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Finding Heaven in Hell
Confronting the mystery of evil at the new Kolbean
spirituality center near Auschwitz
|Fr. Kolbe Missionaries residing at their spirituality center between the two death camps at Auschwitz, in the village of Hermeze. From left, Ann O'Donnell (U.S.), Paola de Falco (Italy), Barbara Jrzadziel (Poland), Ercolina Antoni (Italy).
||St. Maximilian Kolbe spirituality and retreat center complex. Left, parish Church of the Immaculata; center, Conventual Franciscan friary; right, House of the Immaculata convent and spirituality center.
by Ann O'Donnell
Fr. Kolbe Missionary of the Immaculata
On the main wall of Block 11, at Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland, rests a very simple granite plaque. The two words surmounting the plaque read Homo HominiMan for Men. Outlining the bottom is a line-up of skeletal men with one man coming forth from the lineup.
The main body of the plaque shows a devouring pit filled with corpsesas one would imagine a scene from Dante's Inferno. From the pit's sides additional corpses are being dumped down crude chutes into the sea of dead. Yet, from this scene emerges tall and erect, like a lighthouse from a turbulent sea, one man who dominates everything behind him . . . Conventual Franciscan Friar, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe.
This plaque commemorates the heroic Christ-like total offering of Fr. Kolbe for prisoner Franciszek Gajowniczek in late July 1941. From that moment on Fr. Kolbe has become known worldwide as a Man for Others.
In my two years of living between the infamous factories of deathAuschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau)I find only one phrase in our English vocabulary to describe what went on here: "Hell on earth." As Carlo Cardinal Martini of Milan told his young priests whom he led to Auschwitz on pilgrimage in 1997, "To go to Auschwitz is, in a way, to remember the Nazi terror, the extermination of Jews, the murder of many others and it is like descending into Hell and into the mystery of evil."
So how does one today read this page of historyof this "hell on earth"without fostering sentiments of hatred toward the Nazis? How does one feel a sense of hope and light in the depths of darkness of man's evil actions? We may even ask ourselves, yes, how can I do likewise in those situations of life that may seem a "living hell"?
A fundamental teaching of the Church, echoed by our Holy Father in his July 29, 1999, general address, is that Hell is a definitive state. Hell is eternal where man totally rejects the mercy of God the Father throughout life and even in the last moment of life. This teaching hinges upon the doctrine that man, created in the image and likeness of God, is endowed with free will: the power to choose good or reject good, to respond to God's everlasting merciful love and to love one's neighbor or reject them.
It is important to place Auschwitz rightfully in the temporal order and to recall to mind that what is eternal is the soul of man in Auschwitz. I would like three ex-prisoners, who are living today, to speak to us about this.
PANI ZOFIA, who presently lives in Oswiecim, the city from which the Nazis took the name for the camp, was imprisoned in Birkenau in her early twenties for helping with the resistance movement. She has shared with our community of Missionaries that every prisoner had to make a fundamental decision.
Would they succumb to the Nazi system of depersonalizationprisoners becoming only a number, the constant abusive treatment, the pitting of prisoners against prisonersor maintain one's identity as a human being by continual conscious choices? Some of these choices: not to steal bread from another prisoner even if you were starving, not to take the shoes of another when your feet were frost-bitten. She chose to repeat to herself, "I am a human being, a person." In so doing, and through solidarity with others, she resisted the logic of the camp that reduced many to animalistic behavior.
ELISA SPRINGER, a beautiful young Jewish woman from Vienna, was betrayed while hiding in Italy and deported to Birkenau at the age of twenty-seven. She has written an autobiography of her experience, The Silence of the Living. She concludes her writings with the following reflection:
"I, Elisa Springer, I saw God; in the smoke of Birkenau, that raised to the heavens the suffering of the world and spread upon the land the sour odor of suffering.
I saw God, beaten and scourged, submerged in the mud, bent over, digging in the depths of the earth, with his hands turned towards the heavens.
