Photo: Marian archives
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 1, 2014)
Readers of St. Faustina's Diary sometimes come across passages that do not seem to put her in a very good light. For example, one of our readers, a man named Francis, noted Diary passage 916-917 — a passage in which she arranges to have a Jewish woman surreptitiously baptized at the time of the woman's death. Francis sent me this critique of St. Faustina's actions:
What did Faustina mean when she said that the Jewish lady's soul needed to be "cleansed" by baptism? What right did she have to pass judgment on the soul of a dying woman whom she did not know, or what kind of life she had led, or what trials she had experienced? The lady was Jewish, she was outside the Christian Faith: Did she express a wish to be baptized as she was dying? Was she asked for, or even able to give, her consent?
What right did Faustina or the other nun have to wait until "they" (the lady's Jewish family) had left the room, and then baptize her behind their back, without first having discussed it with them, and obtained, as a most basic courtesy, their views and consent?
It is very hard to answer such questions, Francis, because we do not really have access to all the facts.
According to entry 916, St. Faustina had visited this woman quite often in the days prior to her death. Perhaps the woman had actually expressed a wish to be baptized, but was hesitant, for fear of offending her Jewish relatives who always seemed to be visiting her. We just don't know.
One thing we do know is that in entry 917, St. Faustina saw this woman's soul (that is, after her baptism, and at the moment of death) "ascending to heaven in wondrous beauty," filled to overflowing with sanctifying grace. There is no way that the Sacrament of Holy Baptism could have such an effect on an adult unless that adult had already attained a disposition of genuine repentance and faith, such that all obstacles to the work of baptismal grace within her soul had been removed. Thus, what evidence we have suggests that the woman's soul was indeed fully ready for baptism by the time it was administered, and that St. Faustina was not imposing a sacrament on her that she did not desire to receive.
As for St. Faustina passing "judgment" on the soul of a woman she did not know — well, again, given her frequent visits to this sick lady, perhaps she got to know her rather well, and in any case, in general St. Faustina knew that every soul has need of baptismal grace: either poured out for the first time in baptism, or renewed and strengthened later by sacramental confession. Saint Faustina does not say that this Jewish woman necessarily would have ended up in hell without baptism; there may indeed have been extenuating circumstances that might have prevented her from ever receiving the sacrament. But St. Faustina was at least operating under the principle that more sacramental grace is always better medicine for the soul than less. Seen in that light, her actions in this case may well have been both prudent and charitable.
A reader named Barbara sent me another question about St. Faustina's behavior, this one from accounts of her childhood:
With regard to St. Faustina's actions as a child, recorded in EADM manual 1 [Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy Cenacle Manual #1], page 60, paragraph 2: St. Faustina is said to have hidden in the garden with her father's prayer book on days when she could not go to church and "would not come out until the service was over." This took place even when her mother called her to help her. The question raised by one EADM member was: Shouldn't St. Faustina have obeyed the fourth commandment and gone to help her mother? Was this a sin?
Here again, we probably do not have enough information about these Sunday incidents to be able to say for sure. It is certainly not wrong to make a firm commitment to keep the Lord's Day holy through private prayer when one is unable to attend Mass. Indeed, Jesus told us that the "first and great commandment" is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mk 12:30), while loving our neighbors as ourselves is merely the "second" great commandment. Arguably, what this incident shows us is that little Helena Kowalska had her priorities straight, even as a child!
However, let's take the "worst case" scenario here. Suppose that on some of those Sundays, her mother really did have urgent need of her daughter's help, and yet little Helena stubbornly stuck to her prayers anyway. In that case she might have been guilty of a sin against charity, since she could have postponed her prayers until a later time in order to lend her mother a hand.
So, was little Helena Kowalska a sinner?
Of course she was! The saints are not necessarily fully sanctified in their childhood years. The process of sanctification usually takes an entire lifetime. Like all of us, Helena in her youth, was a sinner-not-yet-fully-cured. Maybe, in this case, in her youthful religious zeal she did not yet understand that the virtue of religious piety must sometimes take a back seat to the virtue of charity.
In other words, saints are not perfect people. Rather, they are people who, more than the rest of us (and often faster than the rest of us!) learn with the help of grace to overcome their sins through repentance, faith, and love. One of the reasons St. Faustina is rightfully called the great "Apostle of Divine Mercy" in our time is that in her own life she personally experienced God's merciful love for sinful souls like her own (see, for example, Diary, entry 1485, "Conversation of the Merciful God with a Sinful Soul"; and entry 1488, "Conversation of the Merciful God with a Soul Striving for Perfection." Surely these conversations are based on her own, personal experience!).
In fact, even as an adult in the religious life, St. Faustina probably, very occasionally, committed venial sins. I remember reading in the records of the testimonies of those who knew her (from interviews that formed part of the investigative process for her beatification) that one of the girls at her convent once claimed: "Sister Faustina could not be a saint because one time she slapped me!" But the girl went on to admit that she had provoked this slap by her own outrageous, blasphemous swearing, and that Sister Faustina had actually apologized to her later.
Again, saints (other than Our Lady) are not perfectly sinless people. But with the help of grace, they become more and more perfectly repentant people, and as a result, they end up sinning less and less. And that is actually good news, isn't it? It comforts me to know that someone can sometimes let their temper get the better of them (as St. Faustina did in this case), or chicken out (as St. Peter did on the night of Jesus' arrest, denying three times that he even knew Jesus), or struggle with doubt (as apostle St. Thomas did about the Resurrection of our Lord), and still, ultimately, become a saint. It gives me hope that I just might be able to be one, too!
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.