The very name Auschwitz evokes memories of the hellish cruelty of all the Nazi prison camps. Yet these camps also produced heroes. St. Maximilian Kolbe was a glorious example.
Baptized Raymond, Kolbe was the son of poor, devout Polish villagers. He was a lively, mischievous child, and his mother once sighed, “What is to become of you?” Little Raymond decided to ask Our Lady. When he came home from church he told his mother that Mary had appeared to him there, shown him a white crown (for purity) and a red crown (for martyrdom). “Which do you choose?” she said. “I choose both,” he replied. Mary smiled and vanished.
Assisted by generous friends, Raymond received a good schooling. In 1910 he entered the Conventual Franciscans, receiving, with their black habit, the religious name Maximilian. Though torn at first between friardom and science (he was brilliant in natural sciences), he stuck out the novitiate and took his vows. The superiors then sent him to Rome for priestly studies. An outstanding student, he won doctorates in philosophy and theology, and was ordained a priest in 1918.
By 1918 he had already discerned his particular mission. Appalled by the lukewarmness of Catholics in serving God, he decided to form a pious confraternity, the Militia of Mary Immaculate, which would undertake a vigorous apostolate of the press. Its “knights” would work for the salvation of souls, especially of enemies of the Church. The result was the foundation at Niepokalanow of the “City of the Immaculate”, a self-sustaining press center. Despite financial problems and the founder’s bout with tuberculosis, it succeeded. Fr. Maximilian then went to Japan, where he set up another “City”; and a third one was established in India.
In 1939, Fr. Kolbe was recalled from Japan and named superior at Niepokalanow. But the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. They showed no fondness for Catholic publication enterprises. Fr. Maximilian was arrested briefly that same year. In 1941 he was again arrested. Although his lung trouble reasserted itself in captivity, he and 320 other Polish prisoners were transferred to the prison camp that the Nazis had erected at Auschwitz (Oswiecim) in Poland.
Because he publicly acknowledged himself to be a Catholic priest, Fr. Kolbe, despite his physical frailty, was saddled with the heaviest and most degrading tasks. On one occasion he was severely beaten and left for dead. But he constantly sacrificed himself for those around him, and was their sole comfort. A Protestant camp doctor later said, “In Auschwitz, I knew of no other similar case of such heroic love of neighbor.”
One evening in the summer of 1941 a prisoner managed to break out. The vicious camp rule declared that if any escapee was not caught, ten other prisoners would be killed in reprisal. Now the commandant lined up his prisoners and selected ten victims at random. One of them, a Polish soldier, Sgt. Francis Gajowniczek, cried out in anguish, “What will happen to my family?” Thereupon Fr. Maximilian approached the commandant, doffed his cap politely, and said, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”
Surprisingly, Commandant Fritsch consented. So Kolbe and the other nine were locked up in the starvation bunker. For two weeks they suffered excruciatingly. But led by the priest, they raised their voices not in pain or blame, but in singing hymns and reciting the rosary. Only the priest and three others were still alive on August 14. They were killed that day by lethal injection.
In 1971 Pope Paul VI declared this celibate friar “blessed” as a confessor (that is, a non-martyr). Pope John Paul canonized him in 1982, this time as a martyr: one who, at least in a wider sense, had died for his faith. Thus did St. Maximilian Kolbe receive both the crowns that Mary Immaculate had promised him long ago in his village church.
–Father Robert F. McNamara