Then, I lost Him, wrapped in the darkness of hate and indifference, by the death of the world, by the loneliness of man and in the nightmare that fell upon Auschwitz.
I lost Him . . . together with my name, becoming a number burnt in my flesh, written on the heart with the ink of evil and carved in my mind by the weight of my tears.
I once again found God . . . as I drove my fears beyond the confines of evil and He restored me to life with a new hope.
I WAS ALIVE IN THAT WORLD OF DEATH.
GOD WAS THERE, WHERE HE GATHERED UP MY MISERY AND HE RAISED UP THE VEIL OF MY DARKNESS.
HE WAS THERE, IMMENSE AND DEFEATED, BY MY TEARS."
MARION KOLODZIEJ, at the tender age of seventeen, was in the very first transport into Auschwitz and survived five years of the camps. He has immortalized his experience in what are called "Plates of Memory." This exhibition rests in the basement of the Church of the Immaculata in Hermeze where my institute, along with the Friars of the Province of Krakow, are constructing the St. Maximilian Kolbe Center for the spread of Kolbean spirituality and the assistance of pilgrims. I would like to describe two of his works.
In the first is a scene where prisoners surround a primitive scale made out of a stick on which they weigh the daily rationing of bread, even dividing up the crumbs. Marion says this was the prisoner's way of an internal justice.
But Marion says that this scale was constantly present as he would weigh up good and evil, and then choose. He exhorts all of us to have our own scale on which to weigh values. He has written, "From what I went through, I learned and taught myself to livehonestly and worthily, to have a conscience."
The second scene is Fr. Kolbe in the starvation cell. Propped up in a corner with the other prisoners leaning upon him, Marion designs in Kolbe's ribs the rosary. And above Kolbe and the other nine men is Christ crucified, bent over them in the form of an umbrella roof upon which weighs all the evil of Auschwitz.
Christ asks us to pick up our cross and to follow him, who carries the weight of all sin. Christ suffers, dies, and rises with us.
Yes, Marion says, you could hear prisoners run through the camp screaming, "Where is God?" In his plates he shows Christ suffering the exact suffering of the prisoner: Christ hanging from the posting polls, Christ imprisoned in the standing cells, Christ bound and tied by barbed wire.
The theme for this Great Jubilee Year is "The Word became Flesh and dwells among us." No one, Lord, took your life. For all eternity, in communion with the Father, you decided to love this world and to modulate your infinite love in the circumstances prepared for you by mankind.
Your response to the evil in the world was not one of violence or bitter criticism, indifference or distancing, complaining or passivity. You gave all for the life of the world (Jn 1:29). THE WAY OF THE CROSS IS YOUR RESPONSE TO THE EVIL IN THE WORLD.
Yes, in the fire and darkness of Auschwitz, shining lights of heroic choices for good and evil explodefrom a shared piece of bread, the protection of the weaker prisoners by those more healthy, countless mothers who chose to not abandon their children alone to the gas chambers. And also that "mighty explosion of light in the dark camp night," as one prisoner wrote, when Fr. Maximilian Kolbe freely offered up his life for another, and let us be honest, for you and me and for all the members of the MI throughout the world. Include, also, our newly canonized St. Edith Stein, Blessed Titus Brandsma, joined by the Beatified 108 Polish martyrs of World War II and countless other brothers and sisters of the camps who rise from the hell hole of Auschwitz in glory.
When all the system of Auschwitz was set to exterminate, to destroy, to dominate, Christ once more descended from heaven to mount the cross of Calvary, that the Father may be glorified by all who united themselves to Him
And we too, every time we choose good over evil, choose to forgive, choose love over hatred, we will rise. Then, indeed crosses will become for us the rungs that lead upward towards resurrection and ultimate happiness in heaven.
OUTPOST AT AUSCHWITZ
In the centenary year of St. Maximilian Kolbe's birth, 1994, the Conventual Franciscan Order asked that there be a presence in Poland of the Fr. Kolbe Missionaries. The idea was to spread further Maximilian's memory and spirituality in the land of his birth.
