Apostle of Divine Mercy, Servant of God
Blessed Fr. Michael Sopocko, was the confessor and spiritual director to Sister Faustina. Through her mediation, he was directly involved with the mystery of the revelations given by Jesus in the message of Divine Mercy. God assigned to him the special role of fulfilling the mission given to Saint Faustina. Jesus said to Sister Faustina "He will be your visible help on Earth...do nothing without his permission" Fr. Michael dedicated almost his entire life to the accomplishment of this mission. The beatification of the Servant of God Fr. Michael Sopocko, which took place on 28 September 2008, will serve to bring him closer to many more of the faithful, and especially to the devotees of the Divine Mercy.
Michael Sopocko was born into a noble family on November 1, 1888 in Nowosady, in present day Lithuania. From his earliest years he was raised in a deeply religious atmosphere and a patriotic tradition. In spite of their poor standard of living, his parents made sure that Michael received at least an elementary education. The difficult conditions in which the Sopocko family lived, the arduous labour in the fields and the constant struggle for survival, was a tough character building upbringing for Michael Sopocko in effect a school of life. The healthy morality of his parents, their deep piety and parental and family love, had a profound and positive effect on the spiritual development of Michael. Daily family prayer and frequent attendance at services in the parish church 18 kilometres away, where they travelled by horse-drawn cart, was normal practise for the family. Receiving the holy sacraments was a significant experience for Michael. When he was a young boy he built a small altar in the house, which he used to pray before. Already in childhood, the spiritual atmosphere which reigned in the Sopocko home awakened in him an ardent piety and the desire to offer himself to the service of God in the priesthood.
Studying for Priesthood in Vilnius
Michael entered the Seminary in 1910, and studied for four years. He could not rely on any material help from home, and it was only due to the financial support granted him by the Rector of the seminary that he was able continue his studies. He was ordained a priest on June 15, 1914.
Assistant Priest in Taboryszki
After being ordained a priest, Father Michael Sopocko, was appointed to work in the parish of Taboryszki, near Vilnius, in the capacity of parish priest. In this capacity he gave catechism classes on Sundays to the youth of the parish. In the summer of 1915 the German-Russian front passed through Taboryszki. In spite of the danger from the war activities, Father Sopocko continued to celebrate all the devotional services that were prescribed for this time. He was very involved in the lives of his parishioners, helping all those who were injured or harmed by the passing armies. During his stay in Taboryszki, despite the war, Father Sopocko knew how important education was for the youth. He opened new schools for children in neighbouring villages for which he was often persecuted by the occupying German authorities even although initially these same authorities were tolerant of his activities and even helped him materially. Their attitude however hardened with time and matters began to change for the worse. Finally the German authorities began to prevent Father Sopocko from travelling to Vilnius to bring back teachers for his schools and in the end they forced him to leave Taboryszki altogether.
Studies at University of Warsaw and Service as Military Chaplain
In 1918, Father Michael received permission from the Church authorities in Vilnius to go to Warsaw, where he registered for study in the Theology Department of Warsaw University However, he was unable to begin his studies due to illness and the political situation at the time. After his recovery he returned to Warsaw intending to begin his studies in January 1919, but he found the university was closed as a result of the war, so instead, he signed up as a volunteer for the military chaplaincy. The field Bishop of the Polish army appointed him as an army chaplain, and assigned him to pastoral service in the Warsaw Field Hospital.
After a month he requested to be moved back to Vilnius to the military front and immediately received a transfer to the Vilnius Regiment where he began serving the soldiers who were fighting on the front line. After one particularly long and arduous march with the fighting troops Fr. Sopocko again began experiencing difficulties with his health and as a result, he was sent for treatment to a military hospital where, during the several weeks of his recovery, he helped with spiritual ministry to the sick.
Vilniusbeing part of Poland during the first world war, Fr. Sopocko was assigned as the military chaplain to a Training Camp for Polish officers in Warsaw. His duties included weekly religious and moral talks for officers and non-commissioned officers of the various units, as well as service in two military hospitals. As a military chaplain to the Training Camp officers, he raised issues of dogma and Church history. He discussed the catechism as well as taking up actual problems associated with military service. The religious moral and patriotic issues he raised in his talks were held in such high regard by his superiors that the Ministry of Defence published his talks and instructed the officers to introduce his work to the cadets in all units.
