Maximilian Kolbe, Saint For Our Times
By Brother Francis Mary, F. I.
The name Maximilian Kolbe brings to mind a host of organizations and movements that claim him as their special patron – the pro-life movement, volunteers of every kind, journalists, the priesthood and religious life, prisoners, etc. Even as St. Francis has had a universal appeal to all peoples in all ages, so too the Martyr of Charity has an attraction to all men. Pope John Paul II spoke of him as "the Saint of our difficult [20th] century." Moreover, it would seem that Kolbe’s life and writings are the antidote to the prime evils of our times.
The 20th century was characterized by the secularization of the culture – divorcing God and traditional Judeo-Christian morality from everyday life, a spreading of indifferentism to God, and a rejection of objective truth. What one believes and practices is a "personal" matter, period. Never before had a whole Christian nation officially declared itself atheistic. Although the theoretical and enforced atheism of the Communist regime in Russia has crumbled, practical atheism still exists in both the eastern and western world. God and His commandments are ignored by most men.
St. Maximilian, prisoner number 16670 in the hate camp of Auschwitz, had firsthand experience of the devastation caused by men’s rejection of the social reign of Christ the King. Scorning God’s merciful love led to mass genocide in the Nazi and Communist death camps – truly a culture of death, reflected today in abortion, infanticide and involuntary euthanasia.
Saints of St. Maximilian’s caliber are usually born and formed in good, solid Catholic families. His devout parents, Julius and Marianna Dabrowska Kolbe, saw to it that he was baptized the very day he was born, January 8, 1894, in the little village of Zdunska Wola, Poland. Raymond, as he was christened, was the second of three surviving sons. As time went on, it was determined that Francis, the eldest son, would be a priest. But Raymond, with organizational talent and mathematical skill, it was decided would stay home to help with the family business. His parents felt they could not afford to send both of the older boys to school.
Both parents were secular Franciscans, who took seriously their vocation as followers of the Poverello. They lived frugally. Any extra revenue that came, through their hard work and long hours at the weaver’s looms was not spent on luxuries but was used to help the less fortunate. More by example than words, they taught their children the importance of religion and the value of a virtuous life which made for a peaceful and happy home life. They prayed together, and God was literally the center of their lives.
Marianna homeschooled her children in the elementary subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Julius saw to it that his children not only learned their Polish mother tongue, but also love of their country, its past glorious history and culture. Due to their Catholic roots, the Polish nation has ever turned to Mary in good times as well as bad. During years of suppression, it was their shared love and devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa that united the Poles at the foot of the altar of their Black Madonna. Despite all of their efforts, the three powerful neighboring countries who had divided the Polish territory among them, failed to suppress the Polish language and culture. Nor could they extinguish the flame of love for Mary. The Kolbe family, thus, was deeply Marian.
"What Will Become Of Me?"
Raymond’s devotion to Mary, united with a lively, independent nature, did not prevent him from getting into the usual trouble of boys his age. The lively lad could try the patience of his mother who was something of a perfectionist. Once she remarked in exasperation, "Raymond, what’s ever going to become of you?"
After this incident there was a noticeable change in the boy’s behavior. His mother became worried at the boy’s mysterious change. He was more quiet and docile. Upon questioning Raymond, he reluctantly revealed his "secret." The boy told how much her reproach had bothered him. He fled to Mary and begged her, "What will become of me?" The Blessed Virgin took compassion on the miserable boy and appeared to him. She held out to him two crowns; one white, the other red. She asked Raymond which one he would choose; the white signified purity, the red martyrdom. The impetuous youth answered, "I choose both." His life was changed forever by that choice.
When his parents decided only their eldest son would go to school, Raymond never questioned their plans. Fortunately a local pharmacist, Mr. Kotowski, took a personal interest in Raymond. He was looking to the day when Poland would be liberated. This talented youth and others like him, he reasoned, would be the hope of a resurrected Poland. To lead Poland to glory, these leaders would need formal education. He helped Raymond with private tutoring which opened further educational opportunities.