Choosing the Missionaries for this work was most fitting. They are a secular institute founded in 1954 in Italy, and given pontifical approval in 1992. Their charism is living out the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the ordinary conditions of the world, while promoting the spirituality of St. Maximilian Kolbe, particularly through Marian consecration.
The Missionaries responded to the Order's request by sending institute members to Hermeze, the village near the very gates of the Auschwitz death camp, in October 1994. They immediately, and with great difficulty, began to construct a Kolbean spirituality and retreat center for the many pilgrims who come to Auschwitz.
Funds are still needed to complete this great work. If you would like more information, contact the Fr. Kolbe Missionaries, 531 E. Merced Ave., West Covina, CA 91790, 626-917-0040.
The Evolution of the MI
From private movement to public association
by Daniel Gallio
Past Immaculata editor
It has been an eighty-year process for the MI to merit being proclaimed by the Church an "international public association." It is one of only three lay organizations to achieve this elevated status. (The others are Catholic Action and Society of St. Egidio.) Here are the significant milestones along the way.
Private Inspiration to Pious Union
The MI was founded in Rome by Friar Maximilian Kolbe in October 1917, with the approval of his seminary rector and the minister general of the Conventual Franciscan Order. The MI was then considered a private association with no formal approval, or "erection," by the Church, and thus did not have canonical standing.
Pope Benedict XV felt highly enough of the MI to bless it twice, in March and April 1919, at the request of Archbishop D. Jaquet and the Conventual Franciscan vicar general. At this point the members of the MI carried out their work in their own name, since this was still a spiritual, not a juridical, acknowledgment.
Then in January 1922, the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Basilio Pompilii, canonically erected the MI as a "Pious Union." He did this in the name of Benedict XV at the request of members of the Conventual Franciscan Seraphic College in Rome. Now the members worked in the name of the MI, though it was still considered a private association, but with formal Church supervision by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome. It then had canonical standing as a "juridical person."
Soon after, and not coincidentally, the MI grew tremendously, beyond the boundaries of Rome. In Poland, membership grew to 70,000. The circulation of the Polish Knight of the Immaculata magazine expanded as well, reaching 50,000 copies per month.
Impressed with these developments, Pope Pius XI, in October 1926, granted special indulgences to new enrollees of the MI and to individual members at the hour of death.
"Indirect" Approval of Statutes
The next step in the MI's erection as a public association came in April 1927. At the request of the procurator general of the Conventual Franciscans, Pius XI raised the status of the MI to that of a "Primary Pious Union." It now had the authority to affiliate other pious unions to itself and to grant its own indulgences to them.
Almost fifty years went by until the next ecclesial evolution of the MI. In November 1975, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, which has authority over all lay associations, approved the General Statutes of the MI. This declaration gave "indirect" approval of the MI as a "public" association, the most esteemed level a lay organization can obtain. At that point the Holy See itself, began to exercise jurisdiction over the MI, removing it from the authority of the Vicariate of Rome, under which the MI was first placed in 1922.
The Pontifical Council renewed this approval of the statutes in December 1980, but declared them "experimental," contingent on their conformity with the upcoming New Code of Canon Law, which was promulgated in 1983.
Time of Reflection and Change
The years 1980 through 1997 were a time of reflection and debate among the international leadership of the MI. How should the MI adapt itself to a rapidly changing Church and world to be a more effective force for worldwide evangelization? With St. Maximilian's canonization in 1982, how should the movement best utilize this blessed event to make its patron and his work more well known? How should the MI renew and restructure itself to conform to the revised Code of Canon Law?
There were other important matters that MI leaders had to consider during these years, such as collecting and publishing the complete writings of St. Maximilian from the Polish into a "critical edition" to be used for scholarly work. Also during this time, the international president of the MI, Fr. Alfonso Zincarini, OFM CONV., suddenly passed away.
All of these factors led to the postponement of the revision of the international governing statutes.