In October, 1919, in spite of the on-going war, the university resumed its activities. Fr. Sopocko registered for study in the moral theology department, and for additional lectures on law and philosophy. He had to divide his time between study and military service. During this time he also organised a school for orphaned children of military families.
In the summer of 1920, Fr. Sopocko witnessed the collapse of the front line; he lived through the heroic defence of Warsaw by the Polish army, and the final victory over the Soviet offensive. Years later, in his memoirs, he judged this victory over vast superior odds as being an exceptional sign of Divine Mercy for Poland obtained through the prayers of the faithful who filled the churches at that time.
While fulfilling his duties as an army chaplain and studying in the moral theology department, he also registered for a higher degree in education. In 1923 he received his master's degree in theology and became even more involved in the field of pedagogy. The results of his research into the effects of alcohol on the development of the youth became the basis for his diploma work, "Alcoholism and School-aged Youth," the crowning achievement of his studies in the Pedagogical Institute.
Military Chaplaincy and Work in Vilnius
The Bishop of Vilnius, Jerzy Matulewicz, knowing the merits and achievements, as well as the theological and pedagogical background of Fr. Sopocko, wanted to have him back to work in his diocese. He wanted him particularly for the organisation of a pastoral ministry for young people who were not at school and for college-aged adults.
Father Michael accepted the bishop's proposal and returned to Vilnius. There he was formally appointed as Director of the Military Chaplaincy for the Vilnius Region, which consisted of 12 independent units, numbering over 10,000 soldiers altogether. The transfer of Fr. Sopocko to Vilnius was a promotion, but, at the same, time it imposed on him more obligations and a greater responsibility.
In union with the conference of military chaplains, Father Sopocko decided that in addition to sacramental ministry, the chaplains should also give talks on religion and morals at least twice a week in every unit. He also took on the task designated by the bishop to organise the youth ministry for young adults. And with the help of teachers specially invited by him, he managed to set up several Fraternities for the youth.
Despite the many responsibilities of his pastoral work, Fr. Sopocko continued his theological studies by distance learning, preparing his doctoral work on moral theology entitled, "The Family in Law-making." He submitted his thesis in the Theology Department of the University of Warsaw on 1 March 1926. Because his research work required knowledge of foreign languages, he also studied German, English and French.
After obtaining his doctorate, he prepared for a further post doctoral degree. In 1927 and 1928, while continuing to work as director of the chaplaincy of the local Military District, Fr. Sopocko was appointed to the prominent position, of spiritual director of the Seminary and head of the Pastoral Theology Department at the Vilnius University. These new duties forced him to gradually withdraw from military chaplaincy work.
Spiritual Director of Seminary in Vilnius
Work in the seminary and the role of Spiritual Director, eventually began to suit him. As Spiritual Director, Fr. Sopocko was also the moderator of the Marian Sodality, the Eucharistic Association, the Third Order of St. Francis and the Union of Seminarians Associated with the Mission Clergy. Another service he was appointed to by the bishop, at this providential time in Vilnius, was that of confessor to religious orders and the hearing of confessions of religious sisters.
His duties now in addition to his function as Spiritual Director in the Seminary included giving lectures and carrying out research. Since books and manuscripts for teaching were scarce in those times, Fr. Michael had to write his teaching material by hand for the subjects he taught. These scripts were copied and used by the students as study aids for many years after. The research of Fr. Sopocko was mostly connected with his post-doctoral thesis, on the problem of spiritual upbringing and formation. In the summer of 1930 Fr. Sopocko visited various libraries in Western European countries to collect materials for the research work he had undertaken.
