Saint Faustina lived and died in a congregation which educated girls and women “in need of moral conversion” (foundational charism). Being a member of the Congregation she lived the charism and, at the same time, God gave her a greater gift – the charism of preaching the Divine Mercy to the world, of making the evangelical value, that is, God’s merciful love to each man, present in the world. In the Old Covenant I sent prophets wielding thunderbolts to My people – Jesus said to her – Today I am sending you with My mercy to the people of the whole world (Diary 1588). Many a time He called on to her to preach the Biblical truth to the world: Write, tell souls about this great mercy of Mine, because the awful day, the day of My justice, is near (Diary 965); speak to the world about My mercy; let all mankind recognize My unfathomable mercy (Diary 848). Tell the world about My mercy and My love. The flames of mercy are burning me. I desire to pour them out upon human souls (Diary 1074).
The centre of Saint Faustina’s charism is the evangelical value (not a concrete task), that is, the mystery of the Divine Mercy. Therefore, living the charism requires coming to know the truth of faith, pondering upon it in the daily life and responding to it by the attitude of trust in God (that is, by fulfilling His holy will, which is Mercy itself for us) all the time. It also requires an active love of the neighbour. The witness of life in this spirit is the basic way of preaching the Divine Mercy to the world. The task is also fulfilled by va- rious deeds of mercy, words and prayer, especially by practising the devotion to the Divine Mercy in the forms that Jesus conveyed to Sister Faustina.
Sister Faustina’s charism contributes to the history of the Church – it gives it a new school of spirituality as well as the Apostolic Movement of the Divine Mercy, which, in various ways, fulfils the task of making the mystery of the Divine Mercy present in the world. The Holy Father John Paul II discerned the relevance and importance of this charism and he expressed it at various occasions. “Although since her beginning – he noted – the Church has been proclaiming the mystery of the Divine Mercy, still nowadays she seems to be especially called to preach this message to the world. Since God Himself, through Saint Faustina’s witness, calls her to fulfil the mission, the Church cannot abandon it.”
An apostolic mission and spirituality flows from God’s gift which is denoted by the word charism. After the Second Vatican Council, which paid more attention to the charismatic dimension of the life of the Church, the theology of the charism has developed. Thanks to the theology we are coming to know better and better what this gift of the Holy Spirit is and what role it plays in the life of the believers and communities. It is already known that this is a gift that not only enables one to serve, to perform a concrete apostolic ministry, but also has a vital impact on the entire interior life of man or a community, on the relationship with God and people, on prayer and asceticism.
It is a fundamental gift for any institute, which forms the basis of the unity of its members and its identity as far as the spiritual life and mission are concerned. The post-conciliar documents of the Holy See on the consecrated life enumerate elements which can help to determine and describe the charism of an institute in detail. The elements are the following: the goal for which it has been created and which is realized by the institute, the character, which specifies the goal (for instance, it defines more precisely the group of people who are taken care of by the institute), the spirituality, nature (the distinction between contemplative and active congregations) and healthy traditions. By means of these criteria, on the basis of, especially, a constitution but also other documents, the charism of any institute and its growth dynamics can be described precisely. A charism develops within limits set by the character and spirituality, which is connected with the character. However, it cannot develop as far as the nature and goal of the institute are concerned.
Theology distinguishes between two basic kinds of charisms in the institutes of consecrated life: the foundational charism and the charism of the founder. The foundational charism pertains to institutes which have been created to carry out a specific task in the Church, for example, to treat the leprous, bring up children or young people, run orphanages, take care of servants, save fallen women, prepare girls for married and family life, nurse the sick, whereas institutes which have a charism of the founder are to make a specific, permanent evangelical value, for instance, poverty (the Franciscans), present in the Church. Certainly, any charism realizes an evangelical value, however, as regards the charism of the founder, an evangelical value itself becomes the goal of the institute (not a specific task which, somehow, expresses the value).
Therefore, a charism is a gift which determines the creation, identity and development of any institute. The people who receive it become the founders, no matter at what moment of the history of the institute they appear.
2. Saint Faustina’s charism
At its beginnings the Congregation to which Sister Faustina belonged received a “foundational charism” from God, in other words, it was created to carry out a clearly defined goal in the Church: to educate girls and women in need of moral renewal (prostitutes) in order to improve their lives.
As a member of the Congregation Sister Faustina lived its charism. We know how much she took care of the people who stayed in the Houses of Mercy, where they were looked after by the Congregation directly, how much she prayed for their intention, how many sacrifices she made, how much, in her daily life, she took care of the wards with who she worked in the kitchen or in the garden. She was happy that she had received the grace of her vocation to the Congregation. In her letter to Sister Ludwina she wrote: Sister, what a joy I feel in my soul that the Lord Jesus called me to Our Congregation, which is so closely united with the work and mission of the Lord Jesus, that is, of rescuing souls. And if only we are faithful to this mission, then surely many souls will owe us heaven. But we must remember that our mission is sublime, resembling the mission of Jesus. We must fully possess the spirit and features of Jesus, that is, a complete self-emptying out of love for God for the sake of immortal souls, and in particular [we must take care of] those souls whom Jesus entrusted to us (Letter 253).