In 1907, during a parish mission in Pabianice conducted by Conventual Franciscans, Fr. Haczela, O.F.M. Conv., made an exciting announcement. His order was opening a high school seminary in Lwow, and they were looking for worthy young men to dedicate their lives to the service of God. Both Francis and Raymond asked the priest to add their names to the list of potential candidates. With their parents’ consent, they entered the minor seminary in Lwow.
Raymond was the most talented in his class, excelling in mathematics and science. He dreamed of some day becoming a great military strategist in fighting for the liberation of Poland. Although he was misunderstood at times as an unrealistic dreamer, his "dreams" had an uncanny way of being realized. (When he was a student in Rome, he amazed his fellow students with plans for a spacecraft driven by jets and rockets which would escape the earth’s gravity, and fly to other planets.)
But above all, Raymond excelled in the science of the saints. Above the altar in the minor seminary chapel in Lwow, there was a painting of the Immaculate Conception before which Raymond was accustomed to pray. On one occasion, prostrate before her image, he received a special grace that was to influence his whole life. Though he did not have least inkling of how this was to be accomplished, in an ecstasy of love, he promised to fight for Our Lady and to ever praise and honor her.
After three years of life in the seminary, the fateful day of decision arrived: he was to ask for admission to the Franciscan novitiate or to leave. All sorts of doubts arose, robbing him of peace of soul. Was not his promise to fight for the Blessed Mother directed toward a military career for the liberation of Poland? Would he not best serve the Queen of Poland by using his God-given talents as a strategist or an engineer?
He took a long, hard look at the religious life he had chosen and decided he had made a mistake. However, providence intervened. On their way to break the news of their decisions to their superior, the brothers were called to the parlor – their mother was there to see them. She had exciting news. Their younger brother, Joseph, had decided to follow Raymond and Francis into the seminary. And that was not all. She and Julius had also decided to dedicate their lives in the service of religion. "Now," she announced with great satisfaction, "the whole family belongs to God!"
How could he now go through with what he was later to see as a temptation of the devil? He literally ran to Father Provincial’s office, asking him to be received in the novitiate. In September, 1910, Raymond was invested in the Franciscan habit and given the name of Maximilian, a young Roman soldier martyred for the Faith. A year later, in the fall of 1912, Friar Maximilian was chosen by his superiors to go to Rome to study philosophy and theology at the International Seraphic College.
Endowed with superior reasoning powers, Kolbe had no difficulty in recognizing the supremacy of faith over reason. The high regard that the Franciscan superiors had of the talented Friar was well founded. Less than three years after his arrival in Rome in the fall of 1912, the twenty-year-old received a doctorate in philosophy, summa cum laude, at the Gregorian University. Four years later, in July of 1919, he received a doctorate in theology at the international Seraphic College of his Order. A year before, on April 28, 1918, Fr. Maximilian was ordained a priest at the church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle. He celebrated his first Mass in the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Fratte at the altar erected on the spot where the Blessed Mother appeared to and converted the Jewish agnostic, Alphonse Ratisbonne, in 1842.
While a student in Rome, his confreres agreed that Friar Maximilian displayed extraordinary talents. Fr. Bondini, one of his professors, humbly admitted, "This boy asks me questions I cannot answer." Another professor went on to say, "He was the most gifted youth with whom I had been in contact during the years I was vice rector. He had a rare natural genius."
While in Rome, Friar Maximilian was painfully aware that the Church and the Franciscan Order were badly in need of renewal. He noticed how frequently zealous young men entered the Order, but in a short period of time, lost their initial zeal for personal holiness and the salvation of souls, settling into a "comfortable," mediocre observance of the Rule or leaving the Order althogether. In this regard he wrote from Rome of his concern to his younger brother, Joseph, who had also entered the Franciscans and took the name of Alphonse:
"The most deadly poison of our times is indifference. Its victims are found not only among worldly people, but in our own ranks as well….And this happens, although the praise of God should know no limits. We finite creatures cannot ever give Him the boundless glory He deserves. Let us strive therefore to praise Him to the greatest extent of our powers…. All that exists has value to the extent that it is related to Him, the Creator of the universe, the Savior of men. If our actions are directed to this God as our final good, He will give us His wisdom and prudence without limit. What a gift! That, dear brother, is the only way to realize our capacity of giving God the greatest glory.
