Jesus Visits Lithuania: The Untold Story of a Masterpiece
Archbishop Gintaras Grušas, Executive Producer of new documentary, visits Notre Dame to show film
It all started with an invitation. “As it says in the first line of the film,” Daniel diSilva, the Director of the new documentary The Original Image of Divine Mercy, told the Rover, “a friend brought me to the shrine.” The shrine of which he speaks is the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the Original Image of Divine Mercy that Saint Faustina saw in a vision in the 1930s hangs above the main altar.
But, perhaps the first invitation came much earlier. After having fallen away from the Catholic Church, at age 28 diSilva had a re-conversion experience, a crucial part of which involved being invited to foster a devotion to Divine Mercy by a woman he met. He realized that God’s mercy was the only remedy for some of the things he had done in his life. This devotion was very important: there was “something to it,” he said.
Back in Vilnius, at first diSilva did not believe that this was the Original Image: everyone knew that St. Faustina was a Polish phenomena. But, as his friend began to tell him stories of the commotion in which the Image was involved—how St. Faustina actually had had many visions in Vilnius where the painting was commissioned—he began to ask questions.
“After last January, Daniel came to me with the idea that he wanted to do this film,” Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius explained to the Rover. “We talked for a while, and we both gave it a green light and started moving it forward. It was about a month after we had really started moving on it that the Holy Father announced that he would be announcing the Year of Mercy: we took this as another sign of Divine Providence in this project. We moved forward quite quickly from there. It premiered in Lithuania on February 21, 2016, so it was about a year in the making from start to finish.”
The archbishop, born in the United States and a former employee of IBM, also was guided by God to the very place he is today.
“My family is Lithuanian, so I was raised in a very Lithuanian environment: my first language was Lithuanian. My father made it out to the West after the war; my mother and sister remained in Lithuania. They were separated from each other for 16 years. For 12 years they did not know who was alive or who was dead. When they finally were able to find out that everyone was alive, my dad started working to get them out. In 1960, Khrushchev met with Vice President Nixon, and as a part of that meeting, a goodwill gesture was shown by Khrushchev, letting 200 families that were separated by the war reunite. My mother and my sister were on the list, they got to come to the United States, and I was born. That leaves its marks on your life. I was raised with a very strong sense of patriotism for both countries, both for the United States and for Lithuania.
“I read a book when I was still in pre-theology, and in that book they were talking about an old spiritual director who was consulting a young priest who was being considered for missionary work in Africa. They were trying to discern whether he was meant to go or not, and the spiritual director said, ‘God doesn’t send you to Africa until after He puts Africa in your heart.’
“So, my whole youth was having Lithuania in my heart in a very real way,” the archbishop continued. “My whole vocation was in a real sense God’s work. The way it unfolded, I would have never even considered that this would have been a possibility because, when I entered the seminary, Lithuania wasn’t independent. The various ministries I have been given along the way are nothing that I would have dreamed of asking for or having even thought that would be possible.
“In a real sense, it is Divine Providence unfolding. He puts it in your heart, and then if you just hang on He takes you through where He wants you to be.”
One such unexpected ministry was acting as Executive Producer on diSilva’s documentary, The Original Image of Divine Mercy, which brought him to Notre Dame at the providentially timed request of Father Michael Wurtz, CSC. The Eck Visitors Center’s theater was full as it hosted a presentation of the documentary on March 14 with the generous support of Campus Ministry, the Maritain Center, and Moreau Seminary.
The documentary itself ran about two hours and was given life by the many people interviewed, including Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, and even the comedian Jim Gaffigan.
Including Gaffigan was a masterstroke on the part of diSilva: many of those interviewed, including bishops and religious, had to be briefed on the story of St. Faustina, but Gaffigan “had clearly read the diary, and that was really cool,” diSilva shared with the Rover. Gaffigan’s devotion manifested itself in his comments, and his humor lightened the tone of the film.
The documentary brings together people who speak English, Lithuanian, Polish, and German, while the original narration is in English. There are also versions dubbed in Lithuanian and narrated in Spanish, and hopes for Polish and Arabic narrations soon.
The production team has received 600 requests to present the film, and the DVD version will be available in November or December. Requests to show the film can be made online.
Both the intellect and spirit are satisfied in this film as it moves between unfolding the history behind the Image and offering meditations on Divine Mercy.
The Image has a tumultuous history full of twists and turns, the whole knowledge of which is relatively unknown—even in Lithuania, but, as with all things, the beginning was in Jesus, as we learn from St. Faustina’s Diary:
“In the evening, when I was in my cell, I saw the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment. One hand was raised in the gesture of blessing, the other was touching the garment at the breast. From beneath the garment, slightly drawn aside at the breast, there were emanating two large rays, one red, the other pale. In silence I kept my gaze fixed on the Lord; my soul was struck with awe, but also with great joy. After a while, Jesus said to me, ‘Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You. I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and then throughout the world.’”
