Divine Mercy documentary explores origins of image

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

ACUSHNET, Mass. — In what has to be one of the more remarkable cases of Divine intervention, on the very night that he decided to retire from a successful music career in 2007, singer-songwriter Daniel diSilva was given a firsthand glimpse of the original Divine Mercy painting.

“I was in Lithuania doing our last concert and I told the guys in the band this was going to be our last show and I needed to make a change in my life professionally and personally,” diSilva recently told The Anchor. “During the reception after the show, a priest came up to me and said: ‘I want to introduce you to somebody.’ He took me to see the original image and that’s when this whole thing started.”

Since diSilva’s initial introduction to that iconic image — purported to have been painted by Eugene Kazimirowski in 1934 at the behest of Jesus Himself as relayed to St. Faustina — the musician who previously backed such stars as James Taylor, Gloria Estefan and Alison Krauss has been on a mission to document the painting’s clandestine history.

Eight years later, he accomplished just that with the release of “The Original Image of Divine Mercy,” a documentary that he wrote and directed over a two-year period.

This amazing documentary film will be screened exclusively at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Acushnet on Friday, April 1 at 7 p.m. The film will be shown inside the parish school’s gymnasium, located at 223 Main Street in Acushnet.

Although this marks diSilva’s first attempt at a feature-length film, he’s no stranger to Hollywood, having worked for a marketing company that promotes movies since leaving behind his music career.

“I’ve been watching the process and when you’re so close to something like that, you start to get the feeling that you can handle it — that you can probably do the same thing yourself,” diSilva said. “I had done a few short films, but then when I found out about the Divine Mercy painting and its phenomenal and mysterious history, I decided that this was going to be my first full-length film and I just went for it.”

A team of documentarians, led by diSilva, traveled through Europe and the United States uncovering the details of the untold story of the little-known original image of Divine Mercy. In 1934, St. Faustina and her confessor, Blessed Father Michal Sopocko, secretly began working with a relatively unknown artist to duplicate on canvas her mystical vision of the merciful Jesus.

With Father Sopocko modeling as Christ for many hours, the three unlikely friends came up with the only image of Divine Mercy that St. Faustina ever saw. But after all the corrections and touch-ups at the insistence of the nun, the violently anti-Catholic Soviet occupation of Vilnius, Lithuania, eventually forced the painting into hiding.

“The film centers on this fascinating story about a painting that really echoes the life of Christ in the way it was made, how it came into the world, and how it was hidden for many years,” diSilva said. “The main reason was because it was painted on the other side of the Soviet Union wall and after it was done it sort of had to be kept a secret. At the time they were destroying churches, they were closing down churches, they were stealing the artwork — anything from gold altar pieces to chalices. Some things were being sold, but amazingly enough, this piece of art was least valued among all those things.”

Thankfully, two humble nuns accepted the “mission impossible” and transported the miraculous painting across the dangerous border between Lithuania and Belarus.

“It really is a great story of them risking their lives to take it back home,” diSilva said.

In 2005, after 75 years of wandering, the painting was finally placed in a permanent home in a beautiful shrine in Vilnius according to the wishes of St. Faustina and Blessed Father Michal Sopocko.

“The truth is the film is only an hour and so many minutes long, so it hardly contains all the fascinating details about this image,” diSilva added. “When I heard some of these things, I just thought this film had to be done. Someone had to tell this story. And I’m still scratching my head about why no one had done it before.”

Despite the growing popularity of devotion to the Divine Mercy around the world, very few realize that there is only one original image.

“I don’t think St. Faustina even imagined there would be other versions or copies of the painting,” diSilva said. “This is the only (version) she ever saw. The existence of the other versions is probably one of the most interesting parts of the film, I have to say, so I don’t want to give that away. But I will say that some of them aren’t really renditions of Divine Mercy, to be honest with you.”

According to diSilva, there are currently three “approved” images of the Divine Mercy: the original 1934 Kazimirowski painting; a version created by a Polish painter named Hyla, which remains popular in Europe and Latin America; and another by an artist named Skemp, which shows the rays from Christ’s breast radiating almost directly at the viewer.

One of the most common renditions of the Divine Mercy — with red and white rays of light emanating from Christ’s chest against a blue background — is actually a revision of the Hyla image credited to artist Kathleen Weber.

“There’s a very interesting story as to why they were approved and why we have more than one,” diSilva said. “It doesn’t mean that the other images are not good or that you can’t pray with them, it just means that if you’re going to hang an image in your church, it should be one of these three.”

Among the key personalities interviewed in “The Original Image of Divine Mercy” are Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles (previously known for his Word on Fire ministry and “Catholicism” film series); author and Anchor columnist George Weigel (“Witness to Hope”); comedian Jim Gaffigan (“The Jim Gaffigan Show”), and multiple Grammy and Emmy Award-winning musician Harry Connick Jr. (“American Idol”).

“With Bishop Baron, I felt we couldn’t do the film without him,” diSilva said. “He’s such an intellectual giant and he knows how to put things into words so well.

“It was a little bit of a struggle to get in touch with Harry Connick Jr. and Jim Gaffigan, but once we did they were both very accommodating. We interviewed Connick in the choir loft of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is a really beautiful setting. While we were in New York another time, we were able to interview Gaffigan in his home.”

While Gaffigan has been very forthcoming about his Catholic faith, diSilva said people might be surprised to learn about Connick’s religious beliefs.

“He is a Catholic and he knew a lot about the Divine Mercy beforehand,” diSilva said. “There were many times with some of the other interviews we did, we would have to prep people and tell them a bit about the story, but with him we just turned the cameras on and he went. It was pretty fascinating to see him go so far with it.”

In another bit of Divine providence, diSilva was pleasantly surprised to learn that Pope Francis had called for the Year of Mercy while they were already in production, which meant it would be released during the jubilee year.

“We started working on this film in January (2015), so it was even before Pope Francis had announced the Year of Mercy,” he said. “It was really shocking to hear the pope make that announcement while we were doing this film.”

Since Ash Wednesday, the documentary has been playing at parishes, schools and conferences all over the world, making it the must-see film event of the Holy Year of Mercy.

“It’s funny because we premiered the film in Lithuania on February 22, which is the anniversary of the first apparition when Jesus asked St. Faustina to paint the picture,” diSilva said. “That was interesting in and of itself. But the Lithuanian audience had seen the image so many times, they simply watched the film and then went home.

“But in the United States, every place that we show the film, people stay afterwards to venerate the image and participate in question-and-answer sessions and everyone is just so fascinated with it. To an American audience, this story is a new and fascinating thing. So the reception here really has been great.”

“The Original Image of Divine Mercy” will be screened in the gymnasium of St. Francis Xavier School, 223 Main Street in Acushnet, on April 1 at 7 p.m. There is no admission charge, but a freewill offering will be accepted to defray the cost of bringing the movie to the parish.

For more information, visit www.divinemercyfilm.com or www.sfxparish.com/the-divine-mercy-image-documentary/.

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