Dreary Apparitions (Complaints, Part 2)

Credulity is not a virtue. Nor is it a compliment to faith. We are advised to be always ready with a cogent answer “to every man that asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15) The words emphasize faith’s footing in rationality. The faith is to be defended in accord with reason and logic.

Admittedly, reason is chastened by its own limits. As Paul wrote to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” There is no acid test for “the evidence of things not seen.” But, following Paul, the search for understanding cannot—must not—be abandoned to sentimental mystification. It is to be articulated, made graspable, not wrapped in gauze. Not surrendered to consoling fictions.

Please understand, the piety of Maria Faustina Kowalska is not the issue. Neither is the merit or sincerity of Catholics who have adopted the Divine Mercy devotion. What matters is the integrity of the devotion’s promulgation and the sensibility it encourages.


Manuscript illustration from Citeaux Abbey. A man accused of bearing false witness is paraded through town with tongue pierced (c. 12th C).


An irritated reader suggests that my skepticism toward the cult of Faustina indicates  .  .   . how to put it? .  .  .  a deficiency in my Catholicism. She wonders why I bother. The answer is simple: Giving oxygen to credulity weakens the Church. The Divine Mercy devotion, no less than the franchise built on it, is inseparable from the content of Faustina’s imaginings. The machinery of it makes the Church’s teaching function appear incoherent—as disjointed as the culture it is commissioned to evangelize. The specter of implausibility hanging over the whole opera weakens Church authority among those most in need of trust in it.

We watch our civilization’s slow abandonment of Christianity. We witness the Church’s loosened grip on the moral climate. We mourn lessening of faith in the Real Presence. We lament the displacement of modern man’s religious impulses onto messianic environmentalism. All the while, we cast blame everywhere outside of ourselves. In that way, we make ourselves partners in underwriting faded authority with an effortless devotion rooted in improbable apparitions. It is a self-defeating subsidy.


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The words of Domenico Bartolucci (d. 2013), the last great Chapel Master of the Sistine Chapel Choir, resound more compellingly with each passing year:

Gregorian chant was born in violent times, and it should be manly and strong, and not like the sweet and comforting adaptations of our own day.

What Cardinal Bartolucci said of chant and polyphony applies as well to our devotions. The Jesus of our devotional life should also be manly and strong. The grand nature of the Christian claim diminishes in any devotion—however popular—that depicts a plaintive Jesus who drops by with a fail-proof recipe for redemption. And who dramatizes his feelings the way a woman might.


Oswald Tofani illustrates a scene from Jules Massenet’s opera “Thais” (1894).


Faustina’s Jesus gossips and plays favorites. He flatters and complains. He exhibits the emotionalism women would like men to have. He confesses his feelings (“The flames of mercy are burning Me—clamoring to be spent.”) He is as overbearing and guilt-inducing as Sophie Portnoy. (“If you neglect the matter of the painting of the image and the whole work of mercy, you will have to answer for a multitude of souls on the day of judgment.”) He discards masculine reticence and whines: “Distrust on the part of souls is tearing at My insides. . . . Even My death is not enough for them.”


Performance of “Lohengrin” by the Circle Square Opera Company (1902).


A deformation intrudes on more than one Diary entry. To illustrate, on a day Faustina was lying in the infirmary, a visiting Jesuit brought Communion to the ill sisters. Thinking Faustina was the last communicant, he gave her two hosts. None was left for a novice unnoticed in the next cell. Realizing his mistake, the priest went back for another host. But he need hardly have troubled. Jesus confided to Faustina his aversion to the overlooked novice:

I enter that heart unwillingly. You received those two Hosts, because I delayed My coming into this soul who resists My grace. My visit to such a soul is not pleasant for me.

It is a petty, miserly statement. Why would Catholics lend credence to it as coming from the incarnate God who is generosity itself? And who loves even those unworthy of divine largesse? How can we credit a Jesus who, in 1936, responds to Faustina’s prayers for the people of Russia with the same spiteful inflection and a veiled threat: “I cannot suffer that country any longer. Do not tie My hands, My daughter.”

Pablo Picasso. The Artist and His Model (1927).


What are we to think of a Jesus who commissions a portrait of himself (“painted with a brush”) to supplant the cross as the ultimate symbol of mercy? How much sustenance can a secular world, however thirsty, discover in Faustina’s fantasy life? What are the plugged-in riders on Amtrak or the crosstown bus to believe about the transcendent origin of 600-plus pages of treacle mining? How much credit should any of us lend to an unscriptural Jesus who trumps the Eucharist with his own portrait? And in exorbitant tones:

I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. . .   I Myself will defend it as My own glory.

Faustina’s Diary constructs a Jesus looking for payback. Recompense. (“My daughter, your love compensates me for the coldness of many.”)  Is this how the Word wishes to be known by us?

•     •     •     •

The original 1934 Divine Mercy painting hangs in the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy in Vilnius, Lithuania. The painter Eugene Kazimirowski set to work in the manner of a police sketch artist—translating onto canvas the image in Faustina’s mind. Her mind’s eye was fixed on Saint-Sulpice-style images of the Sacred Heart, with which she was familiar. To lend verisimilitude to a patently derivative composition, Faustina’s spiritual director, Fr. Michael (Michal) Sopocko sat in for Jesus during painting sessions.

In short, the painting is not a portrait of Jesus at all. It is a pastiche: part copy of 19th century religious kitsch, part portrait of the priest who got the bandwagon rolling.


14th C. manuscript illustration. A fine, silent instance of eucharistic catechesis.

Correction: I had previously cited the Cathedral in Vilnius as home base for the painting. No, it hangs in its own church.

Also, I initially robbed Peter to pay Paul. That is fixed, thanks to those of you who wrote to tell me I need a copy editor. (It is always good to make mistakes up front where everyone can see them.)