The above video is an introduction to St Maximillian Kolbe, English subtitles will appear if the “CC” logo is blue – if it’s not just click it!
Maximillian Kolbe OFM Conv is known for giving his life to the Nazis at the Horror Camp Auschwitz in place of another, on 14th August 1941. What led to this was a camp count on 29th July 19411, revealing that three prisoners were missing from Block 11 and the Camp’s Sub-Commander ordering that 10 men would suffer reprisal. Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritsch instructed all the men of Block 11 to form a line, which he walked selecting their life or their slow death by starvation “This one. That one.” Amongst them was Franciszek Gajowniczek2, a married family man. Before the group of 10 were marched to Block 13, the starvation bunker, Prisoner Number 16670, Maximillian Kolbe, broke rank and said:
“I am a Catholic priest. I wish to die for that man. I am old; he has a wife and children.3”
The book “The Franciscan Tradition – Spirituality in History” by Regis Armstrong OFM Cap and Ingrid J Peterson OFS tells us:
“Maximillian and the other nine men went to a slow death of torture and starvation in the notorious Block 13. After three weeks, only four remained alive: among them was Maximillian. On August 14th the commandant decided the bunker was needed and ordered the prisoners to be injected with carbolic acid. Still conscious, Maximillian looked at the doctor and offered his arm. The body of Prisoner 16670 was removed to the crematorium, and without dignity or ceremony was disposed of, like the hundreds of thousands who had gone before him, and hundreds of thousands more who would follow.”
“The heroism of Prisoner 16670 – Maximillian Kolbe – went echoing through Auschwitz.”
Survivor Jozef Stemler recalled “In that desert of hatred he had sown love … There was nothing artificial in his behaviour, he was serious but happy and he had the smile of a youth. These qualities attracted many people to him. I was coming back from the evening roll-call, half-dead from work and hunger, when I was ordered an SS Guard to carry to dead bodies to the crematorium. The sight of the body of a young man almost made me faint … I realised it was Father Kolbe.”
Maybe because his death, his crowning glory, is so well known we miss discovering what Maximillian Kolbe’s life was about. He was totally devoted to Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, he called her the Immaculate Mary
Fr Kolbe’s journey to sainthood began when he was just a young boy. In 1906, the young Raymund Kolbe had a dream in which The Virgin Mary appeared holding two crowns, one white, one red:
“She asked me 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.”
At 13 he was smuggled across the Austro-Hungarian border to enrol at the Conventual Franciscan seminary in Lviv where, a year later, he received the religious name Maximillian. After taking his final vows to become a Franciscan Friar in 1914, Fr. Kolbe studied in at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He attained a Doctorate in Philosophy from there in 1915, followed by a doctorate of theology from the University of St. Bonaventure in 1919.
Shortly afterwards he was placed in the monastery of Niepokalanów near Warsaw. It was here that tuberculosis first afflicted him, plagued by terrible symptoms which would never leave him. Like everything else in his life, however, Fr, Kolbe took inspiration from his illness, seeing it as ‘an opportunity to suffer for Mary’.
Kolbe’s faith in Mary was the bedrock of all his work and his devotion to her guided his hand in all things. Bringing the Militia Immaculata together, he helped the Immaculata Friars to publish pamphlets, books and a daily news paper. Their printing works employed a state-of-the-art printing press. Indeed, technology fascinated Fr Kolbe and he sought to use it in every possible way. During the 1930’s they established a radio station and there were even plans for a movie studio. One can only wonder at what he would have achieved with a website!
Fr. Kolbe lived to spread the word of Mary Immaculate, evangelising to bring sinners and enemies of the Catholic Church closer to Her love and grace. Establishing the house in Niepokalanów was only the first step. He too his work to Japan, building another monastery, this time near Nagasaki. Shortly after he did the same in Malabar, India. Sadly, poor health struck Fr. Kolbe again and in 1936 he was forced to return to Poland.
On the 17th of February 1941, Fr, Kolbe and several other priests were arrested by the Nazis. They had done their best to support the local congregation and had secretly been using their print works to produce anti-nazi leaflets. On the 28th of May, prisoner 16670 arrived at Auschwitz. So much has been said about that vicious, cruel regime that nothing of value can be added here. But to think of it gives us the opportunity to imagine the spiritual depth and fortitude that prisoner 16670 showed: no longer a man, indeed, no longer a person in the eyes of his captors, but despite this, always a profoundly committed Christian, humbly devoted to the Mother of Our Lord until the moment he raised his arm in that dreadful place.
There is an interesting footnote to the story of Saint Maximillian Kolbe, once which perhaps directs us to the circular, or interconnected, nature of Grace. One man stood in St Peter’s Square on that autumn day in 1982. A man who would not have been there at all save for the intercession of a priest forty-one years previously. Franciszek Gajowniczek had survived Auschwitz and was there to remember and give thanks to the friend who had traded his own life to save Franciszek.
Some Quotes of Maximilian Kolbe:
If anyone does not wish to have Mary Immaculate for his Mother, he will not have Christ for his Brother.
For Jesus Christ I am prepared to suffer still more.
Modern times are dominated by Satan and will be more so in the future. The conflict with hell cannot be engaged by men, even the most clever. The Immaculata alone has from God the promise of victory over Satan. However, assumed into Heaven, the Mother of God now requires our cooperation. She seeks souls who will consecrate themselves entirely to her, who will become in her hands effective instruments for the defeat of Satan and the spreading of God’s kingdom upon earth.
For a book from which to learn how to grow in the love of God, there is no better book than Jesus Christ crucified.
Prayer is powerful beyond limits when we turn to the Immaculata who is queen even of God’s heart
Let us give ourselves to the Immaculata [Mary]. Let her prepare us, let her receive Him [Jesus] in Holy Communion. This is the manner most perfect and pleasing to the Lord Jesus and brings great fruit to us … the Immaculata knows the secret, how to unite ourselves totally with the heart of the Lord Jesus… We do not limit ourselves in love. We want to love the Lord Jesus with her heart, or rather that she would love the Lord with our heart.
A single act of love makes the soul return to life.
No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and 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 hetacombs 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 are ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?
He [Jesus] remains among us until the end of the world. He dwells on so many altars, though so often offended and profaned.
The most deadly poison of our time is indifference. And this happens, although the praise of God should know no limits. Let us strive, therefore, to praise him to the greatest extent of our powers.
If angels could be jealous of men, they would be so for one reason: Holy Communion.
My aim is to institute perpetual adoration … for this is the … the most important activity.
1 Date and prisoner number source – Wikipedia.
2Maximillian Kolbe and Franciszek Gajowniczek never spoken with each other, but the momentary meeting of their eyes changed each man’s life for ever. After the war Franciszek Gajowniczek returned to his wife Helena at Rawa Mazowiecha [in Central Poland]. His two sons had died in 1945 during a Soviet bombardment on German Occupied Poland. Unitl his death Franciszek Gajowniczek made pilgrimage to Auschwitz on 14th August to give thanks to the man who took his place.
3Patricia Treece – A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe the Saint of Auschwitz – page 175