He was able to visit places of devotion and centres of religious life as well as libraries. While working on his post-doctoral thesis, Fr. Michael was also writing articles and lectures related to his research within the scope of pastoral theology, and articles for church encyclopaedias. He presented research reports and took up journalism. In September 1932, Fr. Michael moved into a monastery building occupied by the Sisters of Visitation where he was able to finish writing his post- doctoral work. His thesis was called: "The Purpose, Subject and Object of Spiritual Formation according to M. Leczycki." On the basis of this work, he qualified as assistant professor on 15 May 1934. The Ministry of Religious Confessions and Public Education nominated him as Assistant Professor at the University of Warsaw, and this title was then forwarded to the Department of Pastoral Theology at the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius.
Meeting Sister Faustina
From 1932 Fr. Sopocko was the confessor for the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, who at that time had a convent in Vilnius. It was here, in 1933, that he met Sister Faustina Kowalska, who, after coming to Vilnius in May of 1933, became his penitent (see Memories).
Their meeting proved to be a defining moment in his life and the part he would play, as designed by Jesus, in bringing the message of Divine Mercy to the world. It was to be his mission alongside Sister Faustina for the rest of his life defining his future. In the person of Sister Faustina, Fr. Sopocko met another apostle of the Divine Mercy, a Mercy that he himself knew he had experienced in his own life on more than one occasion. Sister Faustina, having having been told by Jesus that Fr. Sopocko was to be her confessor, spiritual director, and visible help on earth began to share all her spiritual experiences and visions with him. To enable him to assess and discern their content, he asked the sister to write down all her inner experiences, and then he would look over the texts and discern the Lords words. In this way the DIARY of St. Faustina came into being.
Sister Faustina, recited to him the revelations of Jesus that she had already experienced before coming to Vilnius and every message from then on. She told Fr. Sopocko about the requests she had received from Jesus during her apparitions. These included instructions to paint an Image of the Divine Mercy (see Image), to institute a Feast of Divine Mercy on the First Sunday after Easter (see Feast), and to set up a new Religious Congregation (see new Congregation). and to proclaim this message including the Chaplet ( see Chaplet) and Novena to the world. (see Novena) (see Proclamation).
From July 1934 Fr. Sopocko was the Rector of St. Michael's Church in Vilnius where thanks to his efforts the first Image of the Merciful Jesus was blessed and displayed on 4 April 1937. This followed positive assessments of the Image given by the two commissions of experts appointed by the Metropolitan Archbishop Jalbrzykowski of Vilnius (see history of Image).
Sr. Faustina left Vilnius in March, 1936. Fr. Sopocko, continuously remained in contact with her by letter, and visiting her in Krakow, and it was he who brought to fruition all the work that had been entrusted to him through Sr. Faustina's revelations. That was the work of bringing the message of Divine Mercy to the attention world. Fr. Sopocko pursued this work by seeking out the theological grounds for the propagation of all the elements of the Divine Mercy message based on the teachings of the Church. He was also to establish the basis for the institution of the Feast that was requested in Faustina's visions. He presented the results of his research and the arguments for introducing the Feast in several articles in Theological periodicals. He also presented them in separate works on the subject of Divine Mercy.
In June of 1936 in Vilnius Fr. Michael published his first book, "The Divine Mercy," with an image of the Divine Mercy on the cover. He sent this first publication out to all of the Bishops who were gathered for the Episcopal Conference in Czestochowa, but did not receive an answer from any of them. In 1937 in Poznan he published his second book entitled "The Divine Mercy in the Liturgy."
At the end of 1937 the health of St. Faustina visibly deteriorated. Fr. Sopocko visited her at the beginning of September 1938, and she was already practically on her deathbed (see Congregation). Sister Faustina died on October 5, 1938. After the outbreak of war in September 1939, Fr. Sopocko decided to bring Sister Faustina's revelations into the open. He sensed that the tragedy of war and the connected events had begun to confirm the contents of the message and urgency of his work.
Also connected with the concept of Divine Mercy was the building of a new church in Vilnius in the Name of Divine Mercy. In 1938 a Divine Mercy Church Building Committee was created, which soon received the approval of the State Office and of Archbishop of Vilnius Bishop R. Jalbrzykowski. With the outbreak of the second world-war however Vilnius was occupied by the Soviet Army. A new political situation followed, which brought a halt his intention for Divine Mercy churches and, in the end, completely thwarted him. The Soviet Army plundered the accumulated building materials and the money earmarked for the first construction of a Divine Mercy church, and the money he had in the bank for this work was also taken by the Soviets. Undaunted, even in 1940, Fr. Sopocko was still trying to obtain permission to build at least one church, but was refused.