In 1995, with the election of a new international president, Fr. Eugenio Galignano, OFM CONV., updating the statutes and petitioning the Holy See for international public association status took on a new priority. Under his leadership, the statutes have been revised to accommodate canon law, which permitted them to be formally approved on October 16, 1997, by the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
This approval was the final criterion for the MI to be "directly" declared an international public association on that same date.
The MI: A New Explosion?
Christ assured us that through the Holy Spirit he will continue to manifest his presence in his Body, the Church, and "greater works than these shall you do" (Jn 14:12). Recall when Peter made the decision as head of the Church to stand up among a hostile crowd and testify to the Gospel. The Church exploded in membership and influence (Acts 2:14). One could say that there are supernatural ramifications to ecclesiastical decisions; they are not human decisions alone.
Notice the result when the Vatican formally elevated the MI to a Pious Union in 1922. Membership exploded and the movement's influence became international. It seems that the MI was granted, as was the infant Church, a new infusion of grace for evangelization and self-renewal.
The MI has been given a new title and elevated again to one of the highest categories of Church recognition. Should we not expect the Holy Spirit to call the MI to an even greater level of active evangelization in this new millennium? Should we not expect Our Lord and the Immaculata, Spouse of the Spirit and our "Universal Mediatrix," to respond again with an outpouring of grace to empower the MI to far surpass what it has previously accomplished?
But, as the classic Catholic axiom tells us, "grace works upon nature." The MI as a movement, and each and every member, must be prepared in every way to respond to the call, and to the responsibility that call entails.
For, "to whom much is given, much will be expected" (Lk 12:48).
"What's In a Name?"
The "MI"A Multitude of Meanings
by Michael Wick
Past MI national vice-president
William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, "What's in a name?" This same question has been asked by the MI national board for the past several years.
At the crossroads of the new millennium, MI leaders have been candidly reviewing the Movement's history, sharing personal experiences and discerning what may be the best, most effective title for the MI in the United States.
At first glance, it may appear to be simple to just translate the Latin militia into English. This would render the MI's name to be "army" or "troops" of the Immaculata. For some, this translation is too harsh and militaristic for our times, especially among youth and in certain parts of the country. It smacks of hatred, especially since the word "militia" has violent overtones in light of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and other extremist activities.
Should we then return to "Knights of the Immaculata," a title still used by some MIs in the US and within certain circles of the Movement, such as the Knights at the Foot of the Cross? It certainly reflects St. Maximilian's notion of gallant generosity within total consecration. Yet "Knights" seems to imply a men-only group, and may not express the fullness of the membership.
Perhaps "Crusade of the Immaculata" might suffice, as the Movement is known in England. But the Crusades have a mixed meaning for some, given that the Pope has publicly apologized for excesses such as the sack of Jerusalem and other notable abuses.
So where do we go from here? What name best manifests the fullness of the MI's identity and purpose?
Insight of the Statutes
As the MI National Board met last October, attempting once again to tackle this difficult issue, they turned to the international MI statutes for guidance. This Vatican-approved document reads: "According to the thought of the Founder, [the Militia Immaculatae] can assume various names depending on different cultural and environmental exigencies, but consistently keeping the international abbreviation sign MI" (art. 1).
Rather than giving a definitive answer, the statutes seem to direct us back onto the circular highway we had been traveling for years. Or do they? Perhaps they offer a wealth of insight to illuminate our minds and hearts.
The statutes clearly acknowledge the need to be sensitive to the times. They also allow the name of the MI to be changed to respond to "cultural and environmental exigencies." Yet, the statutes also mandate that whatever title or translation is chosen, the Movement must always retain the initials "MI" as an international sign. This ensures that the Movement remains united and grafted to what was founded by St. Maximilian and his six confreres on October 16, 1917.
And so, as the Board discussed possible options in light of the above directive, a multitude of meanings for "MI" emerged. These meanings manifest the richness of the Kolbean heritage and can provide powerful inspiration to the nearly four million members in forty-six nations and six continents worldwide.
