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Photo: Marian Archives
Saint Faustina, with her parents Stanislaus and Marianna Kowalska.
Happy Birthday, St. Faustina!
It helps to have a good head start.
A red-haired, bouncing Polish baby girl named Helen certainly did when she was born 109 years ago this month into the home of a poor, peasant family who had its priorities straight.
On Aug. 25, we mark the birthday of Helen Kowalska (1905-1938), known today as St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, the great apostle of Divine Mercy. Her life and her writings bear witness that we are all born to become saints, to seek to serve God, and to draw our joy and strength through Him. But in matters of holiness, nature needs nurture, and families today have much to learn from the Kowalskas.
"You cannot teach children religion," says Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, one of the world's leading experts on the life and spirituality of St. Faustina. "You have to infect them with it. They have to see faith shining through you."
That's certainly what young Helen experienced from the day she was born to Stanislaus and Marianna Kowalski in the hardscrabble plains of central Poland. In her book The Life of Faustina Kowalska, Sr. Sophia Michalenko, CMGT (Fr. Seraphim's sister), gives a glimpse of the home into which Helen was born. She writes:
Stanislaus was known to rise very early and begin each day with the singing of the traditional Little Hours of the Immaculate Conception, popularly known as "Godzinki." During Lent he would substitute these prayers with the Lamentations of the Lord's Passion. ... When Marianna would try to silence him with, "Stop your singing. You will awaken everyone," he paid no attention to her.
"The first duty is to God," he would sometimes retort.
It was Stanislaus who gave Helen her first inkling of the lives of religious through the stories he read to her about hermits and monks who lived simply and were absorbed in prayer. Helen, in turn, would tell friends and siblings that, when she grew up, she wanted to be just like those mystical heroes.
Helen's mother, too, ensured that her children's catechism classes were complemented at home "with theory and practice," writes another Faustina biographer, Maria Tarnawska.
Much to Helen's chagrin, because she and her sisters had but one dress to share, they had to take turns accompanying their father to church. On the Sundays when Helen was unable to attend, she took matters into her own hands. While she was supposed to help her mother with chores, she went out into the garden and prayed until the Mass was over. Then she returned to the house and, asking her mother for forgiveness, explained how she had to fulfill her obligation to God first. Sounds familiar.
Following St. Faustina's death, one of her brothers stated, "As to religion, Father was very demanding of us and of Helen, for which we are now very grateful."
Stanislaus and Marianna Kowalski demonstrate that the best way to ensure our children come to love God is by first showing them how we, ourselves, are in love with God.
Indeed, Fr. Seraphim points to a passage from a book titled Lectures in Orthodox Religious Education, by Sophie S. Koulomzin, in which the author writes:
Just as the parents expect the children to learn the words of the adult language they hear, just as they help them to learn their environment — that fire burns, and water is wet, and snow is cold — just so should they let them imbibe religious impressions and ideas. Let the children see the parents pray, let the parents give religious interpretations of what the children see, let the children attend Church services, see religious pictures and objects.
Not every child will be so easily smitten with God as Helen was. But by making a determined effort to bring God into our homes and into our lives — making Mass mandatory and prayer a priority, and putting others' needs before our own — we are not telling our children what to do. Rather, we are instilling in them an aspiration of what they can be.
Jesus says, "Let the children come to me" (Mt 19:14).
If St. Faustina were around to blow out 109 candles, we can bet that would be her birthday wish.