The Years of Occupation and Post World War II
The Second World War, engulfing Europe, deepened the conviction of Fr. Sopocko of the need of God's Divine Mercy for the world. And so he proclaimed wit even greater conviction the concept and ideology of Divine Mercy, which he perceived as the only hope for the world. He was invited by parishes from all around Vilnius, and from the provinces, to give conferences on Divine Mercy. During Lenten devotions in the Vilnius Cathedral, he would give homilies on Divine Mercy which drew crowds of thousands of the faithful from all over Vilnius. The words of these homilies resounded all over that city.
During this time, Fr. Sopocko also began working on a treatise "De Misericordia Dei Deque Eiusdem Festo Instituendo." about the concept of Divine Mercy and about the Feast in its honour. He was encouraged by Cardinal August Hlond even before the war to pursue this work at the time when Fr. Sopocko had presented the Cardinal with his research regarding the message of Divine Mercy. But in June of 1940 Lithuania was again taken over by the Red Army, and a month later was merged into the Soviet Union as its fifteenth republic. Fr. Sopocko was forced to stop meeting with the Divine Mercy groups that he was moderating to. He was also stopped publishing his treatise on Divine Mercy.
Then a girl called Hedwig Osinska, who was an expert in classical languages, came to his aid and took care of the literary aspect of the treatise. With the help of her friends, she took it upon herself to copy his work in secret. Then she would send it to different people who had the opportunity of leaving Vilnius. In this way, Fr. Sopocko's work was able to reach many countries, and particularly was able to fall into the hands of Bishops in Europe and throughout the world.
Fr. Sopocko became a suspect of the Gestapo because he was proclaiming the Divine Mercy and spreading its devotion. Forewarned by a Registration Office worker, he was able to evade arrest and he left Vilnius to avoid danger. When the threat had passed, Fr. Sopocko returned to Vilnius and began teaching in the Seminary, where, in spite of the difficult material conditions and problems, the new academic year 1940/41 began. He once again took up residence at St. Michael Church, where the Image of Divine Mercy was still displayed and gaining ever greater devotion in Vilnius.
Before the Second World War there was a large Jewish population in Vilnius, Fr. Sopocko had taken up instructing those Jews who had heard of the Divine Mercy devotion and wanted to join the Catholic faith. The fruit of his efforts was the baptism of some 65 Jewish people in Vilnius to the Catholic faith. When on 22 June 1941 the German-Soviet war broke out, Vilnius soon found itself under new occupation. The Jewish people were subjected to particular discrimination. Fr. Sopocko who had become friends of the large Jewish community began assisting the Jewish people in every way he could and so became engaged in a very dangerous activity that could have far-reaching consequences for him, including the loss of his life. The Gestapo had uncovered some traces of his activities and even held him under arrest for several days, but he got away.
At the end of 1941, the terror of the German occupation intensified. On the last Sunday of Advent, all the churches in Vilnius were closed down, and arrests followed. On 3 March 1942 the Germans started a widespread hunt for priests. They arrested professors and students of the seminary, as well as almost all of the priests who were working in Vilnius. Soon after this Archbishop R. Jalbrzykowski, was himself also arrested and detained. On the day of the arrests in the seminary, the Gestapo set a trap for Fr. Sopocko at his apartment. But, forewarned by his housekeeper, he was able to escape. He managed to reach the Archbishop's office, where he informed the Archbishop that the Gestapo was searching for him, and he requested to be released from teaching in the seminary. Fr. Sopocko also asked for the Archbishop's blessing for the time that he was going to be in hiding. The refuge was provided by the Ursuline Sisters who sheltered him in an old house they owned deep in the forest, two kilometres from the town of Czarny Bór.
