Celebrating the life of Saint Maximilian Kolbe
He was an active media evangelist who published Catholic magazines. He led efforts to build a whole town called “Town of the Immaculate” outside of Warsaw, Poland where both religious and laity studied to become apostles of Mary. He sent missionaries to Japan to open a Marian publication apostolate. And in 1939 the Nazis who had taken over Poland arrested this man, a Franciscan priest, named Maximilian Kolbe. Two years later he died at Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp. Here’s an account.
In late July 1941, a prisoner escaped from Kolbe’s barracks. In retaliation, the Nazis selected ten prisoners to starve to death. One of the ten, Polish Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek, cried out in agony over the fate of his family without a father. To the astonishment of prisoners and captors, Maximilian stepped forward from the ranks and stood before the Commandant.
The commandant asked, “What does this Polish pig want?” Father Kolbe pointed to the Polish sergeant, saying, “I am a Catholic priest. I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”
The commandant stood silent for a moment, and then allowed Gajowniczek to return to the other men while Father Kolbe took his place.
Maximilian then entered the starvation chamber with nine other men. He spent the last two weeks of his life encouraging his nine companions by praying and singing hymns with them in the block 13 starvation bunker.
On August 14, 1941, the vigil of the feast of the Assumption, Maximilian was one of four prisoners still alive. His impatient captors executed him by means of a lethal injection of carbolic acid and burned his body in the crematorium.
Kolbe often preached, “Don’t ever forget to love” to his fellow friars. Those words proved quite prophetic. In stepping forward on that fateful day in Auschwitz, Kolbe embodied Jesus’ commandment: “Love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 12-13).
By stepping forward, Kolbe fulfilled the Gospel call and became a red martyr — suffering persecution and death in defense of the faith. We won’t all be called to red martyrdom, to literally lay down our life. But if we are taking our religion seriously, we most likely will experience white martyrdom — suffering emotionally, spiritually, or physically for the faith.
I recently read a reflection on white martyrdom by Timothy Cardinal Dolan in the publication Give Us This Day. He cites the following examples of white martyrs.
- The mother who sits night and day at the bedside of her little son as he’s hooked up to chemo.
- The family with four children who just adopted a special needs child.
- The college student who gets snickered at every Sunday morning as he gets up early to attend Mass.
- The young husband sticking by his wife for the long haul even though she’s “fallen off the wagon” again in her constant struggle with alcohol addiction.
Their trials are real and faith enduring. All have died to themselves, to their desires and wants, and have “stepped forward” so the needs of another could take their place.
Have you been called to love, to place the needs of another before your own? And how far forward have you stepped?
May we all imitate St. Maximilian Kolbe’s love of neighbor when that call comes.