The happiest day of St. John Paul II’s life may not be what you think.
To be sure, there were many days of his life that might seem like obvious choices – the end of World War II, or his ordination as a priest, or the day he was named a bishop, or cardinal, or the Pope.
But actually, according to St. John Paul II himself, the happiest day of his life was the day he canonized a little nun from his homeland of Poland, St. Faustina Kowalska.
St. Faustina was born Helena Kowalska to a poor but devout Polish family in 1905. At the age of 20, with very little education, and having been rejected from several other convents because of her poverty and lack of education, Helen entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. There, she took the name Sr. Faustina and spent time in convents in both Poland and Lithuania.
Throughout her life, Jesus appeared to Sr. Faustina. He asked her to become an apostle and secretary of his mercy, by writing down his messages of Divine Mercy for the world in her diary. Jesus also asked Sr. Faustina to have an image painted of his Divine Mercy, with red and white rays issuing from his heart, and to spread devotion to the Divine Mercy novena.
Even before her death on October 5, 1938, devotion to Divine Mercy began to spread throughout Poland.
Although Sr. Faustina’s life overlapped with John Paul II (then Karol Wojtyla) for several years in Poland – he could have been 18 and living in Krakow when she died – Karol did not really learn about the nun and the message of Divine Mercy until his days in a clandestine seminary during World War II.
This little nun and Jesus’ message of Divine Mercy impacted Karol Wojtyla greatly, which became obvious to the world when he was elected Pope.
Due to an inaccurate Italian translation of the Diary of Divine Mercy and other unresolved issues, the Vatican placed a ban on spreading the devotion in the 1950s, which was lifted just six months before Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II.
As Pope, John Paul II dedicated his second encyclical, “Rich in Mercy” (Dives in Misericordia), to Divine Mercy.
In Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, George Weigel writes that John Paul II had told him personally of the impact Sr. Faustina had had on his life and ministry:
“As Archbishop of Krakow, Wojtyla had defended Sr. Faustina when her orthodoxy was being posthumously questioned in Rome, due in large part to a faulty translation into Italian of her diary, and had promoted the cause of her beatification. John Paul II, who said that he felt spiritually ‘very near’ Sr. Faustina, had been ‘thinking about her for a long time’ when he began Dives in Misericordia,” Weigel wrote.
Many times throughout his papacy, John Paul II would write or speak about the importance of pleading for God’s Divine Mercy for the whole world. On April 19, 1993, he beatified Sr. Faustina, and in his homily he praised the way she drew many people to the merciful heart of Christ.
“It is truly marvelous how her devotion to the merciful Jesus is spreading in our contemporary world and gaining so many human hearts! This is doubtlessly a sign of the times — a sign of our twentieth century. The balance of this century, which is now ending, in addition to the advances which have often surpassed those of preceding eras, presents a deep restlessness and fear of the future. Where, if not in the Divine Mercy, can the world find refuge and the light of hope? Believers understand that perfectly,” he said.
On April 30, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized St. Faustina in what he was widely reported as saying was “the happiest day of my life.”
“Today my joy is truly great in presenting the life and witness of Sr Faustina Kowalska to the whole Church as a gift of God for our time. By divine Providence, the life of this humble daughter of Poland was completely linked with the history of the 20th century, the century we have just left behind. In fact, it was between the First and Second World Wars that Christ entrusted his message of mercy to her. Those who remember, who were witnesses and participants in the events of those years and the horrible sufferings they caused for millions of people, know well how necessary was the message of mercy,” the Pope said in his homily that day.
It was also on this day, the Sunday after Easter, that Pope John Paul II instituted the Feast of Divine Mercy, which Jesus had asked for in his messages to Sr. Faustina.
Special graces – similar to an indulgence – are granted to souls on this day who receive sacramental confession and communion. Jesus promised that souls who fulfilled these requirements on this day would be returned to their pure, baptismal state, among other graces.
Jesus said to Sr. Faustina of this feast:
“I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day, the very depths of My tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of My mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain the complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day all the divine floodgates through which grace flow are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet.” (Diary 699)
St. Faustina and St. John Paul II, pray for us! Jesus, I trust in you, have mercy on us!