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“Patron Saint Of Difficult Century”. . . Recalling St. Maximilian Kolbe, “Martyr Of Charity” To Nazis

September 17, 2020 Frontpage No Comments

By DEXTER DUGGAN

PHOENIX — Not many men have consented to be in selfies with those who later would have them executed, but that was one of the unusual events in the selfless life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest and “martyr of charity,” as Pope John Paul II called him.
Kolbe’s life was the topic of a September 5 talk by Bill Marcotte, assistant director of the Institute of Catholic Theology (ICT), an evangelization outreach based at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church here.
Beginning a new season of programs with the arrival of September, the ICT conducted the talk by Zoom, as it had done at talks earlier this year when COVID-19 caused events around the nation to be held remotely.
Kolbe, born in 1894, who had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, established “a city of the Immaculata” in Poland — a reference to the Virgin. It was named Niepokalanow and included a chapel, monastery, a publishing house, and a seminary, Marcotte said, adding that within 10 years of its founding, the city included more than 700 brothers and priests.
As persecutions arose from the National Socialists headed by Adolf Hitler in Germany, Kolbe took Jewish families into his city and hid them, Marcotte said.
“Maximilian Kolbe is probably the greatest saint in the first half of the twentieth century” for allowing the light of God to shine through as the darkness grew of Nazism’s “New World Order that Hitler was proposing” which included exterminating the Jews, he said.
Even though the concept of a selfie photo hadn’t arisen in the 1930s, members of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, were keeping an eye on Kolbe’s activities. Marcotte told the ICT Zoom meeting that the German officers knew Kolbe was something of a celebrity, and would ask to have their photos taken with him when they came by to check up.
Marcotte said Kolbe consented if they would allow the photo to be taken next to a statue of the Virgin Mary. He showed the ICT session one photo of a stern-looking Kolbe with a stupidly smiling Gestapo officer to his left, and the bottom part of a Virgin Mary statue visible on the wall behind him.
The Gestapo viewed Kolbe “as an enemy agitator” and arrested him on February 17, 1941, when he affirmed to them that he allowed articles against the Nazis to be published in his magazine, the Knight of the Immaculata, Marcotte said.
“I shall not ever see you again,” he told his companions, Marcotte said, before he was shipped by boxcar to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and given prisoner number 16670.
Kolbe can be viewed very much as a saint for current times. Marcotte said he is the patron saint for, among others, the pro-life cause, political prisoners, journalists, and drug addicts.
Introducing Marcotte’s talk, Eric Westby, Ph.D., director of the ICT (ictphx.org), said it’s looking to expand its outreach. “Please pray for us” as to “how to get it out there.”
Marcotte, who visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 2016 with a church group, said that 1.3 million people were killed there, 90 percent of them Jews, although many prisoners sent there didn’t know what would happen when they arrived; perhaps their lives even would get better.
Kolbe was the second person canonized by John Paul II, in 1982, who went on to name a total of 482 saints, Marcotte said.
This was a remarkably large number of saints named during the Pope’s lengthy reign, from 1978 to 2005.
Kolbe’s parents were poor weavers who dedicated him to the Virgin Mary at his Baptism, Marcotte said. His father later enlisted to fight for Polish independence from Russia.
In a vision before Kolbe even reached teen-age, the Virgin Mary offered him the red crown of martyrdom and the white crown of chastity and asked him to select one, but, not knowing which to choose, he selected both, Marcotte said.
Later, inspired by Franciscan preaching, Kolbe joined that religious order and went on to study in Rome, Marcotte said, where he earned doctorates in philosophy and theology.
Kolbe thought the fastest and surest way to God was through consecration to Mary, and he wanted to bring people to God through evangelization, Marcotte said, adding that he was ordained in 1918 and returned to Poland in 1919, where he began to form Militia Immaculata prayer groups.
As a 28-year-old priest, Kolbe looked for a more effective way to preach the Gospel and sought permission to begin a magazine, but his superior said there wasn’t enough money, Marcotte said, so Kolbe raised the money himself and called the weekly the Knight of the Immaculata.
By 1927 the magazine had become so popular that Kolbe set out to establish the Niepokalanow city near Warsaw. A Polish count owned a perfect piece of land but wanted a huge amount of money for it, Marcotte said, so Kolbe, who couldn’t pay that much, left behind a Virgin Mary statue and departed.
The statue so stirred the count that, according to different accounts, Marcotte said, he either sold the land to Kolbe for a modest amount or gave it away to him.
The priest’s interests reached far beyond Poland. Marcotte said that in 1930, he founded a mission in Nagasaki, Japan — the second city that was to be atomic-bombed by the U.S. military in 1945 to bring an end to World War II in the Pacific — and also started a mission in India.
After six years in Japan, with his physical health deteriorating, Kolbe returned to Poland, Marcotte said, where, by the mid-1930s, the priest had the largest publishing house in Poland and largest priory in the world.
After his arrest by the Nazis in 1941, Kolbe was made to clean out the death-camp crematorium and, at the end of the day, was given a piece of stale black bread “that was supposed to nourish him,” but he’d also share it with the sick, Marcotte said.
Kolbe’s heroic self-sacrifice at the camp is perhaps the best-known part of his life. When there was an escape at the end of July 1941 from Block 14, the same block where Kolbe was held, 10 of the remaining prisoners arbitrarily were selected in retribution to be starved and dehydrated to death, Marcotte recounted. One of them, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out in anguish, “Oh my God! My wife, my two children!”
Kolbe defied discipline by stepping forward from the ranks and offering his own life in the starvation bunker instead of Gajowniczek’s, Marcotte said. With his offer accepted, the ten including the priest immediately were taken there and ordered to strip naked.
Normally the agonized cries of prisoners in this bunker sounded throughout the camp, Marcotte said, but with Kolbe present, hymns were sung instead.
Some accounts say that only Kolbe still was alive after 14 days, Marcotte said, while others say another two or three still survived. Regardless, the Nazis needed space for new victims here so anyone alive had to be disposed of. As a Nazi with a fatal shot of carbolic acid approached him, Kolbe, age 47, stretched out his arm and said “Ave Maria” as a sign of faith.
He was killed on August 14 and cremated the following day, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, August 15.

Three Saints

At Kolbe’s canonization in 1982, John Paul II said, “This was a victory that was won over all the systems of contempt and hate in man,” Marcotte said.
According to Wikipedia, Kolbe “is one of ten twentieth-century martyrs who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Anglican Westminster Abbey,” in London. It says John Paul II declared him “The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century.”
Marcotte told the Zoom meeting that three great saints lived at the same time in Poland within 15 miles of each other but never met, Kolbe, John Paul II, and St. Faustina Kowalska, the visionary known as the Apostle of Divine Mercy.

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