By CAROLE BRESLIN
During the Final Discourse, our Lord speaks to His disciples at the Last Supper about union with Christ, union with the Father, and the coming of the Holy Spirit with the theme of love woven throughout the night’s sharing. “Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Martyrdom is an act of the will which one can suffer by giving one’s life, or by willing to do so even if not actually giving one’s life. When Pope St. John Paul II canonized St. Maximilian Kolbe on October 10, 1982, he told those present that the saint had lived these words in an absolutely literal manner. He freely accepted death as an act of unbounded charity, a love for both God and man.
Maria and Julius Kolbe welcomed Raymond into their life on January 8, 1894 In Zdunska-Wola, Poland, which was under Russian occupation at the time. The family, though poor, was cheerful, working hard to provide a meager living. Of their five sons, two died from fevers before the age of five, the other three were raised to be holy and were educated thanks to the patronage of family and a local pharmacist.
In the area of Poland where the Kolbes lived, there were no religious houses or convents, so the Franciscans came through looking for promising young men to join them in Lvov, a part of Poland which at the time was under the Austrian Empire. Much to the delight of their parents, both the eldest son, Francis, and the second son, Raymond, were chosen to enter the seminary.
The family moved to Lvov where the third son, Joseph, was placed in a boarding school. The devout parents then separated to enter the religious life. Julius soon discerned the life was not for him, joined the fight in World War I, was captured by the Russians, and put to death.
As a child, Raymond demonstrated a strong will, which is so needed to become a saint. Although some claim he was obstinate and unruly, an event dramatically changed him into a pious and obedient young man. At the age of nine, Mary appeared to him offering him two crowns: a white crown for purity or a red one for martyrdom. He responded that he wanted both, developing a deep love that lasted the rest of his life. This deep devotion became evident in the many ministries he undertook as a Conventual Franciscan.
In 1910, he took the name of Maximilian when he entered the novitiate of the Franciscans (presumably after a martyr of the third century). By 1912, the Franciscans transferred him to Rome for further study. While there, he excelled in all subjects, frequently assisting his fellow students as he became known for his keen intellect as well as his charitable outreach.
He excelled so well in the sciences and mathematics that many thought it a waste of his gifts for him to become a Franciscan. When he took his final vows in 1914, he added the name of Mary, in honor of the Blessed Virgin, to his own name.
Maximilian earned two doctorates: one in philosophy in 1915 and another in theology in 1919 from the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure in Rome. During this time, the activities of the Freemasons affected him so deeply that he established the Militia Immaculata to counteract and convert the enemies of the Church.
His devotion to Mary and his belief in the Miraculous Medal motivated him to write a prayer for the new group: “O, Mary, conceived without original sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. And for all those who do not have recourse to thee; especially the Masons and those recommended to thee.”
Ordained in 1918, he continued to expand the work of the Immaculata by publishing magazines, newspapers, and catechetical tracts as well as by using radio programs to speak out against the Nazis in later years.
He returned to Poland in 1919, where despite his frailty after losing a lung to tuberculosis, he began a magazine in 1922. In 1929 he founded a monastery in Niepokalanow, which became a major publishing center. This monastery became one of the largest in the world with nearly 800 inhabitants.
After seven years in Poland, he then went to Japan in 1930. Maximilian spent six years there where he again began a publication center and established a monastery near Nagasaki, one of the cities which would later be so devastated by the atom bomb. Although the monastery had been built on the wrong side of the hill, according to the Japanese, it was saved from the effects of the bomb because it had been built on the side away from where the bomb exploded.
In 1936, Maximilian returned to the monastery in Niepokalanow, which had grown in both size and respect during his absence. In celebration of the tenth anniversary of the monastery’s establishment, he wrote a letter to the Pope asking for his blessing on an enterprise that “published a monthly magazine, The Knight of the Immaculata, circulation 780,000, another periodical for young people, The Little Knight, circulation 180,000, and a daily issue, The Little Journal, circulation 130,000.”
Four years later, on February 17, 1941, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the prison camp in Pawiak. In May, the Germans moved him to Auschwitz, giving him the number 16670 to further strip him of his name and his dignity. However, the priest remained serene and peaceful during the final days of his life.
Two months later, after three prisoners escaped from the camp, the Germans decided to punish the other prisoners and set an example for them by selecting ten men to be killed. As they selected Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man cried out in anguish for his wife and his children. Maximilian Mary Kolbe stood up and volunteered to take his place so that his wife and children would not lose him.
As the ten men in the cell slowly starved to death, Kolbe celebrated daily Mass, led them in song, and encouraged them with prayer. After two weeks, only he remained still alive, either standing or kneeling in prayer, so the soldiers killed him by lethal injection, calmly received by the saint.
His body was cremated on August 15, 1941, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven.
Although some believe he was not strictly speaking a martyr, Pope Paul VI referred to him as a martyr of charity when he beatified him in 1971. When St. Pope John Paul II canonized him as a martyr rather than as a confessor, St. Maximilian Kolbe could wear the two crowns that Mary had offered him when he was nine years old — both the crown of purity and the crown of martyrdom. His feast day is August 14.
Dear St. Maximilian, by your example and by the work you began, still in existence to this day, may we work to convert the enemies of our Church with the heroic charity you preached and lived by laying down your life, proving your great love for both God and your neighbor. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)