"Life begins to make sense when we recognize and acknowledge God’s infinite goodness and our absolute dependence on Him. Our response will be praise and total love expressed in obedience."
Finally, after much prayer and consultation with his superiors, Kolbe worked out a precise strategy for his future army of militants of Mary. They would be totally consecrated to her to be used as instruments in her hands to win all souls present and to the very end of time. To the promise of victory in this total warfare between the serpent and the Woman as found in the first Book of the Bible – "I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the Woman, between your seed and hers [Jesus]. You will lie in wait for her heel and she will crush your head" (Genesis 3:15) – He would add a corollary to fit our modern age: "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."
On the evening of October 17, 1917, five months before his ordination, Friar Maximilian held the first meeting of the original seven friars, members of the "Militia Immaculatae" or M.I. (Militia of the Immaculata). It was four days after the final apparition of Our Lady at Fatima and the Miracle of the Sun witnessed by 70,000 people and just a few short weeks before the Russian Revolution. It was as if Our Lady of Fatima was preparing her battle plans and weapons (consecration to her Immaculate Heart, penitence, and the Rosary) to ultimately bring down the greatest scourge of the 20th century: atheistic communism, centered in Russia. Ever the military strategist, Friar Maximilian had already found some physical ammunition for this war for souls.
As a Franciscan devoted to the Immaculate Conception, he found in the medal of the Immaculate Conception (popularly known as the Miraculous Medal) an excellent spiritual weapon. The medals became the "bullets" of his army, to be handed them out far and wide.
To make sure that the inspiration Friar Maximilian had in founding the Militia Immaculatae was from the Warrior Queen in her battles against the ancient serpent, he had an infallible test – holy obedience and the cross. Every advance against the enemy he made in establishing the M.I. was stamped by obedience. Every battle won was at the cost of much suffering and trials.
Besides obedience, the second sign indicating God’s will, was suffering or the cross. While in Rome Fr. Maximilian first experienced the ravages of chronic tuberculosis with hemorrhaging and spasms which left him eventually with the use of less than one good lung. Shortly after returning to Poland he was confined to a sanatorium for two years, and it seemed as though he would never be able function as a "productive" member of the Franciscan community. He was too weak to teach or preach and couldn’t spend long hours in the confessional. Physical suffering wasn’t all he endured. While flat on his back with what seemed to be a terminal disease, and unable to carry his portion of the busy life of his fellow friars, Kolbe’s grandiose plans of conquering the world for the Immaculata seemed stymied. He was often misunderstood and ridiculed.
Nonetheless, Kolbe did what he could. He carried on a fruitful apostolate among the patients in one sanatorium, concentrating on the section for university students, most of whom were non-practicing Catholics. They found him challenging and open to dialoguing, which helped to pass the time. Soon, some of the students were being touched by Kolbe’s sincerity and irrefutable logic. They invited him to give a series of lectures on apologetics (on the existence of God and the divinity of Christ). The erudite and masterful philosopher soon caused quite a stir when four notorious free thinkers converted.
Eventually discharged from the sanatorium, Fr. Maximilian wanted to quickly pick up where he had left off, and he asked his superior for permission to publish a periodical, with which he could spread devotion to Our Lady and encourage the growth of the M.I. One can imagine the effect this news had when it got around the community – a periodical to be edited by one who, in all probability, would not live long enough to see its continuation? How was the mortally ill friar to finance such a project? He would bankrupt the province.
Publishing The Knight
In his zeal, Fr. Maximilian remained unmoved and resolute in his plans. All he needed was permission. After that, he would raise the necessary funds. Once the permission was granted, Fr. Maximilian lost no time in getting out the first printing of 5,000. His publication, called The Knight of the Immaculata, had only sixteen pages and was printed on cheap paper. The front page informed the reader: "We do not guarantee regular editions of this publication. We are too poor, but we are not too proud to accept financial assistance." Such simple, direct journalism captivated the readers and they asked for more.
