Documentary on Divine Mercy image comes to Tonawanda

Mon, Apr 25th 2016 08:00 am
Staff Reporter
Bishop Robert Barron (left) of Los Angeles and Daniel diSilva hold a display of the Divine Mercy image. (Courtesy of Kristen VonBerg)
Bishop Robert Barron (left) of Los Angeles and Daniel diSilva hold a display of the Divine Mercy image. (Courtesy of Kristen VonBerg)

Blessed Sacrament Parish in Tonawanda will host a screening of "The Original Image of Divine Mercy." The documentary tells the story of the actual painting of the Divine Mercy image as described by St. Faustina Kowalska from a vision of Jesus Christ. Director Daniel diSilva will be on hand to talk about the film and answer questions from the audience.

In the film, Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelism; Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary of Los Angeles; musician Harry Connick Jr., comedian Jim Gaffigan, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna, Austria, and author George Weigel; among others, offer their thoughts on the often-reproduced image.

In 1931, St. Faustina, then a young Sister of Our Lady of Mercy, had a vision of Jesus in a flowing white robe with red and blue beams of light emanating from his heart. She described the vision to artist Eugene Kazimirowski, who painted the classic image in 1935. The painting hung in St. Michael Church in Vilnius, Lithuania, until the Soviet army occupied Lithuania in 1948 and closed the church.

The image has been copied and altered over the years, most notably by Adolf Hyla. The documentary follows the story of the original painting, which has been stolen, hidden away and forgotten.

"(The film) is really about this canvas. It's the original canvas. It's about why there are others, either copies or those that seem to waiver from what the original looks like," said Daniel diSilva, the film's director.

DiSilva decided to make the film after seeing the original image, commonly known as the Vilnius painting, in a shrine in Lithuania and heard about the "dramatic" story of its adventure, which concluded about 10 years ago when a row started while the painting was transferred from one church to another.

"Holy Spirit Church, which is located right down the street from the shrine, didn't want to give up the painting," diSilva said. "Naturally, this is a beautiful painting, it's a priceless work of art, they didn't want to see it go. So it took two years for the archdiocese to coordinate the transfer."

DiSilva said it wasn't done in a subtle way.

"When I heard that story, I thought, 'Gosh, what an interesting story this painting has lived. Why is it that no one knows which painting is the original?' It's a story the needs to be told."  

The documentary includes interviews from people who have firsthand knowledge of the painting.

"When we started to investigate the history of this particular image, we kind of followed the trail," explained diSilva. "We went from place to place and they would say, so and so knows the rest of that story, or there's a guy down in this village who knows the nuns who commandeered the painting from this church and brought it back to Vilnius. Things like that."

Along with archbishops and religious intelligentsia, diSilva brought along entertainers Connick and Gaffigan, who turned out to be surprisingly knowledgeable on the subject of St. Faustina.

"I thought it would be a really good idea to have a section of the film to be about art itself - truth, beauty and goodness - and how art is an attempt to render the divine," diSilva said. "The idea of art is to reveal the unrevealed or make visible the invisible. So, I thought it would be a good idea to have some artists who were on the same page as that, speak a little bit about art and then touch upon the subject of Divine Mercy. In both cases, Harry Connick and Jim Gaffigan, they were very hip to the devotion. They both knew about Faustina, knew about the painting. It was very clear in Jim Gaffigan's interview that he read the diary. He said some things in our interview that only someone who has gone through the diary carefully would have known. It was really neat to see that."

Rather than releasing the film to theaters, diSilva rents it out to parishes and organizations for a week at a time. St. Mary Parish in Swormville screened it on Divine Mercy Sunday. Blessed Sacrament will run the "Director's Cut" with diSilva speaking in person about the filmmaking process.

The director travels with a high-resolution replica of the original image, which shows the cracks and brushstrokes; relics of Blessed Michael Sopocko, Faustina's spiritual director; and a gallery of paintings he used in the film. One of his prized possessions is an authentic photo of the original painting from 1935. As explained in the film, a photographer took a photo of the image and made 150,000 tiny copies to pass to the people in Soviet-occupied areas. The people sewed the photos into their clothes to protect them from harm.

DeSilva, a former musician with the Christian funk band Crispin, began a devotion to the Divine Mercy after sleeping under the painting in Vilnius after his last concert. He feels the Year of Mercy is the perfect time for people to hear the story of the image.

"I would love for them to walk away from this film relating themselves to the painting," he said. "You're going to see images of the painting in the film the way it looked when it was brought back from the Soviet Union and it was in horrible shape. It had been forgotten. It had been left in a barn, high up in this church that had been converted into a barn. They couldn't reach it, so they left it there. I would love to let that resonate within them and know or understand on a certain level that no matter where they are, if they feel abandoned and forgotten, or if they feel they are completely worn out or that God isn't working with them in the way He's working with other people, that, in fact, there is no way God has forgotten exactly where we are, and He's coming to pick us up, He's coming back to get us and restore us to our original state, just like the painting has been."  

Father Bill Quinlivan, Blessed Sacrament's pastor, heard about the film through Jim Gaffigan's Twitter feed and decided to bring the film to town.

"I was very impressed with their creative evangelization mode of including these pop comedians and singers who happen to be Catholic, trying to reach a different audience than if they just interviewed Cardinal Schonborn," he said. "As soon as I watched the trailer on YouTube, I looked it up online, got the phone number and called them in about 60 seconds. As soon as I saw it, I said we have got to bring it here."

The film will be shown at the Blessed Sacrament parish center on Wednesday, April 27, at 2 p.m. The Director's Cut with Daniel diSilva will be shown Friday, April 29, at 7 p.m. Both shows are free of charge, but a free will offering will be accepted for the building of a visitor's center in Vilnius, Lithuania, near the shrine where the original image is displayed.

Visit the film's website. A DVD release is planned for November.   

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