Through the mediation of some trusted people, Fr. Michael obtained a falsified identity card under the name of Waclaw Rodziewicz and he became a gardener and a carpenter working for the local people. Every day, he would celebrate Holy Mass early in the morning, after which he would spend a lot of time in prayer and personal reflection. Every few weeks he would also go to the Sisters' Convent in Czarny Bór to hear confessions, while at other times he busied himself with research work, based on literature provided by Hedwig Osinska his long time collaborator and her friends.
In the fall of 1944, despite the exceptionally difficult conditions, Archbishop Jalbrzykowski ordered that the Vilnius seminary resume its activity and Fr. Sopocko returned to Vilnius to resume his duties. To keep the seminary going, in addition to his teaching responsibilities, he would travel with professors and seminarians to collect free agricultural produce from the locals that helped to keep them alive.
Fr. Sopocko also undertook pastoral work outside of Vilnius, in order to make known the message of Divine Mercy. In the beginning, the authorities of the Lithuanian Republic, despite their anti-religious disposition, tolerated the pastoral activity of priests. However, they gradually began to limit their work particularly tightening up on the granting of permission to catechise the youth and children. Fr. Sopocko held courses in secret, but eventually word of these meetings reached the authorities who summoned him and he was faced with the real danger of being deported and exiled to Siberia.
In July 1947 he received a call from Archbishop Jalbrzykowski, who was now staying in Bialystok, Poland who obviously thought Fr. Sopocko should get away from the danger in Vilnius where the authorities were accumulating too much evidence against him. He invited him to come and work in that Archdiocese. He decided to leave Vilnius as quickly as possible, since the time granted for the repatriation of people from Lithuania to Poland was coming to an end and it would be very hard to leave Lithuania after that.
Wishfully hoping that his leaving Vilnius would be short -lived, Fr. Sopocko left for Bialystok at the end of August 1947, on the very last transport of people from Lithuania going to Poland. Before his departure he paid one last visit to his beloved shrine, the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy.
Fr. Sopocko founds the Sisters of Merciful Jesus asked for by Jesus in the revelations to Sister Faustina.
Upon his arrival in Bialystok, Fr. Sopocko reported to Archbishop Jalbrzykowski to receive his commission for his new appointment. At the end of September, he went to Myslibórz for a few days, where Hedwig Osinska and Isabel Naborowska (the first sisters of the Congregation of Merciful Jesus founded by Fr. Sopocko) were organising the beginnings of religious community life. This was his first meeting with the sisters since they had left Vilnius.
From that time he had kept in constant touch with the sisters, giving them advice and spiritual support, and keeping watch over the development of the Congregation of which he was the founder (see The Shrine).
Professor in Seminary in Bialystok
In October 1947 classes began in the seminary in Bialystok. Fr. Sopocko taught the same subjects that he had taught in Vilnius (Lithuania). Namely, Catechises, Pedagogy, Psychology, and the History of Philosophy. The activities and presence of Fr. Michael in the seminary were not limited to teaching. He was confessor of the seminarians, as he had been in Vilnius and many times when asked by the spiritual director he led retreats for them. Alongside his duties in the seminary, he also carried out pastoral, social and educational work. While an important part of his activities was his educational program promoting abstinence from alcohol amongst the general public.
The work he was most involved in however, and which was the dearest to him, was the matter of the devotion to the Divine Mercy, to which he himself was ardently devoted and faithful till the end of his life. He did not become discouraged by the opposition of Church authorities in approving the devotion. An opposition caused firstly by inconsistencies arising through the spontaneous, grass-roots response in the spreading of the devotion and secondly due to inaccuracies in some publications. Fr. Sopocko tirelessly corrected the errors and ideas that did not accurately represent the true concept of the message of Divine Mercy, explaining the theological bases of the devotion.
Similarly as in Vilnius, so too in Bialystok, Fr. Sopocko was the confessor of religious sisters. Amongst others, the sisters from the Congregation of Missionaries of the Holy Family, who had a house on Poleska Street. Whilst there, engaged in spiritual ministry on Poleska Street, Fr. Sopocko took the opportunity for spreading the Divine Mercy devotion among the local people.
In addition, thanks to his efforts, a chapel under the patronage of the Holy Family was consecrated in the religious house on 27 November 1957, on the Solemnity of Christ the King. And in this way, a pastoral centre was created for the local residents.
