Write that by day and by night My gaze is fixed upon him,
FATHER MICHAEL SOPOĆKO
Initial years of his priestly service in Vilnius
In 1918, Father Sopoćko received permission from the Church authorities in Vilnius to go to Warsaw to study at the Department of Theology of Warsaw University. However, he was unable to begin his studies due to illness and the political situation in Poland.
A month later, Father Sopoćko asked to be sent to the military front and the Vilnius Regiment. He immediately began serving soldiers who were fighting on the frontline. In addition to his pastoral duties, he assisted the wounded, who often found themselves in difficult circumstances due to the lack of hospital facilities.
Michael Sopoćko as a military chaplain of the Training Camp for officers
While serving as a military chaplain and studying moral theology, he also undertook additional studies at the Higher Pedagogical Institute. 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 on the effects of alcohol on the development of abilities in youth became the foundation for his dissertation: “Alcoholism and the school-aged youth”, the crowning achievement of his studies at the Pedagogical Institute.
By virtue of an official decision made in the autumn of 1924, Father Sopoćko was appointed head of the Military Chaplaincy for the Vilnius Region, consisting of 12 independent units numbering over 10,000 men. The transfer of Father Sopoćko to Vilnius was a promotion but, at the same time, it imposed on him more obligations and greater responsibility. The pastoral work of Father Sopoćko as a military chaplain was recognized by Marshal Józef Piłsudski.
Despite his numerous pastoral duties, he continued his part-time studies at the Department of Theology of the Warsaw University working on his doctoral thesis in moral theology titled: “The family in legislation in Polish lands”. He defended his doctoral thesis on March 1, 1926. After obtaining his doctoral degree, he planned to pursue a post-doctoral degree.
In 1927 and 1928, while continuing to work as the head of the chaplaincy of the local Military District, Father Sopoćko was appointed to the prominent position of spiritual father and confessor of the seminary and the head of the Department of Pastoral Theology at Vilnius University. These new duties forced him withdraw gradually from his military chaplaincy work.
As a spiritual father, Father Sopoćko acted also at the seminary as a moderator of the Marian Sodality, the Eucharistic Association, the Third Order of St. Francis and a group of clerics in the Missionary Association of Clergy. Another service he provided at that time, and indeed during his entire stay in Vilnius, was acting as a confessor of religious sisters.
fter being partially excused from the role of military chaplain, his duties, in addition to his function as the spiritual father at the seminary, included lecturing and research work. Since textbooks were scarce at that time, Father Sopoćko wrote his own academic scripts for the subjects he taught. These scripts were then copied by the students and served as learning materials for many years.
With students of Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, 1929.
In addition to work on his thesis, he wrote scholarly articles on pastoral theology and for a church encyclopedia, delivered scientific lectures and became engaged in journalism. As he became more involved in his research, he asked to be excused from his duties as the chaplain and spiritual father. Both the field bishop and Archbishop eventually agreed.
From 1932 Father Sopoćko was the confessor at the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, whose convent then was in Vilnius. There, in May 1933, he met Sister Faustina Kowalska who became his penitent. Their meeting proved to be the defining moment for the future of Father Sopoćko and his mission. Sister Faustina, having found in Father Sopoćko an enlightened confessor and spiritual director, began to share with him her spiritual experiences and visions of the Merciful Saviour. As there was not enough time, Father Sopoćko asked Faustina to record her inner experiences in a diary. He then reviewed the texts at his leisure.
In this way, the spiritual ”Diary” of Saint Sister Faustina came into being. Sister Faustina, referring to the revelations of the Lord Jesus that she had already experienced before she came to Vilnius and then again while there, informed Father Sopoćko about the requests of Lord Jesus which included: painting the Image of the Most Merciful Saviour, undertaking efforts to institute a Feast of Divine Mercy on the first Sunday after Easter, and establishing a new religious congregation. In time, it transpired that Divine Mercy entrusted the completion of these tasks to Father Sopoćko.
In July 1934, Father Sopoćko became a rector of St. Michael’s Church in Vilnius, which turned out to be of significant importance in the future. In that church, thanks to his efforts and at a definite request of Lord Jesus, the first Image of the Merciful Jesus was blessed and displayed on April 4, 1937. Sister Faustina left Vilnius in March 1936. Father Sopoćko, through correspondence and meetings with Faustina in Cracow, worked on their common task to bring the mystery of Divine Mercy closer to the world.