The painting took six months to finish, with Blessed Father Michael Sopoćko, St. Faustina’s spiritual director, modeling in a white alb in the place of Jesus. St. Faustina constantly corrected the efforts of the artist, Eugene Kazimierowski, in order to replicate her vision of Jesus perfectly: an impossible task.
The film makes clear that the main desire of St. Faustina was that the image be venerated after it was created: thus the constant moving of the painting from place to place, striving to make it accessible.
It also was complicated by the occupation of Lithuania by the Germans and the Soviets from the 1940s through the 1970s. Keeping the Image out of their clutches was crucial. Amidst the many turns of the story, a few humorous—but providential—anecdotes stand out.
After many promptings by St. Faustina, Fr. Sopoćko finally mounted the image next to the main altar at Saint Michael Church in Vilnius, although she died before seeing it displayed. The Soviets closed this church during their occupation, but the image was not touched because they did not recognize it as having any value. Two women, one of whom was later sent to Siberia, bought the Original Image off a Soviet guard for a bottle of vodka, rolling up the Image and storing it in an attic.
At one point, the Image ended up in Nowa Ruda, Belarus, in the 1970s in an abandoned church, again closed by the Soviets. Upon finding out where the Image was, a priest and two nuns from Vilnius commissioned an artist to make an exact copy of the Original Image. Because officially transporting the Image would be impossible, the nuns “kidnapped”—as one interviewee said—the Original and left a copy in its place in Nowa Ruda.
A similar occurrence happened back in Vilnius. The Image was at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius, a predominantly Polish parish. The Polish had a great devotion to Divine Mercy because copies of the Image—albeit much different copies than the Original—had been made and promulgated by the Polish, whereas this was nearly impossible for the Lithuanians during the Soviet occupation. The Church of the Holy Trinity in Vilnius, where Fr. Sopoćko had served for a time, was converted into the new Shrine of Divine Mercy, but it lacked an image—the Image—over the main altar. One night, it was “respectfully” removed from one church and found its place above the altar in another: this should not be surprising, a precedent had been set.
The meditations on the Image centered around beautiful, close-up pans of the image, especially of Jesus’ face and the rays bursting forth from His chest. He looks down at you as He looked down upon the world as He was raised up crucified on the Cross.
“When you put this picture up on a huge screen, it maintains its beauty and its detail, which is really amazing,” Archbishop Grušas commented.
Many of those interviewed reflected on the nature of art, how it is meant to be a “point of entry” and a “medium of grace.” As Bishop Barron said, “Beautiful things are routes to God Himself.”
It is very obvious that the Original Image of Divine Mercy is not Jesus, but the Image is still Incarnational in that it can lift us to contemplation of God’s bountiful mercy. Strikingly, St. Faustina herself cried when she saw the final Image, not because it was so good, but because it was radically incomparable to her visions of Jesus. This demonstrates the complete transcendence of God, yet it also reveals that God does not hesitate to bridge this gap in Jesus and in depictions of Divine Mercy.
The meditations prove especially helpful in this Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis.
“The film also became an instrument to assist people in delving deeper into the mystery of mercy, the mercy of God, divine mercy, and to help them enter more deeply into the Year of Mercy. We see what mercy really is, not only the historical presentation; the film also does meditations on what is divine mercy and how we can better experience it,” Archbishop Grušas said.
DiSilva explained to the Rover that the team wanted to have Pope Francis bless the Image, so they traveled to Turin where he was at the time. (Incidentally, there is a general consensus that the face of Jesus on the Shroud of Turin matches exactly the face of Jesus on the Original Image, although there was not enough scientific proof to include it in the film.) They were unable to receive the blessing in Turin, so they followed Pope Francis to Rome.
“Daniel wanted to interview a lot of people in the film, and one of them he wanted to get was the pope, who was not able to participate in the filming itself,” Archbishop Grušas explained. “He was kind enough—I think that’s an understatement—but he actually responded saying that he wasn’t going to be able to make the filming but that he was praying and blessing the project, and it was a letter that he personally signed: those are the moments that floor you.”
The Original Image of Divine Mercy may be in Vilnius, Lithuania, but the message of mercy is for the whole world, spread by works such as this documentary and by the lives of all who are transformed by grace. By the light shining forth from the heart of Jesus, the darkness has been overcome.
Saint Faustina writes in her diary, “O Eternal Love, You command Your Sacred Image to be painted, and reveal to us the inconceivable fount of mercy, You bless whoever approaches Your rays, and a soul all black will turn into snow.”
Sophia Buono is a sophomore studying PLS and living in Lyons Hall. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. John VanBerkum is a senior studying philosophy and theology and living in O’Neill Hall. He can be reached at email@example.com.