Today is the feast day of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Franciscan martyr. Ora pro nobis.
Born into a poor family in Russian-occupied Poland in 1894, Raymond was his given name. It is said he was a mischievous little boy. One day his mother, no longer knowing what to do with him, said to him: My child, what will become of you? He was suddenly afraid and went to pray before a statue of His heavenly Mother — for this was an exceptionally pious family (all of whose living members became religious, including, eventually, the parents). He was transformed that day into a new person, having asked Her to help him correct his faults.
At age 13, Raymond and his elder brother illegally crossed the border so that they could enter the Franciscan Fathers Seminary in the polish city of Lvov, which was at that time occupied by Austria. (His parents separated to enter religious life). There he took the name Maximilian Maria, to demonstrate his love and devotion to the Blessed Mother. He traveled to Krakow and Rome, continuing his studies, earning a doctorate in theology. He completed his religious studies in Rome. He was ordained a priest at age 24 on April 28th 1918 on the feast of the Marian apostle, Saint Louis Mary de Montfort.
During his time in Rome, Maximilian witnessed increased opposition to papal authority, and various attacks on the Church from both within and without. Devoted to the Immaculate Conception, he believed that the Church should be more militant in its cooperation with Divine Grace for the advancement of the Catholic Faith. Moved by this devotion and conviction, in 1917 he founded a movement called, “The Militia of the Immaculata” whose purpose would be to fight, through all the morally valid means available, for the building of the Reign of God in the whole world. In his own words, the movement would have “a global vision of catholic life under a new form that consists in a union with the Immaculata.” The means of consecration was accomplished through the Immaculata Prayer, penned by the saint.
They founded a magazine, invoking the special assistance of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux also, and the prodigious growth of this enterprise left those who could not understand its heavenly Sources mystified. Soon the walls were cracking, so to speak, by the arrival of printing presses and, above all, religious vocations. The group of volunteers for the project had to leave, but Our Lady procured for them a terrain, without charge. As a result, The City of the Immaculate was organized, where some 50 low buildings were set up and mobilized for the various facets not only of publishing, but of the Franciscan life of prayer.
Having contracted Tuberculosis as a child, Maximilian was frequently sick as he grew older. His already frail constitution weakened and he was frequently racked by violent headaches and covered with abscesses. He bore his suffering with patient endurance, but could not remain quiet about the approaching war in Europe. He became active as a radio amateur, with Polish call letters SP3RN, vilifying Nazi activities through his reports. The many publications of the Immaculata also spoke out against war and the growing disrespect for human dignity.
When the Germans invaded Poland in September of 1939, Father Kolbe realized that his monastery—like everything else– would soon be taken over. He sent most of the friars home, warning them not to join the underground resistance, but to preserve their lives for God. Niepokalanów was ransacked, including the monastery where he lived, and Maximilian, accompanied by 40 other friars, were transported to a holding camp in Germany, and later to one in Poland. He is remembered as having said at the moment of arrest: “Courage, my sons. Don’t you see that we are leaving on a mission? They pay our fare in the bargain. What a piece of good luck! The thing to do now is to pray well in order to win as many souls as possible. Let us, then, tell the Blessed Virgin that we are content, and that she can do with us anything she wishes”
The friars were released and allowed to return to the monastery in December of 1939. Niepokalanów became a refugee camp for thousands of Poles and Jews seeking escape from Nazi persecution. The friars shared everything they had with the refugees and the monastery became a universal shelter of brotherhood. For this reason, Father Kolbe and his friars soon came under suspicion by the Gestapo. Furthermore, German citizenship had been extended to Maximilian—as a journalist, publisher, and intellectual of advanced degree. However, he had declined to accept the offer, which infuriated German authorities and roused their suspicions further. To incriminate him, he was permitted one final printing of the “Knight of Mary Immaculate” in December of 1940. It was in this issue that Father Maximilian wrote:
“The real conflict is inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the catacombs of concentration camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are victories on the battle-field if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”
One of the ten men selected, Franciszek Gajowniczek, sobbed upon being pulled out of formation: “My poor wife. My poor children – what will they do?” Maximilian stepped silently forward, took off his cap, and standing before the commandant, said, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.”
The Nazi commandant asked, “What does this Polish pig want?”
Mr. Gajowniczek would later recall:
“I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?
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. The news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.
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. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the to the last.’”
Image: Fr. Maximilian Kolbe (5)