Father Sopoćko, on the basis of Church doctrine, searched for the theological grounds of the existence of this Divine attribute of Mercy and for the grounds to institute the Feast of Divine Mercy 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 and in separate works on the subject of Divine Mercy. In June 1936, Father Sopoćko published in Vilnius his first brochure “Divine Mercy” with the Image of the Most Merciful Christ on the cover. He sent that first publication to all bishops gathered at the Episcopal conference in Częstochowa, however, he did not receive an answer from any of them. He published his second brochure titled “Divine Mercy in the Liturgy” in 1937 in Poznań.
The concept of Divine Mercy also required the construction of a new church of Divine Mercy in Vilnius. In 1938, the construction committee was created and was pretty soon approved by the regional administration office. However, the outbreak of the war and Soviet occupation of Vilnius resulted in a new political situation which destroyed that work. The Soviet Army plundered the gathered construction materials. The money to finance the construction, set aside in banks, was also lost. In 1940, Father Sopoćko was still trying to obtain permission from the occupying authorities to build at least a chapel, but he was turned down.
At that time, he also began working on the treatise “De Misericordia Dei Deque Eiusdem Festo Instituendo” on the concept of Divine Mercy and the necessity to have a feast in its honour. He was encouraged even before the war to pursue that work by Cardinal August Hlond, to whom Father Sopoćko presented his research on Divine Mercy.
In June 1940, Lithuania was once again under the occupation of the Soviet Army and, a month later, was merged with the Soviet Union as its fifteenth republic. Father Sopoćko was forced to discontinue the meetings of the organized groups that he was supervising. He was also deprived of the chance to publish his treatise on Divine Mercy. Jadwiga Osińska, who was an expert in classical philology, came to his aid and took care of his treatise. With the help of her acquaintances, she copied it in secret. Then she made sure that the copies reached people who were able to leave Vilnius. This way, the work of Father Sopoćko reached many countries and, particularly, came into the hands of bishops in Europe and throughout the world.
Because he was proclaiming the concept of Divine Mercy and spreading its devotion, Father Sopoćko was wanted by the Soviet authorities. Warned by a Registration Office worker, he was able to evade arrest and left Vilnius to avoid danger. When it was safe, he returned and resumed lecturing at the seminary where, in spite of difficult material and housing conditions, the new academic year 1940/41 began. He moved back to St. Michael’s Church where the Image of the Most Merciful Saviour was still displayed and surrounded by ever-greater devotion.
On June 22, 1941 the German-Soviet war broke out. Vilnius soon found itself under a new occupation. The Jewish people were subjected to a particular discrimination. Father Sopoćko supported them financially as well as spiritually. For such actions he could have faced serious consequences, including execution. The Gestapo finally traced his activities and he was even arrested for a couple of days.
At the end of 1941, the terror of the German occupation intensified. On the last Sunday of Advent, under a pretence of an alleged epidemic, all the churches in Vilnius were closed down. On March 3, 1942 the Germans started widespread action against priests. They arrested professors and seminarians, as well as almost all of the priests working in Vilnius. At the same time, the Gestapo also set a trap at the apartment of Father Sopoćko. Warned by his housekeeper, he escaped and managed to reach the Archbishop’s office to inform him of the danger. He asked to be released from lecturing at the seminary and for the Archbishop’s blessing to go into hiding.
He left Vilnius in disguise and escaped to the convent of Ursulines in Czarny Bór, four kilometres from Vilnius. The Sisters accommodated him in the house they were renting on the outskirts of the forest. The Gestapo searched for him all over Lithuania, asking for him especially in presbyteries and among priests. With assistance from trusted people, he obtained an identity card issued in the name of Wacław Rodziewicz and, thereafter, was regarded as a carpenter and cabinet-maker making simple tools and equipment for local people. Every morning he celebrated Holy Mass. After that he had plenty of time for prayer and personal reflections.
Father Sopoćko in Czarny Bór at the Ursulines changed his identity and appearance
In the autumn of 1944, despite the exceptionally difficult living conditions, Archbishop Jałbrzykowski ordered the seminary to resume its activities. Following two years in hiding, Father Sopoćko returned to Vilnius to resume his duties. To keep the seminary working, every Sunday he travelled with other professors and seminarians to countryside parishes to collect donations of farm produce to support students at the seminary. Father Sopoćko undertook pastoral work also outside Vilnius, using this to spread the concept of Divine Mercy.
