Sanctity means normality
Karol Bialkowski talks to Fr Stanislaw Strzelecki, diocesan postulator in the process of beautification of Fr Michal Sopocko.
Karol Bialkowski: – How did you remember the person of the Servant of God Fr Michal Sopocko, the confessor of Saint Faustina?
Fr Stanislaw Strzelecki: – Fr Michal Sopocko was my professor and educator as well as my confessor in the Major Seminary of Bialystok for six years. I remember him as an older priest who did not stand out from other professors. Perhaps he was more attentive; he was often lost in thought but always kind and friendly to the alumni. It does not mean that he was not demanding and consistent in his formative work. He was deeply dedicated to teaching his subjects, not being limited to didactics alone. He did not only teach knowledge but also practical wisdom, which was indispensable in pastoral ministry. One could feel that he loved priesthood, which naturally the seminarians sensed as an irreplaceable powerful testimony. He spoke very little about his apostolic ministry in the service of the Divine Mercy because of the specific contemporary local conditions. From the perspective of time I can understand it even better. He knew that if he educated priests ‘according to God’s Heart’ they would introduce people to the salvific truth and power of merciful love of God because of the identity of their ministry and lives as well as faithfulness to their vocations.
– The idea of life of Fr Michal Sopocko was to proclaim God’s Mercy and he had deep faith in the victory of the mission, which God entrusted him with. Do people in Bialystok remember him in that way?
– The environment of Bialystok actually began realising the spiritual and apostolic stature of the Servant of God more after his death than during his lifetime. After the war he came to Bialystok from Vilnius to join the scattered staff of the Major Seminary. He lectured mainly practical subjects, strictly connected with pastoral ministry, such as catechetics, homiletics and pedagogy. He also taught Latin and even Russian. He supervised the circles of sobriety and proper pronunciation in the seminary. He also cared for health and physical conditions of future priests. In Bialystok he took an enormous effort to build the doctrinal foundations of the cult of the Divine Mercy, which was necessary so that the cult would be accepted by proper authorities of the Church. It cannot be overestimated in any way. Today we can see that his effort was needed and we can see how much fruitful it was. His desire was to build centres of worship, necessary to the religious life of the faithful. Then it was almost impossible. But he managed to enlarge the religious chapel in Poleska Street, which was the beginning of new churches and parishes of the Holy Family and the Divine Mercy, where his grave is now. We knew little about his apostolic activities in the seminary. He conducted his ministry in those dioceses where the bishops were in favour of it. When the cause for his beautification began his true dimension of personality was known in his city and diocese. The gathered materials and testimonies of witnesses, and above all the private worship of the faithful threw fuller light on him. Moreover, the anniversaries of his death, name day and protection of the city from the effects of the catastrophe of the train with chlorine – the fact that Bialystok did not become a second Chernobyl was ascribed to the intercession of Fr Sopocko.
– Did the environment of Bialystok notice the sanctity of the confessor of Sr. Faustina during his lifetime?
– Fr Sopocko knew well what sanctity was and knew the ways that led to it since he led Sr. Faustina to the heights of sanctity. Real holiness of life is not conspicuous. One of its names is normality: a man is what he should be thanks to the faithfulness to his calling, his best aspirations and collaboration with God’s grace. The Servant of God sought first of all God’s will in his whole life and activities. He discerned it in the charismatic message that God gave him through Saint Faustina. Every day he was what a priest, being aware of his vocation and duties, should be. He was always predictable in his actions and words, in his means and methods, which were always reasonable and deliberate, normal and because of this effective in leading people to God. He was simply a zealous priest, formed according to the traditional, best and tested models, which are irreplaceable in the sacrificial service to God and people. He knew that one could not wait for a favourable situation but one must pray and work in the circumstances and conditions that were in a given place and time. Threats, adversities and opposition signalled him what was really important and necessary. It is said that some people do something better and others do things worse and some people always do what should be done, regardless of the level of difficulty. He belonged to the last group.
– Has the fame of Fr Sopocko’s sanctity increased after his death?
– Mainly after his death. The opinion of his sanctity, earlier shared by those who were close to him, was expressed in private worship, especially visible at his grave. There were always fresh flowers, lit candles there and people stopped there, being convinced of his help from heaven, which is proper of the saints. People continued praying for his beautification with the conviction that it would be possible, sooner or later. This very conviction concerning the heroicity of his life and virtues, the importance of the idea of the Divine Mercy, to which he fully dedicated his life, led to the beautification process. The legitimacy of this conviction is grounded in the expected beautification.
– What were the most difficult things in the process of beautification on the diocesan level?
– Such processes are always difficult and time-consuming since they require maximal conscientiousness in following the appropriate norms of the ecclesiastical law. Gathering the preserved documents of Fr Sopocko, necessary to be evaluated by authorised theologians, which was the condition to begin the cause, required research in libraries in all possible places. The very publications filled two big laundry baskets. The catalogue of his handwritten documents and typed papers, which were not published, embraces several dozen pages. And so do lists of witnesses, their hearings, evidential materials, which makes us realise the range and scale of the indispensable work. There cannot be weak chains in such processes. In spite of that, the diocesan process lasted considerably short because only six years. The important thing is that just after the files had been sent to the Apostolic See we received the decree ‘de validitate’, confirming the proper procedure of the process in this fundamental phase. Being actively involved in the evidential procedures I was sure many times that the Servant of God came to help in some mysterious way at the most difficult moments. Not because of himself but to promote the universal, apostolic idea of the Divine Mercy, which is so needed for us and for the whole world today.
– What is the contribution of the newly beautified Fr Sopocko to the reality of the Church in Poland?
– The cult of the Divine Mercy, in its present form and shape, connected in its origin with the figures of Saint Faustina and Fr Sopocko, was initiated and formed in the background of the Polish traditional Catholicism. In the climate of fervent worship for the Mother of God’s Mercy. Certainly, it is not a matter of accident but a deliberate action of God that one of the greatest Popes canonised ‘the confidante, secretary and apostle of the Divine Mercy’ Sister Faustina. His encyclical about God’s Mercy ‘Dives in misericordia’ means full approval of the Teaching Office of the Church for the work of Fr Sopocko. It also says that ‘the greatest of all Poles’ stood in the row of the advocates of the message of the Divine Mercy to the world, having deep confidence that the salvific message of the Divine Mercy will renew the face of the earth, both the Polish earth and in its dimension reaching beyond all borders, places and time. Fr Sopocko, a profound theologian and zealous pastor, made his extraordinary and incomparable contribution to the triumph of the Divine Mercy – being the subject of confident Christian hope – over the destructive power of sin. His vivid faith and priestly faithfulness to God’s will let him understood that salvation is nothing else but only irrevocable embrace of a contrite sinner by merciful God in response to his confidence.