After retirement, Fr. Sopocko lived in that same building taking part in pastoral ministry till the end of his life. (Presently a room containing his personal effects can be found there as well as a religious house of the Sisters of Merciful Jesus, the Congregation he founded.)
Towards the end of the nineteen fifties, Fr. Sopocko took on one more initiative that of building a church dedicated to Divine Mercy in Bialystok. A plot of land was purchased with a house on it, half the cost of which he covered himself with his savings. Through this church project, Fr. Sopocko was once again enacting plans drawn up much earlier in Vilnius to build a church of Divine Mercy. However, this time also, as before, he was forced to abandon the project.
In 1958, while giving a retreat to priests, Fr. Sopocko suffered damage to a facial nerve. From this time on, speaking aloud to large audiences was very difficult for him and cost him a great deal. In addition to this, in February 1962 he was involved in a car accident in Zakopane (Poland) while taking part in a meeting of theology professors. This also had an adverse effect on his health and in this state it became necessary for him to go into retirement.
Toward the End of His Life
The sudden retirement caught Fr. Sopocko off guard. He had always been active and involved in numerous works and duties, and for the first time (excluding his time in hiding in Czarny Bór) he had unlimited time at his disposal.
While fulfilling his priestly duties in the Chapel on Poleska Street, he took up the work of finishing the treatises on concept of Divine Mercy that he had begun earlier. When the atmosphere surrounding the revelations of Divine Mercy began to change for the better, he devoted himself to it with renewed fervour. The priestly character of Fr. Sopocko, his spiritual formation and authority stemming from his remarkable life experiences, as well as his great modesty, all served to draw the faithful to him. Having more time now, Fr. Sopocko took up research to broaden the concept of Divine Mercy further. Apart from some new ideas on the matter, he had collected a large amount of material, while some studies he had already begun, so diligently he launched himself into writing. Several works were completed, one after the other, with a four-volume work, "The Mercy of God in His Works," taking the lead. The first volume was published in London in 1959, and the next three volumes were published in the 1960's in Paris, due to the generosity of people devoted to the Divine Mercy who were living in the West. This work was also translated into English.
The constant development of the devotion to the Divine Mercy and the interest arising from many theologians were important occurrences that boosted Fr. Sopocko's commitment. Another significant incentive encouraging him to mission work for the cause of the Divine Mercy was the opening of the Informative Process relating to sister Faustina Kowalska by Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow in 1965. Fr. Sopocko testified as one of the main witnesses.
Father Michael Sopocko lived to celebrate the beautiful jubilees of 50 and 60 years of priestly service. The most edifying part of these celebrations was the speeches of the jubilee celebrant himself. Nearing the end of his priestly life, worn out by age and the difficulties of life, as well as by the painful inner trials he suffered, Fr. Sopocko made the shortest of the speeches given on that day. He expressed, first of all, his deep gratitude to God for the gift of the priesthood, and then, with great humility, he stated that in his long priestly life, he was not always faithful to the duties entrusted to him, and for that he desired to sincerely apologise to God and to ask all those gathered for prayer that the Merciful God would forgive him his unfaithfulness.
This celebration, according to the feelings and judgments of many participants, was a much belated moral reward and recompense for the venerable priest who had merited so much for the cause of God, especially for having being the first to spread the Divine Mercy revelations around the world. The one sign of recognition for the manifold meritorious works he accomplished for the Church and the Archdiocese was his being named as honorary Canon of the Chapter of the Metropolitan Basilica, though this was not until 1972, already near the end of his life.
Throughout his whole life, Fr. Michael was a man of action. Action based on a strong spiritual foundation. When his physical ability deteriorated due to illnesses, and ailments struck, the spiritual domain became the place of his commitment to God and to His service. Some quotations found in his diary give testimony to this. For this is how he actually understood his final service: "Old age should be treated as a vocation to greater love of God and neighbour. God has new plans regarding the elderly, plans for deepening the human being by revealing to him, face to face, his inner life. The only effective action that we are capable of is prayer. In this active passivity everything prepares us, everything counts, everything works for our gain. Heaven will be the praying of the "OUR FATHER."