Initially, despite their anti-religious attitude, the authorities of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic tolerated the pastoral activities of priests. But, over time, they gradually started to restrain their work, particularly, the catechization of youth and children.
In July 1947, Father Sopoćko received a providential invitation from Archbishop Jałbrzykowski, already living in Białystok, to come to work in Poland. Thus, he decided to leave Vilnius as soon as possible, especially granted that at that time the repatriation of Polish people from Lithuania was ending. Father Sopoćko left for Białystok at the end of August 1947, with the very last transport of Poles leaving Vilnius. Before his departure, he visited the Chapel of Our Lady of Mercy in the Gate of Dawn. On arrival in Białystok, he reported to Archbishop Jałbrzykowski to receive his commission for his new appointment.
Father Michael Sopoćko with his spiritual daughters
In Białystok, as in Vilnius, Father Sopoćko was the confessor of religious sisters. Amongst others, he listened to confessions of sisters from the Congregation of Missionaries of the Holy Family, who then resided on Poleska Street. Bringing his spiritual services there, Father Sopoćko took the opportunity to provide his priestly services to local people. Thanks to his efforts, on November 27, 1957 on the Solemnity of Christ the King, a chapel under the invocation of the Holy Family was consecrated in the religious house of the sisters.
Towards the end of the 1950s, Father Sopoćko undertook an initiative to build a church, this time in Białystok. Thanks to his efforts, a plot of land was purchased with a house on it. He covered almost half of the cost with his savings. He planned to build a shrine under the invocation of Divine Mercy. However, once again he had to come to terms with the failure of his intentions.
During a retreat with fellow priests in 1958, Father Sopoćko suffered damage to a facial nerve. From that time, speaking aloud to large audiences was very exhausting for him. Moreover, he was in a car accident in February 1962 in Zakopane (Poland), while participating in a conference of theology professors. This also had an adverse effect on his health. Thus, he was forced to retire. This caught him by surprise. He had always been active and engaged in numerous activities and duties, and for the first time (excluding his time of hiding in Czarny Bór) he had unlimited time at his disposal.
While performing his priestly duties in the Chapel on Poleska Street, he resumed work on the treatises on the concept of Divine Mercy. As well as some new ideas, he collected a large amount of existing material. While working on his treatises, he launched himself diligently into writing. As a result, he completed several works, with a four-volume work “God’s Mercy in His Works” being the main one. It was translated into English and published thanks to the generosity of people committed to the matter of Divine Mercy living in the West. The first volume was published in London in 1959 and the others in Paris in the 1960s.
An important event boosting the commitment of Father Sopoćko was the constant development of the Divine Mercy devotion and the interest of theologians. Another significant incentive encouraging him to his missionary work for the benefit of Divine Mercy was the commencement of the beatification process for Sister Faustina Kowalska by the Cracow Archbishop Karol Wojtyła. The informative phase started in 1965. Father Sopoćko was involved as a witness.
Father Sopoćko lived to celebrate a beautiful jubilee of 60 years of priestly service. That celebration, according to the feelings and opinions of many participants, was a much belated moral reward for the venerable priest who had done so much for the cause of God, especially in the matter of spreading the Divine Mercy devotion.
A sign of recognition of the manifold meritorious works he accomplished for the Church and the Białystok Archdiocese was his appointment as an honorary Canon of the Chapter of the Metropolitan Basilica. It was granted in 1972, near the end of his life.
It was not until three years after the death of Father Sopoćko – April 15, 1978 – that the Notification prohibiting spreading the new forms of the Divine Mercy cult was annulled. “The Sacred Congregation, having considered the numerous original documents unknown in 1959, the profoundly changed circumstances, as well as the opinions of many Polish Ordinaries, announces that the prohibitions in the quoted Notification are no longer binding”.
The house where Father Sopoćko spent the final years of his life and died. Presently
The memorial room
Divine Mercy Sanctuary in Białystok
Inside the Divine Mercy Sanctuary
The sarcophagus with the mortal remains of the Blessed Father Michael Sopoćko
All rights reserved: © Text compilation – Urszula Grzegorczyk