While Fr. Maximilian was happy in the knowledge that he was furthering devotion to Our Lady through the Knight, there was still the balance of a debt to pay for the first printing. He went directly to the altar of Our Lady of the Seven Dolors in the Franciscan church in Krakow, celebrated for its many miracles. He passed his problem on to her for a solution. As he was about to leave, he noticed an envelope on the altar. It was addressed: "To you, O Mother Immaculate." He opened it and found the exact amount necessary to pay the printing bill. The superior allowed him to use it to pay the printer.
After changing printers five times, the young publisher decided to do the printing himself, acquiring an ancient press, which had to be operated manually. It took about 10 days to prepare five thousand copies of the Knight. Two friars were assigned to help him and often their hands were bloodied from the work. As the publication became better known and grew in quality, new subscriptions poured in. When more and better printing equipment arrived, there simply was not enough room for it in the friary at Krakow.
Three years before, the Province had reopened a large friary in Grodno, in northeastern Poland, which was practically empty. The Father Provincial relocated Fr. Kolbe’s printing plant there. He arrived at Grodno on October 20, 1922. By July 1927, the printing shop in Grodno was putting out regularly two monthly magazines: The Knight with a circulation of 60,000; and The Seraphic Flame, a Third Order publication with a circulation of 8,000. By the late twenties, there were 127 brothers assisting Kolbe in the community at Grodno. They worked long, exhausting hours. But he asked no more of them than what he did himself, sickly as he was. Heroism flowed from his total gift of self to the Immaculata, to be used as she best saw fit for the salvation and sanctification of souls. His zeal was catching. How else could one explain the many young men he attracted to the order? Many came under the condition that they be able to work under him. His fixed ideal – the Immaculate Virgin – united the members of his community around the feet of Mary, where they experienced peace and joy through their total commitment.
With ever increasing circulation of the magazine, it was obvious that Grodno was no longer suitable for future development. Once again, Mary intervened. A priest visiting the Grodno friary, knew Prince John Drucki-Lubecki, who owned land near Grodno. As the visitor was leaving, Fr. Maximilian asked the priest if the prince had any other property. To the casual question, the priest replied, "Yes, he has a large tract of land 25 miles from Warsaw."
Near Warsaw! It was all that he was hoping for and near to one of the principal railroad lines! It would allow for almost unlimited expansion! Mary Immaculate would help him to obtain the property even as she inspired him to make the inquiry of the visiting priest. The Knight magazine could reach many more souls in Poland and develop into an international center to send missionaries out throughout the world, thus extending the Queenship of Mary.
The following month, Fr. Maximilian had a statue of the Immaculata placed on the site and petitioned her, "Take into your possession this field and this land, for it is exactly what we want." With some negotiation, Prince Drucki-Lubecki eventually gave him the land. The friary was named Niepokalanow (the City of the Immaculate). In exchange for the substantial donation of land, a small plot in the cemetery of the City of the Immaculate contains the mortal remains of Prince Drucki-Lubecki. (Nearby is the grave of the only other layman buried there, Francis Gajowniczek, for whom Kolbe gave up his life in the death camp.)
In addition to their printing duties, the friars began construction of a simple, barracks-like set of buildings. Gifts of wood came from benefactors and the work progressed rapidly. The interior furnishings were simple and poor – unplaned tables, rough stools. Table utensils were made of tin. Even when bishops and cardinals visited, they followed this outward expression of Franciscan poverty and ate out of the same dishes as the community.
Through prayer, the observance of heroic obedience, rigorous poverty, and hard work carried on in an atmosphere of silence and recollection, religious life flourished. Speed and simplicity of life were also a characteristic at the "City." God’s miser would not allow either money or time be wasted. In this modern, highly competitive world, if a lackadaisical attitude prevailed, souls would be lost to Satan, as the demonic is on the alert to take advantage of every opportunity. There was an unmistakable urgency in Kolbe’s writings and addresses. He repeated often, "As soon as possible, as soon as possible, as soon as possible….The loss of a single soul is a great misfortune."
By 1930, Niepokalanow was well established. The Knight of the Immaculata had reached a circulation of 343,000 copies, and membership in the M.I. was steadily increasing. But the Militia Immaculatae could not be confined only to Poland; it had to be established worldwide and Fr. Maximilian soon focused on the heavily populated and under Christianized Far East. He sought and received approbation from the Japanese bishop for the M.I. to work there. He left for the Far East in February of 1930 and in May he sent a telegram to the City of the Immaculate, "Today we are mailing The Knight magazine in Japanese; we have a print shop. Praise be to the Immaculata!"