When she was living in the Congregation and realizing its charism as its most faithful daughter – this is what Jesus said about her – God gave her a greater gift which theology refers to as a “charism of the founder”. Jesus Himself prepared her to receive the gift by means of numerous revelations and spiritual formation and he revealed His designs for her gradually. God’s plan was not only about her personal sanctification but also a mission which was to be continued after her death precisely thanks to the charism of the founder.
On the basis of the “Diary”, which she wrote at Jesus’ command, the gift can be described accurately. The book clearly states that the aim of the charism consists in making God’s merciful love for man present in the world, in preaching the mystery of the Divine Mercy, most fully revealed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, with a new strength. Jesus constantly called on her to proclaim His mercy to the world. Penetrate My mysteries – He said – and you will know the abyss of My mercy towards creatures and My unfathomable goodness – and this you shall make known to the world (Diary 438). Write, tell souls about this great mercy of Mine, because the awful day, the day of My justice, is near (Diary 965). Apostle of My mercy, proclaim to the whole world My unfathomable mercy. Do not be discouraged by the difficulties you encounter in proclaiming My mercy (Diary 1142); do not tire of proclaiming My mercy (Diary 1521; cf. 699, 848, 1666 and others). Over the course of the years Sister Faustina increasingly identified herself with the task entrusted to her. I know very well, O my Jesus, that I am to keep telling souls about Your goodness, about Your incomprehensible mercy (Diary 598). O Eternal Love, I want all the souls You have created to come to know You. I would like to be a priest, for then I would speak without cease about Your mercy to sinful souls drowned in despair. I would like to be a missionary and carry the light of faith to savage nations in order to make You known to souls (Diary 302).
She knew that task of proclaiming the Divine Mercy to the world was not only her personal mission but that it would also be carried out by the congregation which the Lord ordered her to found. God demands – she said to her confessor, Rev. Michael Sopoćko – that there be a Congregation which will proclaim the mercy of God to the world and, by its prayers, obtain it for the world (Diary 436). Although she felt that she was unable to do it and, like Biblical prophets, she excused herself from the task, still she faithfully made efforts to discern it and carry it out.
While applying the above-mentioned criteria to the description of Saint Faustina’s charism, its character, which specifies the aim (defines the group of people to which the charism is directed or the ways it is realized) should be touched upon. It seems that it is best conveyed by Jesus’ words: I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbour: the first – by deed, the second – by word, the third – by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for Me. By this means a soul glorifies and pays reverence to My mercy (Diary 742). At the same time, the three ways of exercising mercy define the ways of realizing Saint Faustina’s charism, the ways of making the mystery of the Divine mercy present in the world and of proclaiming it to it. During his first pilgrima- ge to the Shrine in Łagiewniki, the Holy Father John Paul II spoke about these forms of the charism: Dear Sisters! Your vocation is unusual. Christ chose the Blessed Faustina from you (…) and called her to a special apostolate of His mercy. Please, take up the work. The contemporary man needs you to proclaim the mercy; he needs your works of mercy and your prayer for mercy. Do not neglect any of the dimensions of the apostolate.
The spirituality of Saint Faustina’s charism can be denoted by one word: mercy (Divine and human). The mystery of the Divine Mercy was in the very centre of her spiritual life. It determined the image of God – the Father rich in mercy, and the attitude of trust towards Him, prayer and asceticism as well as the quality of the interpersonal relations. I want to be completely transformed into Your mercy and to be Your living reflection, O Lord – she prayed – May the greatest of all divine attributes, that of Your unfathomable mercy, pass through my heart and soul to my neighbour (Diary 163).
Let us also touch upon the criteria enumerated by theologians who have written about the charism of the founder. The first criterion is an original synthesis of the Gospel whose keystone is one, permanent evangelical value. As regards Sister Faustina, the interpretation of the whole Gospel was done from the angle of the Divine Mercy and it transformed into a rule of life pertaining to all dimensions of her being. It was a rule that focused on the imitation of Christ, who showed to the world the Father’s merciful love for all people, especially for those plunged in sins. Therefore, endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, Saint Faustina gives the Congregation and the Church a new interpretation of the message of Christ – of the message which has been given to people in the Gospel. The interpretation harmonizes with our time; it is a synthetic interpretation of the Gospel done from the angle of the mystery of the Divine mercy. The synthesis is so clear that John Paul II had no hesitation in calling her “Diary” the Gospel of Mercy, whereas Holy Father Benedict XVI wrote: The holy woman strongly desired to place the Divine Mercy in the centre of faith and Christian life. Thanks to the strength of her spiritual life she showed the new aspect of the Christian message in full light and she did it precisely in our times, which have come to know the cruelty of official ideologies.
