Darius James Ross
Lithuania’s Roman Catholic authorities are deadlocked in an emotional row with Vilnius’ Polish community over moving an internationally famous image of Jesus Christ from their church to a newly-built chapel.
The dispute has been watched closely by Rome, even drawing the attention of the late John Paul II.
The Poles say the “Divine Mercy”, which has stood in the Polish Church of the Holy Spirit since 1987, is theirs, with some community activists contending red and white rays shown emanating from one of Jesus’ hands match the colors of Poland’s flag.
But advisors to Vilnius’ archbishop, Cardinal Audrys Juozas Backis, say the famous 1934 painting belongs to all believers and deserves a home of its own after an odyssey that saw it moved from church to church before WWII, followed by many years of concealment from Soviet authorities.
A scandal erupted last summer when the archbishop decreed “Divine Mercy” be moved to a specially-built showcase chapel across the street, designed with a bright white interior that is meant to focus believers’ attention on the image in a panel behind the altar.
The Polish community protested, descending on the Church of the Holy Spirit to hold vigils around the clock and prevent its relocation.
The archbishop was unable to get the Poles to stand down and both sides have been at an impasse since 2004.
Officials said Backis had the picture restored by conservation experts in 2003 after it had spent decades in storage during the Soviet era – in Lithuania, Belarus, and Russia – until it was smuggled back to Vilnius in 1986 at the time of the Gorbachev thaw, which saw the return of religious freedom.
A Church insider said Backis had consulted John Paul II about the “Divine Mercy” situation during a visit to the Vatican not long before the Pontiff’s death. The Pope did not tell him to lift his decree, but also didn’t give any further instructions on resolving the conflict, which Backis took as a sign that he should hold off until passions cool.
John Paul II paid a visit to the Polish church in 1993 to pray at the altar where the image is displayed. A plaque outside the church marks the event.
Officials remain hopeful that tensions will dissolve, and that in the near future they will succeed in carrying the painting across to the still-empty panel in the new Divine Mercy chapel, but could not say when they will try again to move it.
The “Divine Mercy” picture, by Vilnius painter Eugenijus Kazimierovskis, is a portrait of Jesus Christ based on the mystical experiences of a Vilnius nun, Sister Faustina, who asked the painter to redo Christ’s face ten times for it to correspond with her visions.
Sister Faustina, born Helena Kovaleska, died in 1938, at 33, writing in her diary that people who venerate the picture can be assured an easy death, and that “the souls of those who honor this picture will not die.”
She was proclaimed a saint by Rome in 2000.
In her posthumous key to the image, she said that Christ’s left hand reaches toward his heart, from which divine mercy emanates: the white rays symbolize the soul-purifying waters of Holy Spirit and red ones the human soul because of the living blood that joins men and women in a pact with their creator. Jesus’ raised right hand is a gesture wishing peace to all.
As a devotional image, “Divine Mercy” has gained a worldwide following since it was restored to Lithuania. Miniature wallet-sized reproductions of it are sold in churches from Cameroon to Chartres, while dozens of religious web sites sell larger reproductions for use in altars and shrines around the world.