To make a courageous choice that leads to personal loss is difficult. Most of us choose self-protection over self sacrifice. To make such a choice when that loss is one’s very life is beyond difficult. But, as Christians, we are called to follow Christ in laying down our lives for our friends. Today we celebrate a man who did just that. His name at birth was Raymond Kolbe. Today we know him as St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe.
This Polish Conventual Franciscan priest lived during the second world war. From the time he was a young child, Kolbe was a person of faith and his piety, like many of his era, was deeply Marian. At the age of twelve, when reprimanded by his mother for mischievous behaviour, he went to the Blessed Virgin in prayer. “What is to become of me?” he asked her. Mary’s response came in the form of a vision in which she presented the boy with two crowns – a white one representing purity and a red one representing martyrdom. He was asked to choose which he preferred. He chose both.
His devotion to the Blessed Virgin was intense and lifelong. He regarded himself as a “warrior” on her behalf and founded the Militia Immaculatae to assist in his fight for the world to be consecrated to Mary. Through this spiritual militia, he battled all things that he regarded as harmful to the church – which, from his perspective at the time, included Freemasonry, communism and Nazism. He used all means at his disposal – print, radio, preaching and teaching. He published a monthly magazine and a daily newspaper that, at one point, had a circulation of a million subscribers.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to be able to make a pilgrimage to Poland to learn about the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe. We visited the monastery at Niepokalanów – The City of the Immaculate – which Kolbe founded. Here nearly 800 friars lived. The “city” housed the printing press from which he promoted his apostolate of evangelization. Niepokalanów had all the amenities of a town including its own fire department!
When the second world war broke out, Kolbe established a temporary hospital in the monastery. He and his friars came under Nazi scrutiny and a number of them were arrested but they were released shortly thereafter. Knowing the danger, Kolbe continued to publish articles critical of Nazism. And, as the conditions wrought by the war became increasingly harsh, he transformed Niepokalanów into a refuge for those displaced by war. It is estimated that the city housed around 2000 Jewish people fleeing Nazi persecution.
In February of 1941, however, the Nazis made the decision to shut down the monastery and arrest St. Maximilian and his companions. In a few months, he was living in Block 14 of the Auschwitz death camp tattooed with the number 16670. There, he continued to minister to those around him as well as he was able.
It was in July, that Kolbe was called to place the red crown upon his head. There had been an escape attempt and the guards had decided, as a deterrent, to sentence ten men to death by starvation. One of these was Franciszek Gajowniczek. When he was selected, he cried out in panic: “My wife! My children!” Hearing this, Kolbe voluntarily offered his life in exchange for this man’s. The guards accepted the offer.
In his starvation cell, Kolbe sustained himself with prayer and peaceful surrender to God. One by one, his cell mates succumbed to their deprivation. When he remained alive after two weeks without food or water, the guards decided to execute him by lethal injection. He died on the 14th of August – the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – and was placed in the crematorium the next day.
St. Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II on the 10th of October 1982 who proclaimed him “Patron Saint of our Difficult Age” and called him a martyr of faith animated by love. The canonization was attended by a number of Auschwitz survivors including the man whose life he saved. Franciszek Gajowniczek had survived Auschwitz and was, miraculously re-united with is wife, Helena. Kolbe’s self-sacrificial act gave this man fifty-three more years of life not to mention the ability to witness the canonization of the man who saved his life.
When I find myself needing to be courageous, when I need to stand up for what is right and just, especially when I know that there will be a personal cost, I often remember standing on the soil of Auschwitz, looking St. Maximilian’s cell at Block 14. I implore St. Maximilian Kolbe to pray for me that I might have a small measure of his incredible self-sacrificial love.
–Christine Way Skinner is a lay minister and author. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Theology degree from St. Francis Xavier University and a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. Christine loves trying to find inclusive, compelling and creative ways to pass on the church’s 2000 year old traditions. She also loves art, playing music, reading, gardening and playing board games with her children. Christine’s numerous publications can be found and purchased here.