St. Maximilian Kolbe
He is called a martyr of Charity. He is recorded in Nazi documents as Prisoner #16670. At the height of his heroism, he took the place of a fellow prisoner condemned to die, fulfilling Jesus’words: “No greater love has a man than this, to lay down his life for his friends.” Most of the stories we hear about St. Maximilian Kolbe are drawn from the last six months of his life. At Auschwitz, his heroic love was tested and proven but it was a love that he had practiced since he was young. His death followed the pattern of how he had lived – constantly laying down his life for others.
He was born on January 8, 1894 and called Raymond, the second son of parents who were poor weavers in the small Polish town of Zdunska Wola. He had three brothers but only one survived to adulthood. His parents were devout and faithful Catholics who passed on the faith to their children at an early age. Raymond tended to be a mischievous child, but one day, after a scolding from his mother, he received an extraordinary grace that brought about a great change in him. He later explained the event in this way:
“That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.”
As a youth, Raymond was attracted by two different paths. He wished to become a priest or a soldier. In the end, his vocation to the priesthood came through when he realized that the greatest enemies are not physical, but spiritual. The whole world, he saw, was engaged in a spiritual battle between good and evil, love and sin. This was the way God was asking him to fight for freedom, justice and love.
In 1910, when he was 16 years old, Raymond and his brother both joined the Franciscan order. He made his first vows and took the name Maximilian Mary. After a few years in the seminary in Poland, he was sent to Rome where he first earned a doctorate in philosophy at the Gregorian University and then a doctorate in theology at the Seraphic College. In Rome, he contracted tuberculosis which the doctors diagnosed as terminal. Though he recovered, his health was weakened for the rest of his life. During this time, his love for Mary grew stronger and deeper. In 1917, he felt inspired to found a group called the “Crusade of Mary Immaculate” or “Militia Immaculata” with the goal of “converting sinners, heretics and schismatics, particularly freemasons, and bringing all men to love Mary Immaculate.” He began this group with six other seminarians and, eventually, it was officially recognized by the Holy Father.
Maximilian was ordained a priest in 1919 and returned to Poland rejoicing, seeing that his country had been liberated once more from the oppressive regime that had controlled it. He taught Church history in the Franciscan seminary there and began founding groups of the Militia Immaculata all throughout Poland. Speaking of Mary he said: “She must be the Queen of Poland, of every Polish heart. We must labor to win each and every heart for her.”
A few years later he began a monthly magazine called the Knight of the Immaculate to “illuminate the truth and show the true way to happiness.” Fr. Maximilian’s efforts did not end here. He was never content to do only what was manageable. In 1927 he undertook leadership of building a new Franciscan monastery just west of Warsaw. The monastery could house up to 760 friars. It was dedicated to Mary and called “City of the Immaculate,” another sign of his deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin. From this central location Fr. Maximilian began circulating 11 different periodicals reaching over 1 million people.
In his teachings, Fr. Maximilian centers his Mariology around a series of mediations on Jesus and the Holy Spirit, viewing Mary as the door and window through which the Son of God shines in our lives and enters into our souls. He liked to emphasize that this action could not take place without a perfect union between the Holy Spirit and Mary. In an imperfect way, man and woman become one flesh in the sacrament of Matrimony. As the Spouse of the Holy Spirit who is without sin, Mary is perfectly united in will and spirit with the Holy Spirit.
Fr. Maximilian teaches that the same Mother who bore Christ, now through the power of her Spouse, the Holy Spirit, assists us in conceiving Christ in our hearts. Thus, she continues her ministry of Divine Motherhood and bearing Christ for the world. He taught people to live this Marian spirituality in the form of a consecration. This consecration is finds its basis in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Mary’s relationship with Jesus as His Mother, and the Holy Spirit as Spouse. Because she is without sin, the will of the Immaculata is strictly and perfectly united to the will of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, as the Immaculate Conception, Mary can never be a barrier or wall between God and us; for she is perfectly and totally united to God and incapable of doing anything apart from the will of God. As such, we give ourselves to Jesus to do His will in consecrating ourselves to the Immaculata. He encouraged those who consecrated themselves to Mary to pray the following consecration prayer daily:
“O Immaculata, Queen and Mother of the Church, I renew my consecration to you this day and for always so that you may use me for the coming of the Kingdom of Jesus in the whole world. To this end, I offer you all my prayers, actions and sacrifices of this day.”
Fr. Maximilian was anxious to do even more for God and Mary Immaculate. His dream of becoming a missionary was soon fulfilled. From 1930-1936 he lived in Japan, founding Franciscan friaries and spreading the Gospel among the Japanese people. After six years there and several journeys to India, Fr. Maximilian was enduring great physical suffering. He was plagued by severe headaches and his body was covered with sores and blisters brought on by the food and climate which he never grew accustomed to.
In 1936, he was recalled to Poland where he once again took charge of the City of the Immaculate near Warsaw. Though fatigued from his missionary journeys, Fr. Maximilian would spend his life to the last drop to love and spread the faith to his brothers and sisters. His next endeavor was to launch a radio station that would reach millions of listeners and fortify their Catholic faith. By some divine inspiration Fr. Maximilian harnessed the power of media through journals, news, and radio to strengthen Poles for a brief period of time between the two World Wars.
