COLORADO SPRINGS. Around the world, the year 1933 was a year of hardship, misery, and the unexpected. For many countries, it was one of the worst years of the Great Depression. In Russia, severe famine claimed the lives of several million people. Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Nazi Germany and opened his country’s first concentration camp, Dachau. In the United States, the Southern Great Plains suffered through 38 dust storms, one powerful enough to rip the topsoil from South Dakota’s farmlands.
But an event of inestimable importance that went largely unnoticed occurred during this year of turmoil in the city of Vilnius, in what is now Lithuania. An energetic priest and brilliant theologian named Father Michael Sopocko was appointed confessor to the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy.
Father Sopocko did not know it, but he had been given a mission by God that would have a greater impact on the world than all the political and socioeconomic upheaval that was and still is prevalent worldwide. His mission was to support, guide, and collaborate with an extraordinarily holy soul, Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska of the Blessed Sacrament, whom he met in the confessional of that convent in Vilnius.
Early in his priesthood, Father Sopocko opened two mission churches as well as various schools. He was a military chaplain and a prolific author who wrote several articles for religious publications on the topics of pedagogy, catechetics, homiletics, pastoral theology and spirituality. His publications were well read and widely distributed and were translated into Latin, English, French, Italian and Portuguese.
He was a well-known confessor and spiritual director and a respected professor of pastoral theology at the Stefan Bathory University in Vilnius. His scholarly research of Biblical and theological texts explained and supported the doctrinal truth concerning the Divine Mercy Devotion, and his efforts to obtain official approval for the Divine Mercy Feast Day and Divine Mercy Devotion from the Church authorities were tireless. In short, Father Michael Sopocko was a remarkably tenacious, gifted, and holy priest.
Initially skeptical of the validity of the revelations from Jesus that St. Faustina related to him, and in need of more time to evaluate her claims than was available when he visited the convent, Father Sopoko required St. Faustina under obedience to write down in notebooks her mystical experiences. These notebooks, six in all, became what we now know as her diary. It was after much prayer, prudent reflection, intense research, and a positive psychiatric evaluation by a prominent psychiatrist, that he came to believe in the authenticity of St. Faustina’s experiences, a belief that caused him to dedicate the remaining 42 years of his life to spreading and promoting the message of Divine Mercy.
Father Sopocko also found the artist Eugene Kazimierowski, who painted the original Divine Mercy Image, and would even pose as Jesus for the artist. It was through Father Sopocko that the Divine Mercy image was first displayed in public at the entrance to the City of Vilnius, the Ostra Brama. This occurred on the first Sunday after Easter in 1935 — effectively the first Divine Mercy Sunday — while he preached the message of Divine Mercy. Father Sopocko encouraged and guided St. Faustina in the few short years that followed this event until her death in 1938.
After St. Faustina died, Father Sopocko contemplated the message of Divine Mercy interwoven throughout Sacred Scripture and the Church’s theological tradition. He studied the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, and through them was able to confirm St. Faustina’s revelations about God’s greatest attribute being mercy. He repeatedly and tirelessly made the academic and theological case for the Feast of Divine Mercy. He preached about Divine Mercy and he taught about Divine Mercy while World War II raged on.
In 1942, by fleeing to an Ursuline convent a few miles outside of Vilnius, he narrowly escaped deportation to a concentration camp. For two years, he masqueraded as a gardener for the sisters and a carpenter for the townspeople. However, in 1944, he was forced to flee Lithuania altogether and relocate in Bailystok, Poland. It was there that he founded the religious order of the Sisters of the Merciful Jesus, taught in the archdiocesan major seminary, and continued to ponder and spread the Divine Mercy message and devotion.
Father Sopocko was no stranger to suffering. In 1958, he was forced to retire from his priestly duties and from giving talks to large audiences due to a damaged facial nerve. In 1962, he was injured in a car accident. Though in poor health and retired from the public, he published a four-volume magnum opus titled “The Mercy of God in His Works.”
Perhaps the greatest suffering he endured was the result of the 20-year ban placed on the Divine Mercy message and devotion. The ban, due to a faulty translation of St. Faustina’s diary into Italian, was lifted in 1965 when a young Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, encouraged an official investigation into St. Faustina’s life and virtues.
Father Michael Sopocko — the second Apostle of Divine Mercy, as he was named in St. Faustina’s Diary, died Feb. 15, 1975 in Bialystok. He was declared Blessed on Sept. 28, 2008 at a special Mass at the Church of Divine Mercy in Bialystok. His feast day is Feb. 15.
In the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Blessed Father Michael Sopocko’s first class relic is available for veneration each Saturday morning at the 8 a.m. Mass and Holy Hour at St. Patrick Church. For more information, visit www.divinemercyoftherockies.org.