By Felix Carroll (Nov 7, 2013)
He was an energetic, intensely spiritual priest who was happy in his pastoral duties. But Fr. Michael Sopocko could never have imagined how in 1933, when he was appointed to be confessor to the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Vilnius, in present-day Lithuania, his life would change.
It was there, in a confessional, where he met Sr. Maria Faustina (1905-1938), a humble nun with a tremendous weight upon her. The Lord had begun revealing to her His message of Divine Mercy — an urgent message that He wanted her to share with the whole world. But who would believe her? At first, no one. Not her superiors in the convent and not her previous confessors.
Sister Faustina had prayed for a spiritual director, someone to help guide her, someone who understood that what she was experiencing was real. Father Sopocko was the answer to her prayers, and eventually he became the main promoter of her revelations, the very linchpin in the Lord's call to spread Divine Mercy throughout the world.
Blessed Michael Sopocko (1888-1975) was beatified Sunday, Sept. 28, 2008 in Bialystok, Poland. And with that, the world has begun to get to know the man on the other side of the confessional whom Jesus assured St. Faustina would be her "visible help ... on earth. He will help you to carry out My will on earth" (Diary of Saint Faustina, 53).
There are many things we know about Fr. Sopocko.
"He was a priest's priest," says Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, one of the world's leading experts on St. Faustina and the message of Divine Mercy. "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. And he wrote so much. After being St. Faustina's confessor, he wrote four big volumes on Divine Mercy, and many articles for religious publications."
He was born in Nowosady, near Vilnius. He studied theology at the University of Vilnius, and then in Warsaw. He earned his doctorate in moral theology in 1926. Among his duties was serving as confessor to the Sister of Our Lady of Mercy, who had a house in Vilnius. It was there where he first met St. Faustina, who shared with him her startling revelations.
"At first, he wanted to quit," says Fr. Seraphim. "He didn't want to be the confessor over there because of what she was saying. Then the Mother Superior said, 'Well, what are we supposed to do?' And he said, 'Well, have her checked out by a psychiatrist.' "
She was tested, and she was deemed mentally stable.
"Father Sopocko found out from the nuns that she was one of the best nuns in the convent," says Fr. Seraphim. "But she told him things in confession that nobody could possibly have known. Nobody. And that scared him."
Saint Faustina had less than three years of formal schooling, and yet here she was shedding light on the progress of the mystical life of the soul and giving an unparalleled understanding into the mystery of Divine Mercy. Father Sopocko had to turn to the writings of St. Thomas and St. Augustine, among others, to help him to confirm the authenticity of St. Faustina's revelations that God's greatest attribute is mercy.
"In the confessional it became apparent that she knew things that no one under normal circumstances could know about," says Fr. Seraphim. "For instance, one Lent, Fr. Sopocko was asked to give a talk on the radio. She didn't hear the talk. But next time he came for confession, she told him how Jesus was very much displeased with his talk on the radio because he did not have a 'pure intention.' He later wrote that she was right, that he had tried to make an impression on people on what he said and how he said it that was not a pure intention.
"So Jesus squealed on him!" Fr. Seraphim says, with a laugh.
"At another time," says Fr. Seraphim, "there was a meeting of priests at the sisters' convent. They were discussing some thing about the Holy Trinity. They had hit a blank wall during their discussion. Father Sopocko paused the meeting and asked one of the nuns to have Sr. Faustina come in. She entered, and Fr. Sopocko posed the question to her, and she came out with such an answer that all the other priests' mouths were gaping because they were wondering how she knew the things she knew."
It was Fr. Sopocko who first instructed St. Faustina to keep her Diary, which chronicles her experiences of Divine Mercy and her mission to share it with the world.
When St. Faustina told Fr. Sopocko of her visions of Jesus and His request for a new image to be painted and spread throughout the world, it was he who found the artist, E. Kazimirowski, who would paint The Divine Mercy image.
He didn't stop there. In actions that mark the beginning of the spread of The Divine Mercy devotion, Fr. Sopocko made sure The Divine Mercy image was displayed on the Sunday after Easter, 1935, over the famous Ostra Brama gate to the city of Vilnius. And in the nearby church, he preached the message of mercy.
Following St. Faustina's death, and at the outbreak of World War II, Fr. Sopocko gave Divine Mercy material to Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski, MIC, a member of the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception, who was escaping the Nazis.
"He's the one who gave the material to Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski as he was coming to the States," says Fr. Seraphim. "And where Fr. Jarzebowski was doubting he would be able to get here to the United States, Fr. Sopocko didn't say 'If you get to the States spread this,' he said 'When you get to the States spread this.'"
Father Joseph eventually did make it to the U.S., where the Marians established a beachhead from which they have spread the message of Divine Mercy around the world.
In the meantime, Fr. Sopocko suffered ridicule from spreading the devotion, as St. Faustina prophesized. She wrote in her Diary:
One day, I saw interiorly how much my confessor would have to suffer: friends will desert you while everyone will rise up against you and your physical strength will diminish. I saw you as a bunch of grapes chosen by the Lord and thrown into the press of suffering. Your soul, Father, will at times be filled with doubts about this work and about me.
I saw that God Himself seemed to be opposing [him], and I asked the Lord why He was acting in this way toward him, as though He were placing obstacles in the way of his doing what He Himself had asked him to do. And the Lord said, I am acting thus with him to give testimony that this work is Mine. Tell him not to fear anything; My gaze is on him day and night. There will be as many crowns to form his crown as there will be souls saved by this work. It is not for the success of a work, but for the suffering that I give reward (90).
During the 20-year ban of the devotion (1959-1978, due to faulty translations of the Diary), Fr. Sopocko took comfort in Sr. Faustina's prophecy that the devotion would only seem to be "utterly undone" (see Diary, 378).
Indeed 1935, St. Faustina had a vision of the road ahead for her confessor:
Once as I was talking with my spiritual director, I had an interior vision — quicker than lightening — of his soul in great suffering, in such agony that God touches very few souls with such fire. The suffering arises from this work. There will come a time when this work, which God is demanding so very much, will be as though utterly undone. And then God will act with great power, which will give evidence of its authenticity. It will be a new splendor for the Church, although it has been dormant in it from long ago. That God in infinitely merciful, no one can deny. He desires everyone to know this before He comes again as Judge. He wants souls to come to know Him first as King of Mercy. When this triumph comes, we shall already have entered the new life in which there is no suffering. But before this, your soul [referring to Fr. Sopocko] will be surfeited with bitterness at the sight of the destruction of your efforts. However, this will only appear to be so, because what God has once decided upon, He does not change. But although this destruction will be such only in outward appearance, the suffering will be real. When will this happen? I do not know. How long will it last? I do not know. But God has promised a great grace especially to you and to all those... "who will proclaim My great mercy. I shall protect them Myself at the hour of death as my own glory. (378)
Father Sopocko died in 1975, before his zeal for Divine Mercy was vindicated by the lifting of the ban. Three years after his death, with the help of the Archbishop of Kracow, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, the ban was lifted. Cardinal Wojtyla would become Pope John Paul II, who eventually beatified and canonized St. Faustina. It was Pope John Paul II who also declared: "There is nothing more man needs than Divine Mercy — that love which is benevolent, which is compassionate, which raises man above his weakness to the infinite heights to the holiness of God."
Divine Mercy has since become what Fr. Seraphim calls "the greatest grassroots movement in the history of the Church." None of this would have been possible if it weren't for Fr. Sopocko, the priest who believed St. Faustina.