Although he was called back to Poland several times for Province meetings, the work in Japan continued. The circulation of the magazine in 1933 reached 50,000. Most of the issues were given away to non-Catholic readers. But Kolbe was not satisfied with this remarkable feat. He wrote from Japan, "We must work not only for Japan: what about China, India, Turkey, the Arab World, and the whole of Africa? All peoples must be led to Christ….Let us abandon ourselves into her Immaculate arms. In this we must put no reservations, and in order to do this we must be of one mind and one heart."
However, ill health continued to harass Fr. Kolbe. One doctor couldn’t understand how he could keep going, to which Fr. Maximilian lifted up the Rosary, which he had been praying and said: "This is what makes it possible."
"I Want To Take His Place."
As the second world war loomed dangerously ahead, the community was dispersed. In his "last testimony" to a select group of friars, Kolbe said he had been given the assurance that "Heaven had been promised him." His revelation was given to the Brothers with some reluctance, to help sustain them during the trying years of German occupation and the cruel Nazi suppression, which he foresaw in the very near future.
Upon the invasion of Poland, Fr. Maximilian was imprisoned twice. The last time the Nazis sent him to the notorious Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. The testimonies of many witnesses in these last painful months of his life are inspiring reading and confirm the title he is given in one of the biographies of the Saint —A Man for Others by Patricia Treece. Fr. Kolbe worked among the prisoners, completely forgetful of self, until one day, a prisoner was found to be missing from Block 14.
As was common practice among the Nazis at Auschwitz, when a prisoner escaped ten men were condemned to die by starvation and dehydration. They would be stripped naked and crammed into a space that would not even allow all ten condemned men to lie down at the same time on the cold cement floor. For three hours, the prisoners from the prison block 14, where the prisoner was missing stood at attention in the blistering hot summer sun waiting for the brutal SS officer, Colonel Fritsch, to choose who would live and who would die.
Finally, after the evening roll call, Colonel Fritsch, accompanied by Palitsch, the recording officer, and a group of well-armed guards approached the line up of men of Block 14. When Fritsch pointed to a man, Palitsch wrote down the victim’s number and he was dragged roughly out of the ranks. When Fritsch pointed out one of the men, tears trickled down the prisoner’s hollow cheeks as he cried out, "Oh…my wife…my poor children….I will never see them again." Fritsch ignored the pleas of the helpless victim.
Suddenly there was a commotion in the ranks. The unexpected, the unbelievable happened. A small, frail prisoner had broken ranks and stepped forward confronting Fritsch. So stunned were the guards at this infringement of the usual protocol that Fritsch himself reached for his pistol.
"Halt!" he gasped. "What do you want?"
Fr. Maximilian looked serenely into the face of Fritsch as the guards moved in. "Please, Herr Commandant, I would like to take the place of that man. I would like to die in his place."
Fritsch demanded, "Who is this man? What is it all about?"
Fr. Kolbe replied, "I am a Catholic priest and I want to take his place. He has a wife and family."
"Are you crazy?" snapped Fritsch.
"I would like to die in his place," the priest repeated. "I’m old, and sick….I can barely work. I’m of no use to anyone anymore. This man is young and strong, and he has a wife and family….I have no one."
Those who witnessed the encounter that pitted the emaciated little Polish priest in tattered prison garb and the arrogant Nazi SS officer in his impeccable, well-tailored uniform, will never forget that day when the inherent human dignity of man, made in the image and likeness of God, was upheld over cruel inhumanity and lack of respect for human life. Fr. Antonio Ricciardi, O.F.M. Conv., the general postulator of Fr. Kolbe’s cause for canonization, summed up the scene well in his book St. Maximilian:
"As they stood there for what seemed an eternity, the total contrast between the two was something those eyewitnesses will never forget. Basically, it was the contrast between the man who rejected God and the man who dared to love Him totally."