Conversion and Sanctification
For some Board members, highlighting the aspect of spiritual warfare is absolutely critical. Rooted in Sacred Scripture and the tradition of the Church, this militant (not militaristic) notion is key to understanding our call as MIs to engage with Mary in the battle for souls. Echoing the words of St. Paul, and reminding us of the cosmic battle prefigured in Genesis 3:15 and prophesied in Revelation 12, MIs are called to employ various tactics, above all prayer, to engage with the enemy. And so, within this context, Militia of the Immaculata may be quite appropriate.
Others proposed that the initials "MI" best reflect the missionary aspect of Marian consecration. The notion of Mission of the Immaculata permeates the international statutes and the writings of St. Maximilian. Through our total consecration, MIs are called to share in the mission of the Churchthe conversion and sanctification of all peoples. The specified "fronts of action" are oneself, one's surroundings and the entire world (art. 10). In fact, as part of an international public association of the faithful, MI members "make their own the mission of the Church: `to bear the Gospel of Christ as a source of hope for all and a source of renewal for the society'" (art. 11).
Seeking a more contemporary understanding, one board member suggested that the MI might best be expressed as Ministry of the Immaculata. Those involved in active ministry within the Churchclergy, religious and laymay find this concept easy to comprehend. And the statutes do affirm this notion, by indicating that each of us is called to "a responsible and dynamic acceptance of the state of conformation to [Mary], in order to grow in the spirit of faith and service" (art. 8). In particular, the types of apostolic service encouraged are involvement in the field of evangelization, on the level of charity and the areas of the mass media (art. 18). In this way, MIs can serve as leaven within society by bringing to it the maternal presence of Mary Immaculate.
The MI may be amply described as the Movement of the Immaculata, since it is directed toward somethingeternal life with God. On this pilgrimage of faith, Our Lady accompanies us and serves as a guide to our ultimate destination. Mary is never an end in herself, but a means to deepen our union with Christ. The Immaculata, who is our model of holiness, is the example par excellence, "in whom the Church `joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, what she, as a whole, wishes and hopes to be'" (art. 4).
On a more profound level, it may be suggested that MI stands for Mystery of the Immaculata. For the statutes do state that members should "recognize in the mystery of her Immaculate Conception the focal point of their spirituality, theology and apostolate" (art. 2). The statutes also remind us that "the specific nature of the MI consists in promoting the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, namely: "`to sow this truth in the hearts of all . . . and to take care of its growth and the fruits of sanctification,' contributing to the Christian formation of consciences and to the new evangelization" (art. 13).
Preparing for Martyrdom?
Following the footsteps of St. Maximilian Kolbe, MI could easily stand for Martyrs of the Immaculata. As our Martyr of Charity did heroically during his earthly life, MIs are called "to communicate love for the Immaculata by their witness in the various spheres of social activity, permeating every human reality with evangelical spirit" (art. 14). Besides, Pope John Paul II calls martyrdom "a sign of the truth of Christian love, ageless but especially powerful today." In his papal bull introducing the Great Jubilee Year, the Holy Father reminds us that "the believer who has seriously pondered his Christian vocation, including what Revelation has to say about the possibility of martyrdom, cannot exclude it from his own life's horizon" (Mystery of the Incarnation, no. 13).
Should not all MIs take this challenge to heart?
Ultimately, the fullest meaning of the MI is found in a personMary Immaculate. She, who is the "gift of the Redeemer," helps us to live our baptismal consecration more completely "in order to reach a more perfect union with Christ" (art. 5). And as members of the MI, we are called to live a unique interpersonal relationship with Our Lady. St. Maximilian Kolbe considered it so intimate that he understood it as a "transformation in her" and a "becoming her."
No One Meaning
"What's in a name?" you might ask again. As we have seen, "MI" is packed with profound meaning. Defined by Father Kolbe himself as "a global vision of Catholic life," this movement "essentially intends to promote the Reign of Christ in the world through the action of the Immaculata, encouraging all Christiansthe laity, religious and contemplativesto place themselves at her service in the mission that she has as Mother of the Church" (art. 3).
We would do well meditating upon how we, her consecrated children, are striving to fulfill this call at the dawn of the new millennium.