In many countries, 1933, filled with hardship and misery, was one of the worst years of the Great Depression. In Russia, severe famine claimed the lives of several million. In Nazy Germany, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor and opened his country’s first concentration camp, Dachau. In the United States, the Southern Great Plains suffered 38 dust storms, one powerful enough to rip the topsoil from South Dakota’s farmlands.
But during this year of turmoil, a largely-unnoticed event of inestimable importance occurred in Vilnius, in what is now Lithuania: Fr. Michael Sopocko – an energetic and tenacious priest, a well-known and holy spiritual director, and a brilliant theologian – was appointed Confessor to the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy.
Father Sopocko didn’t know it then, but God had given him a mission that would have a greater impact on the world – past, present, and future – than would all the political and socio-economic upheaval which persists to this day That mission was to support, guide, and ultimately collaborate with an extraordinarily holy soul, Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska of the Blessed Sacrament, whom he would first meet in that Vilnius confessional. In sum, Father was to help fulfill the plan God had revealed to Faustina, a plan to renew and promote the message of His merciful love for all people, especially grave sinners.
The divinely-appointed time had arrived for an astonishing outpouring of grace. St. Faustina recorded Christ’s words about this in her Diary: In the Old Covenant I sent prophets wielding thunderbolts to My people. Today I am sending you with My mercy to the people of the whole world. I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart. (Diary, 1588) She also wrote, You will prepare the world for My final coming. (Diary, 429) and Speak to the world about My mercy ... It is a sign for the end times. After it will come the Day of Justice. While there is still time, let them have recourse to the fountain of My mercy. (Diary, 848)
Initially skeptical of the validity of the revelations Sr. Faustina began to relate to him, and in need of more time than was available when he visited the convent, Fr. Sopocko required Sr. Faustina, under pain of obedience, to record her mystical experiences in notebooks. Those notebooks, six in all, became what we now know as The Diary.
After much prayer, prudent reflection, intense research, and a positive psychiatric evaluation by a prominent psychiatrist, Fr. Sopocko believed in the authenticity of Sr. Faustina’s mystical experiences and understood that the salvation of the world depended upon God’s Divine Mercy. This conviction caused him to dedicate the remaining 42 years of his life to spreading and promoting the message of Divine Mercy.
One of the first things Fr. Sopocko did was find the artist, Eugene Kazimierowski, who would paint the original Divine Mercy Image. (Father even posed as Jesus for the artist.) Father subsequently arranged for the Divine Mercy Image to be displayed at the Ostra Brama Gate of Vilnius on the Sunday after Easter in 1935 while he preached the message of Divine Mercy. That was, effectively, the first Divine Mercy Sunday.
Father encouraged and guided Sr. Faustina in the few years of her life which followed this event. Following her death, he repeatedly preached about Divine Mercy. And drawing from his scholarly research of Biblical and theological texts which explained and supported the doctrinal truth about Divine Mercy, he tirelessly worked to obtain official approval for the Divine Mercy Devotions and for the worldwide celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday.
Like many saints, Fr. Sopocko was no stranger to suffering. In 1942, he narrowly escaped deportation to a concentration camp by fleeing to an Ursuline convent near Vilnius. For two years he masqueraded there as a gardener for the Sisters and a carpenter for the townspeople. But, in 1944, he was forced to flee altogether and relocated in Bialystok, Poland. It was there that he founded the Sisters of the Merciful Jesus (the order Christ had commanded) and taught in the Archdiocesan Major Seminary.
In 1958, Father was forced, due to a damaged facial nerve, to retire from his priestly duties and from speaking to large audiences. In 1962, he was further injured in a car accident. But despite all the pain, he was able, in this time, to publish his four-volume magnum opus entitled The Mercy of God in His Works.
Father Sopocko had suffered much. But none of it could have compared to what he must have felt when all his hard work seemed un-done by a ban placed on the Divine Mercy message and Devotion because of a faulty translation of The Diary. That ban was finally lifted in 1965, when the young Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II), encouraged an official investigation into Faustina’s life and virtues.
Fr. Sopocko, known as the second apostle of Divine Mercy, died in Bialystok in 1975 on February 15th, now his Feast Day. He was declared Blessed on September 28, 2008.
The best tribute to Father Sopocko is surely the one Jesus spoke to Sr. Faustina years before: He is a priest after My own Heart; his efforts are pleasing to Me…Through him I spread comfort to suffering and careworn souls. Through him it pleased Me to proclaim the worship of My mercy. And through this work of mercy, more souls will come close to Me than otherwise would have, even if he had kept giving absolution day and night for the rest of his life, because by so doing, he would have labored only for as long as he lived; whereas, thanks to this work of mercy, he will be laboring till the end of the world. (Diary, 1256)