What could be darker, more sinister, or more hopeless than the infamous death camps established in Germany and Poland during the reign of terror under Adolf Hitler. We are hard put to imagine any sort of good coming from them. We think only of the inhumane treatment of innocent Jews and Christians; rounded up and summarily exterminated for no other reason than to satisfy the diabolic desires of a tyrannical dictator. Where would God be in such a black hole?
This week we see two shining lights whose witness pierced the darkness of those camps. On August 9th we remembered St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and my blog for that day can be easily found. This Saturday, August 14th, another light shines in the person of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan priest, who was likewise sacrificed at Auschwitz. Two examples in our own times, less than 100 years ago, now speak to us more profoundly than in their own time.
St. Maximilian’s family was poor but deeply religious. The young Raymond, as he was baptized, was known as a mischievous child. At the age of twelve he was granted a vision of the Virgin Mary that changed his life forever. In memory of that vision he wrote:
“I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, and the other red. She asked 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.”
This singular call from Christ through his holy Mother set the direction of Raymond’s life. He eventually entered the Franciscan seminary in Lwow, Poland in 1907. At one point he wanted to abandon the priesthood for a military career but eventually decided otherwise. He became a novice with the Franciscans in September of 1910. At that time he took the name by which we know him, Maximilian.
His devotion to the Mother of God was expressed while still in the seminary when he and six friends founded the Immaculata Movement – the Militia Immaculatae, Crusade of Mary Immaculate. They devoted themselves to the conversion of sinners, opposition to freemasonary (a strongly anti-Catholic movement at the time), spread devotion to the Miraculous Medal and devotion to Mary as a path to Christ. After his ordination, he began publication of a magazine entitled, Knight of the Immaculate to fight religious apathy.
As a missionary, he traveled to Japan and Malabar, India. Within those assignments he founded houses of prayer and monastery’s, one of which still serves today in Japan.
Yet, the rise of Nazi’s in 1939 in Poland saw his arrest but later release. With his Franciscan community in Poland, they housed 3,000 Polish refugees, two-thirds of whom were Jewish, and continued to publish materials considered anti-Nazi. As you can imagine, those presses were shut down, the congregation of brothers dispersed, and Maximilian was imprisoned in 1941.
Here the red crown of martyrdom was begun. In May, 1941 he was transferred to Auschwitz and branded as prisoner 16670. In the face of especially brutal guards he remained calm and dedicated to the faith but this only brought him the worst jobs available and more beatings than any other prisoner. Yet, Maximilian ministered to other prisoners, including conducting Mass and delivering communion using bread and wine smuggled in to the camp.
His death is nothing short of heroic martyrdom. After an escape attempt, by another prisoner, protocol required that ten men be killed in retribution for each escaped prisoner. As Francis Gajowniczek, a married man with children was chosen to die for the escape, Fr. Maximilian offered to take his place. A life sacrificed for another – the ultimate example of Christ on the cross. Maximilian was starved for three weeks in a bunker and eventually poisoned in order to hasten his death.
Courage, trust, faith, love, self-sacrifice, devotion to the Mother of Jesus, humility are all exemplified in this great priest. For myself as priest I could not ask for a more challenging example of dedication. The following quote, I believe, is a reflection on our culture today and a call for all of us to fight apathy:
“The most deadly poison of our times is indifference. And this happened, although the praise of God should know no limits. Let us strive, therefore, to praise Him to the greatest extent of our powers.” St. Maximilian Kolbe
St. Teresa Benedicta and St. Maximilian Kolbe pray for us.
Lead us to model our Lord, Jesus Christ, through the example
of his Mother Mary.