By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator 

A beacon of hope shone for a world straining under the effects of the coronavirus when Pope Francis marked St. John Paul II’s 100th birthday May 18 by celebrating Mass at the altar where the Polish pope is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  

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At Our Lady of Mercy Church in Baton Rouge, people expressed various signs of reverence when venerating the first-class relic of St. John Paul II when it came to the Diocese of Baton Rouge in 2017. The relic was displayed at Christ the King Church and Student Center at LSU, Our Lady of Mercy Church and Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant.  Photo by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator  


The liturgy put the focus on “the great mercy pope” and fellow Polish St. Faustina Kawolska, whom Jesus directed to share a message of divine mercy with the world.  

The liturgy was the first Mass open to the public after almost two months of restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.  

In his homily, Pope Francis said, “speaking of the man of justice and mercy, we think what St. John Paul II did to make people understand the mercy of God. We think how he carried out devotion to St. Faustina whose liturgical memory from today it will be for the whole church.”  

That same day, Pope Francis designated Oct. 5 St. Faustina’s feast day.  

The Diocese of Baton Rouge has its own special connection with St. John Paul II. When his first-class relics came to the Diocese of Baton Rouge during a tour of North America in 2017, for thousands flocking to view the relics it was like “an old friend coming home,” and many shared stories of seeing the pope “in person.”  

St. Faustina, born Helena Kowalska on Aug. 25, 1905, reported having visions and conversations with Jesus throughout her life, which she recorded in a diary. In these visions Jesus expressed his desire that all humanity come to know his mercy.  

At the age of 20, St. Faustina entered the convent in Warsaw and was later transferred to Płock and then moved to Vilnius. There she met her confessor, Father Michał Sopoćko, who supported her devotion to the Divine Mercy. St. Faustina and Father Sopoćko directed an artist to paint the first Divine Mercy image, based on St. Faustina’s vision of Jesus. The familiar image is of Jesus stepping forward, two rays of red and white extending from his heart and his hand extended in forgiveness.  

During World War II the Nazis made a strong effort to suppress the Divine Mercy message by arresting those who spread it.  

Father Miles Walsh, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Baton Rouge and who has a strong devotion to the Divine Mercy, played an instrumental part in spreading the devotion to the Diocese of Baton Rouge. He pointed to an intriguing story about how Father Joseph Jarzebowski MIC, a young Marian priest living in Poland, smuggled the message of Divine Mercy given to him by Father Sopoćko across Poland, through Lithuania, the Soviet Union and Japan before arriving by ship in the United States in May 1941.  

The devotion then spread nationally. In 1944 Father Walter Pelczynski MIC established the “Mercy of God Apostolate” on Eden Hill in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, home of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy and the Marian Helpers Center.  

Along with the Divine Mercy image, Jesus established through St. Faustina a nine-day novena that can be prayed on Good Friday through the Second Sunday of Easter, known as Divine Mercy Sunday.  

Many church parishes in the diocese celebrate a nine-week novena that begins the week before Mardi Gras and ends on Divine Mercy Sunday. Father Walsh said each “day” of the novena contains specific intentions Jesus wants people to pray for.  

“Sometimes people will dismiss the novena as a pious practice of simple people ­- well that is true, we are called to be simple and humble,” said Father Walsh. “But the Lord Jesus gave us the traditions of the novena himself.”  Father Walsh further said St. Faustina’s diary requires prayerful “lectio divina” (divine reading). He said the revelations in the diary are about “scaling the heights of sanctity.”  

Father Todd Lloyd, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Lakeland, said the novena is about trusting Jesus. He and Father Walsh noted that below the feet of Jesus in the image are the words, “Jesus I Trust in You.”  

“People have to be mindful of the importance of their relationship with Jesus and this devotion is a personal devotion to Jesus,” said Father Lloyd.  

The Divine Mercy devotion was suppressed for two decades because of the influence of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the head of the Holy Office, predecessor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. On March 6, 1959, the Vatican issued a document forbidding the use of “images and writings that promote devotion to Divine Mercy in the forms proposed by Sister Faustina.”  

Karol Wojtyła, then archbishop of Kraków, discovered the previous condemnation of St. Faustina’s works were mostly a result of those at the Vatican reading her works not in their original Polish but via faulty French and Italian translations.  After further review, in 1978 the Vatican reversed its previous ban on her works.  

St. John Paul II beatified St. Faustina in 1993 and canonized her in 2000. He also designated the first Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday.  

“He (St. John Paul II) attributed his election to the fact that his mission was to spread the mission of Divine Mercy and that was the theme of his pontificate” said Father Walsh.  

Father Lloyd said St. John Paul II lived out the message of mercy by presenting the truth with brilliance and undeniable clarity, yet with compassion.  

“The message of Divine Mercy can be bittersweet. It is not just a message about the goodness of heaven and God’s mercy getting us there, but also the dangers of hell from which he saves us only if we dispose ourselves to Divine Mercy,” said Father Lloyd. “Without the latter, the former is not totally taught and appreciated. Jesus taught this through his Secretary of Divine Mercy, St. Faustina; and in St. John Paul II Jesus gives us a good example of how to teach the full truth with balance, without over emphases or compromising on either judgment or mercy.”