the Eucharist, we might again observe in the life of this saint her careful preparation for reception of the sacrament. It is so easy to take the gift of Christ himself for granted.