World War II broke out in 1939. The Nazis invaded Poland and Fr. Maximilian knew the friary would soon be seized. As a precaution he sent most of the Franciscan friars home though he remained there with about thirty others. In the Fall, Fr. Kolbe was sent to prison with the other friars for about three months. In December, when they were released and returned to Poland, they began a new kind of missionary action. They organized shelter and care for over 3,000 refugees, 2,000 of which were Jews. Maximilian told his brothers: “We must do everything in our power to help these unfortunate people who have been driven from their homes and deprived of even the most basic necessities. Our mission is among them in the days that lie ahead.”
The community soon came under the suspicion of the Nazi authorities. Early in 1941, in the only edition of The Knight of the Immaculate which he was allowed to publish, Fr. Maximilian wrote the statement that provoked his own arrest:
“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”
In February of 1941 the friary was forcefully closed. Fr. Maximilian and four other friars were taken to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. Maximilian’s long awaited martyrdom had begun. The camp was a place of death, slow and agonizing, by way of abuse, beatings, systematic starvation and harsh, forced labor. Upon arrival each prisoner’s head was shaved. They were branded with a number by which they would be known, and given a striped prison suit. Their only food was watery coffee in the morning and a ration of thin soup and bread after work. The men and women were in separate bunkers. The men slept on hard wooden pallets, sleeping eight men per ten-foot space with one blanket to cover them. Their work was brutal and harsh punishments by beatings and whippings were doled out by the S.S. guards for those who were slow or rebellious. Their clothes and shoes were not replaced when they became tattered and worn. Under these conditions the men easily lost their integrity and morals – lying, stealing, betraying, and even killing the others to secure their own survival.
Maximilian Kolbe stood out for his self-sacrificing love for others. While other prisoners pushed and jostled each other to get ahead in the soup line, he would stand aside and wait until everyone else was served even if it meant there would be nothing left for him. He often shared his bread with children or weaker prisoners – something which shocked and amazed those around him. A Protestant doctor who treated the patients in Block 12 later recalled how Father Kolbe waited until all the others had been treated before asking for help. He constantly sacrificed himself for the others saying: “Mary Immaculate gives me strength.”
Fr. Maximilian did all he could to exercise his priestly ministry among the prisoners. At night he would move softly from bunk to bunk saying, “I am a Catholic priest. Can I do anything for you?” Prisoners often crawled across the floor to escape notice of the guards. In the silence of the night they would make their confessions to the Franciscan and receive consolation and the word of the gospel. Fr. Maximilian pleaded with them to forgive and pray for their persecutors according to the words of Jesus. Evil, he taught them, would only be overcome with good.
To discourage escapes, the Nazis established a rule at Auschwitz that if a man escaped ten men would be sent to a starvation bunker to die. In July of 1941, a man from Maximilian’s bunker escaped. The others were led out into the dirty prison yard where they were confronted by Commandant Karl Fristch. He screamed obscenities and threats at the men and then selected ten of them to enter the starvation block. Among them was Franciszek Gajowniczek who had been imprisoned for helping the Polish Resistance. He cried out, “My poor wife! My children! What will become of them?” At this moment, Maximilian stepped forward and took off his cap. He stood before Commandant Fristch and said, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.” The Commandant was astounded and said, “What does this Polish pig want?” Fr. Maximilian gestured towards the condemned man and repeated, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place because he has a wife and children.” The Commandant remained silent for a moment. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he acceded to the request. Franciszek Gajowniczek returned to the ranks and the priest took his place. Gajowniczek later recalled:
“I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on (…) I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise.”
The victims were thrown down into Bunker 13 and left there to starve. The following testimony was given by Bruno Borgowiec, one of the few Poles assigned to do some service in the starvation bunker. He gave this account to his parish priest before he died in 1947:
“The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men. Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain but rather he encouraged the others. Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left.”
Maximilian Mary Kolbe then received the red crown. Since after two weeks in the starvation bunker Fr. Kolbe was still alive and the cell was needed for new victims, the authorities decided to give him an injection with carbolic acid. Fr. Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, gave his arm to the executioner and died with a face that was calm and radiant. He was executed on August 14, 1941 at 47 years of age. His body was disposed of in the crematorium without dignity or ceremony like the hundreds of thousands who were murdered there.
The story of this heroic act of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe resounded through Auschwitz. One of the survivors, Jozef Stemler, later recalled:
“In the midst of a brutalization of thought, feeling, and words such as had never before been known; man indeed became a ravening wolf in his relations with other men. And into this state of affairs came the heroic self-sacrifice of Father Kolbe.”
Another survivor Jerzy Bielecki declared that Father Kolbe’s death was “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength … It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.”
Maximilian Kolbe was beatified as “Confessor” by Paul VI in 1970 and canonized as “Martyr” by Pope John Paul II in 1981.