The charism of the founder sets fundamental spiritual lines, the proper of life and mission of a community to an institute – this is the second criterion of the charism of the founder. Sister Faustina sets the proper of life and mission of the community, that is, fundamental spiritual lines and apostolic mission in the Church whose basis is an evangelical value (not a concrete task) – the mystery of the Divine Mercy. Her life as well as the life of communities that follow her focuses on coming to know and pondering the mystery of the Divine Mercy in the daily life as well as on responding to it by the attitude of trust towards God and mercy for the neighbour, whereas the apostolic mission consists in proclaiming the mystery of the Divine mercy to the world with a new strength – by the witness of life, deed, word and prayer.
The third criterion of the charism of the founder pertains to the collective imitation of Christ. This criterion helps to distinguish the personal charismata of a founder from the charism which he or she bequeaths to the institute. As regards the above-mentioned criterion Saint Faustina is a clear model because she is imitated by congregations and other communities of the Church which follow her way to union with God and which involve themselves in her charismatic mission of making the mystery of the Divine Mercy present in the world. They are inspired by the Holy Spirit, who gives them graces that are necessary for the task, especially the grace of the very same charism, and they discern that they have been endowed with the charism when they compare their lives and mission with the model of the life and mission of the Apostle of the Divine Mercy. Not only the sisters from her Congregation but also other communities in the Church live this very charism.
The vocation to found a congregation is another criterion which helps to discern whether or not someone has a charism of the founder. What distinguishes a founder from the other members of the community is the awareness of the task that, by God’s will, he or she is to carry out. However, the one that did not have the intention of founding a community is not the founder. Every reader of the “Diary” knows how much time and strength Saint Faustina devoted to fulfilling God’s will which consisted in founding a congregation that would proclaim and obtain the Divine Mercy for the world. Jesus directly told her to do so. He did not only define the goal but also the spirit of the congregation and he provided her with means to carry out the tasks. She was deeply convinced that the tasks (proclaiming and obtaining the Divine Mercy) were something new and that they were beyond the apostolic mission that the Congregation, in which she lived, had had so far. Although Saint Ignatius, who had been asked to help discern the matter, said to her clearly: this rule [the rule of the new Congregation] can be adopted, and it can be adopted to this Congregation (Diary 448), she did not know that her mother Congregation could also undertake the new tasks. This “new congregation” is not just one religious order but a great movement in the Church which has been born out of her charism and mystical experience.
The above-mentioned criteria allow us to state that Saint Faustina received the charism of the founder, therefore, she was endowed with a much greater gift than the foundational charism that her mother Congregation received at its beginnings. The foundational charism (saving girls and women in need of moral renewal) and the charism of the founder given to Saint Faustina (proclaiming the mystery of the Divine Mercy by the witness of life, by deed, word and prayer) are neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive but they are in perfect harmony with each other, which is characteristic of God’s plans. The original work of the Congregation becomes the basic means of proclaiming and making the mystery of the Divine Mercy present in the world by deed.
On 25 August 1995, discovering the greatness of the gift in Saint Faustina’s charism, the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy recognized her as its sprirtual cofoundress. Endorsing the liturgical calendar of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy and the breviary of Sister Faustina, the Holy See granted the Congregation the right to observe 5 October as the solemnity of Saint Faustina, the virgin, which is reserved only to those that are canonized saints and founders at the same time.
3. Meaning of Saint Faustina’s charism
A person who has been endowed with a charism of the founder, deeply united with Christ, always proposes a “modern” interpretation of Christ’s message which matches the times when the founder lives. Indeed, Saint Faustina’s charism is God’s great gift for our times. It has been given to the Church as a remedy for evil that spreads in the world. Mankind will not have peace – said Jesus to Sister Faustina – until it turns with trust to My mercy (Diary 300). The new school of spirituality, which she contributes to the history of the Church, and the Apostolic Movement of the Divine Mercy, which, in various ways, carries out the task of making the mystery of the Divine Mercy present in the world, show the meaning of her charism.
Nowadays one can see the impact of the charismatic mission of the apostle of the Divine Mercy on the life of the Church with the naked eye because today the most known image of Christ is precisely the one painted according to her vision; the Feast of Mercy, which takes place on the first Sunday after Easter, has become part of the liturgical calendar of the Church already.; the most known prayer to the Divine Mercy in the world is the Chaplet to the Divine Mercy – it is even said in African dialects and the prayer at the moment of Jesus’ agony on the Cross, which is called the Hour of Mercy, is becoming more and more popular. Saint Faustina’s life and mission have become a source of inspiration for many researches and they have also enriched the Church – the Church has come to known the mystery of the Divine Mercy more deeply. The names of churches show the influence of Saint Faustina’s mission very well. At the beginning of the 20th century in Poland there was only one Divine Mercy Church. It was in Cracow, in Smoleńsk. Today there are over 200 churches bearing this name already and 20 of them have been raised to the rank of diocesan sanctuaries. It other countries, on all continents, a similar process has been taking place but it has been slower than in Poland.
Holy Father John Paul II discerned the relevance and importance of Saint Faustina’s charism and he expressed it at various occasions calling on contemporary Christians to be the witnesses, apostles of the Divine Mercy.
Sr. M. Elisabeth Siepak ISMM
Full text in: “Saint Faustina’s Charism” in: Studia Bobolanum, 2(2008), pp 5-20.
Translated by Iwona Franceschini