Sgt. Francis Gajowniczek’s number was stricken from the list of the condemned. Gajowniczek, husband and father, covered his face with his hands and rejoined the ranks of those passed over, while prisoner 16670 was added to the list of those condemned to death. That evening, as the sun set in a fiery ball, witnesses agreed that they had never seen such a magnificent sunset. The priest, who as a boy was offered the red crown of martyrdom, was about to consummate his last "Mass" in the liturgical red of the martyrs.
The sacrificial death of Father Kolbe, who once said, "Only love is creative," made a great impression on the minds and hearts of the other prisoners. There was so little love of neighbor in that living hell of Auschwitz that no one would think of sharing his meager ration of bread with another prisoner as Kolbe frequently did, let alone give his life up for a total stranger. "Greater love than this no man has, than to give his life for his friend." One of the witnesses states unequivocally that, "the sacrifice of Father Maximilian saved the lives of many of the inmates," for the SS officers, "touched, in spite of themselves, didn’t mistreat or kill as many." Former prisoners of Auschwitz readily agree that from that time on the hardships in the camp were somewhat mitigated.
As the heavy door slammed shut on the condemned, some began to sob. One of the heartless SS jailers sneered, "You will dry up like tulips." The Nazi jailers soon realized, however, that this time things would be different.
Whereas, in the past, howling and curses reverberated from the starvation bunkers like a scene of the damned in hell, this time the condemned prisoners did not curse and tear at each other, but sang and prayed. Soon the condemned in the other cells joined in the singing of hymns to Our Lady. What had formerly been a place of torment and bedlam became a place of divine worship. As if in choir, they answered one another from cell to cell with prayers. A holy saintly priest was with them to share their suffering, to counsel, encourage, and hear their confessions.
The details surrounding his death have been providentially supplied by a Polish prisoner, Borgowiec, who was assigned the grisly task of removing the bodies of those who had died during the night. He reported that even the jailers were amazed at the prayerful atmosphere and remarked, "Never have we seen anything like this." They could not look into the eyes and serene countenance of the little priest and demanded, "Turn your eyes away. Do not look at us that way!"
On the eve of the Assumption, August 14, 1941, there were only four survivors, of whom Fr. Kolbe was the only one conscious. The cell was needed for other victims. Seated in a corner, seeing the executioner approach with a syringe containing the poison that would kill him, with prayers on his lips, he lifted up his left arm. Borgowiec could stand it no longer and fled. When he returned he found Father Maximilian’s body propped up against the wall. His eyes were open and he had a serene expression on his face. What was remarkable was his body radiated the light of glory. It was a confirmation of the assurance of eternal salvation Mary had promised her knight when he was in Japan.
It was providential that Mary’s faithful knight died on the vigil of her Assumption into Heaven, 1941. His body was cremated on the feast, fulfilling a wish that he had made, "I would like to be reduced to ashes for the cause of the Immaculata, and may this dust be carried over the whole world, so that nothing would remain." He was beatified as a confessor by Pope Paul VI on October 17, 1971 and canonized a martyr of charity by Pope John Paul II in a huge gathering in St. Peter’s square on October 10,1982.
St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, the hero of Auschwitz, has captured the imagination and admiration of many. But how few are aware that such heroism was only possible through the grace of God and the woman whom Kolbe loved without limits. St. Maximilian Kolbe sums up the source of his heroism in paraphrasing the great Apostle of the Gentiles, "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me through the Immaculate."
Uncompromising in his total consecration to God through Mary Immaculate he was not only against Freemasons, secular humanists, or any other movement, such as today’s New Age, that did not acknowledge God and give God His due, but was unambiguously out to conquer the world for Christ the King and bring the saving Gospel of Christ to all men. A missionary par excellence, he is a perfect example of what Pope John Paul visualizes the role of all baptized Christians in this age of what he terms the "new evangelization." As the Pope recently pointed out to the Cardinals of the Catholic Church we do not need expert advice or administrative assistance so much as apostolic zeal.
May Kolbe’s example of total consecration to the Immaculata and his practice of evangelical poverty contribute greatly to a similar spiritual renewal of society in our day as that which St. Francis of Assisi effected in the 13th century!