Friday, April 03, 2009

In the footsteps of a saint

"Why Poland?" my fellow Filipino at a journalism training course here in Germany asked me when I told her about my plan to cross the northeast border one weekend. A training staff, an Italian born and raised in Germany, joined in the conversation and told me, "I have never gone to Poland."

I can see what they mean - there are other more interesting places to visit in Europe. A Filipino will look southwest of the continent - France, Italy, Spain, Austria or Greece, just as every central European would do.

I told them I want to see a Divine Mercy shrine. Finally, the Italian assistant said, "Oh, Catholics."

Poland is not as touristy as its southwest neighbors. But yes, it has something that makes it special in the hearts of every Catholic. It is the homeland of Pope John Paul II. And of St. Faustina, whose convent in the city called Plock not far from Warsaw was the subject of my visit.

So, that weekend I went out as planned, taking the express train from Berlin to Warsaw. Five hours later, I was in a town called Kutno, from where I took a slow train to Plock. I reached Plock by nightfall an hour later.

It is an unassuming city. It is small and quiet, devoid of the hustle and bustle I've seen in other European cities. Save for its big petrochemical factory that supplies Poland's liquid gas requirements, it doesn't figure in the map.

But it's a quite charming city, located by the Vistula River, Poland's biggest. On my way to the city center from a distance across the river, I saw a hill with a big church on it. It was a picturesque sight; it added excitement to my trip.

When I checked in to my hotel, I asked the receptionist how to go to the Divine Mercy shrine. She looked at me puzzled. She said she didn't know. That surprised me.

Plock may not be a tourist town but many people, especially Divine Mercy devotees, know its place in history. Seventy-eight years ago in February, Jesus appeared to a simple nun, who is St. Faustina today, in her room in the cellar and instructed her to paint the Divine Mercy according to the image she was seeing. Jesus also gave direction for the institution of the first Sunday after Easter as Mercy Sunday.

That's the story of the Divine Mercy, to whom the world today looks up for its salvation.

But that fact, it seems, was lost on the Polish receptionist. Or maybe it's harsh reality - no prophet is accepted in his hometown.

I found my way to the shrine anyway the next morning, with a little help from the cab driver, who brought me to the city's cathedral. That was the big church I saw the other day when I neared Plock. It is a 12th century gothic Catholic Church.

Locating the Divine Mercy shrine was another struggle. Not that it was far from the church, but nobody spoke English in this city.

The door has been opened to me, though. First was the cab driver. After him came this kindly looking nun I found inside the church who walked me up the street to the Sanctuarium when I asked for the shrine. She had to accompany me. She couldn't speak English and give me the directions.

We entered an old convent that has been well preserved. That was the Sanctuarium, the convent where St. Faustina stayed.

The nun - apparently a member of the Congregation of Our Lady of Mercy, St. Faustina's religious order - brought me to the side of the convent and there I found my purpose. In front of me was the Divine Mercy image, built on the exact spot where Jesus appeared to St. Faustina. For a moment, I stood there in unbelief.

When I was left alone, I found myself absorbing the deep silence that enveloped the area. It was a very powerful place. It's though as if the Lord has left His presence there, and you would do nothing but feel Him and breathe Him. It calmed my spirits.

Another nun, wearing the same habit as the first but more senior, appeared in my view. I took the chance to ask her for St. Faustina's room. It was down in the basement opposite the Divine Mercy shrine and she gladly opened it for me.

The saint's room has been well kept, too. I wanted to wonder why was nobody else was visiting this shrine. If it were located in the Philippines, it would be full of devotees on this Sunday. But I was glad I had the room to explore by myself.

It hit me: St. Faustina was a real person who lived like the rest of us. Here was her dwelling place: the bakery and kitchen where she faithfully performed her tasks; and her small room where an equally small bed, her robe, shoes, bag and umbrella were on display.

Small little things dot every corner of the basement. The nuns had followed every bit of change in the saint's life and documented it for the world to see.

The nun tried to explain some things to me in Polish. I was only too glad to feast my eye on the saint's memorabilia.

I had half the day to linger in the convent and feel its soothing energy. I have not been to a saint's trail and to a Divine Mercy shrine with such very high historical value. When I came out, it felt as if I had been to a holy tent, with clouds of smoke all over it.

It made me ready for the long journey back to Berlin, and to my Divine Mercy mission in the Philippines where I would go back three weeks later.

In the slow train out of Plock, I thought that perhaps if my friends back in Berlin knew what is to see and experience in Poland, they would not have been skeptic of anyone going to this less-trodden country.