I got an interesting e-mail from a student who had read an Amazon reviewer highly critical of Sister Faustina’s diary. (It was Sister Faustina, now St. Faustina, whose influence led Pope John Paul II to declare the Sunday after Easter “Divine Mercy Sunday.”) In the review the claim was made that Sister Faustina and her writings were the object of much persecution by the official Church prior to the papacy of St. John Paul II. I have to be honest that I have not read any of Sister Faustina’s works, and my devotional life takes me to different sources. So I had to do some research today as well.
I use Wikipedia as a starting point for a lot of research, and I found that the entry on Sister Faustina was eminently fair and balances with what I do know from other sources about the major players in the story. Sister Faustina’s writings, and the devotion to “Divine Mercy” were quite popular especially in post-War Europe, However, Sister’s writings came under the scrutiny of Cardinal Ottaviani, the prefect of the Church’s Holy Office (for the protection of doctrine.)
It is sad to see that there is no critical biography yet written about Cardinal Ottaviani. He was the most powerful cardinal in the Vatican when Vatican II convened in 1962, and he was fiercely opposed to the very idea of a Council and to everything it would ultimately put forward, not surprising for a man whose motto was “always the same.” He attempted to hijack the proceedings by means of a “fast track” strategy, but was fought and ultimately defeated by a block of his cardinal peers, themselves influenced by a brilliant young theologian named Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, among other. Ottaviani was involved in the Council’s most dramatic moment, when Cardinal Josej Frings of Cologne declared to Ottaviani’s face on the Council floor that “your dicastery (office) is a scandal to the whole world.”
It was this same Ottaviani who, just a few years earlier, had issued a disciplinary statement to the entire Church regarding Sister Faustina. I quote from Wikipedia: On 6 March 1959, the Holy Office issued a notification, signed by Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty as notary, that forbade circulation of "images and writings that promote devotion to Divine Mercy in the forms proposed by Sister Faustina" (emphasis in the original). The negative judgment of the Holy Office was based both on a faulty French or Italian translation of the diary, and on theological difficulties such as the claim that Jesus had promised complete remission of sin for certain devotional acts without specifying whether the forgiveness would be obtained directly or through undertaking reception of the sacraments, and what may have been thought to be excessive concentration on Faustina herself.
Ottaviani appears to be the only major opponent of Sister Faustina, from what I can see. Pope Pius XII had refused his request to suppress the movement in the mid 1950’s. Ottaviani thus took the strategy of raising questions about her writings. In truth, though, some of his concerns are not unusual, even by today’s standards. The Church will obviously have great concern over anyone claiming to speak for Christ, particularly in such directives as establishing images and feasts. It is Church doctrine that all Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. He expressed concern that her writings might mislead individuals to replace the sacramental discipline of Penance; we can only guess at what his motives might be regarding his concerns about Faustina’s alleged self-promotion.
That a Polish bishop named Karol Wojtyla was already working behind the scenes in 1965 to restore the good name of the Sister and the movement is a fairly good indication that “persecution” was limited to Ottaviani during the latter’s tenure of office.
As to the writings of Sister Faustina, it is important to note that at the time of her canonization she was cited as a visionary, meaning that she experienced intense communion with Christ in her subjective prayer life. She is honored today for reinforcing a basic New Testament teaching, namely, that God’s mercy is available to all who call upon Him. This is not new information channeled to us by Christ through Sister Faustina, but her understanding of the need to reinforce this belief of the Church. Many other saints have preceded her in doing this; St. Margaret Mary and her devotion to the Sacred Heart come immediately to mind.
It is important to note, too, that the large number of saints and devotional practices are evidence that prayer and piety takes many shapes in the universal Body of Christ. While many find a renewed faith in Sister Faustina’s life and experiences, so others may find similar ways to God through Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Cardinal Newman or Thomas Merton, among those whose writings survive today and enrich us. And these names are only the beginning.