The Feast Day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, OFM, Conv. (1894-1941)
As we look back on the events surrounding the Second World War, a time of unprecedented human devastation and unimaginable suffering, we remember the systematic efforts of the evil Nazi regime to annihilate over six million Jews. It was not long after this massive annihilation began that the Nazis extended their efforts to include defiant politicians, educators, and eventually thousands of Christians who, in faith, renounced the new world-order proposed by the Third Reich. Among the countless Christians sent to die in these camps was Franciscan Friar Maximilian Kolbe.
August 14 is the feast of the Martyred Franciscan Conventual Friar, Maximilian Maria Kolbe, born on January 8, 1894 as the second son of Julius Kolbe and Marianne Darowska. He was baptized Raymond, and dedicated by his parents to the Virgin Mary. He grew up in a poor family in Poland at a time when the country was occupied by the Russian Empire. Both of his parents worked very hard to provide for their family. Hoping for the better life that political freedom would provide, Kolbe’s father enlisted to fight for Polish independence in 1914, and his son witnessed the brutality of war, as his own father was hung as a sign of Russian dominance.
At the age of sixteen, he entered the novitiate of the Conventual Franciscan Order and at his first vows one year later, took the name Maximilian. After years of study at both the Gregorian University and the Franciscan Collegio Serafico in Rome, Kolbe was ordained and pursued doctoral studies theology for his ground-breaking work on the Blessed Virgin Mary – a study that would later influence the Second Vatican Council.
He then returned to Poland in 1919, to teach history at the seminary in Crakow, where he remained until 1927. During these years the Friar suffered regularly from bouts of tuberculosis and poor health. This did not stop him, however, from teaching and from founding a popular magazine entitled Knights of the Immaculata. By 1927 the magazine, created to confront religious apathy, had a press run of some 70,000 issues, and their friary could no longer house its publishing works. With the help of a Polish prince, Kolbe acquired a large piece of land and founded a new monastery and large printing factory. From there, the Knights of the Immaculata continued to grow, finding its way to over 750,000 homes each week.
Never full satisfied with his work in Poland, Kolbe left with four friars for Japan in 1930. Penniless and unable to speak Japanese, within one month the Franciscans were printing a Japanese version of the Knights, and by 1936, the weekly circulation grew to some 65,000 copies. While in Japan, Kolbe also founded a monastery and travelled throughout India. By 1936, however, poor health forced him to end his missionary work return to his monastery in Poland.
Fr. Maximilan returned only to face the greatest challenge of his life with the Nazi invasion of Poland. Soon after their arrival, he was arrested by Nazi forces – simply for being a religious leader – and held for several months, while many of his community members were exiled. Upon his release, Kolbe continued to publish the Knights, but now, rather than religious apathy, the Franciscan challenged the new Nazi regime. The German governor responded by shutting down the press, suppressing the congregation, dispersing the brothers, and imprisoning Kolbe.
On May 28, 1941, Kolbe was transferred to Auschwitz and branded as prisoner #16670. Kolbe was assigned to a special work group staffed by priests and supervised by particularly brutal guards. His calm dedication to the faith only brought him the worst jobs available, and harsh beatings. At one point Kolbe is said to have been beaten, lashed, and left for dead if some prisoners had not managed to smuggle him into the camp hospital where he spent his recovery time hearing confessions.
In July 1941, there was a botched escape from the camp. The camp's rule was that if one prisoner escaped, ten died in his place. All day the weak and underfed men from the escaped prisoner's block were made to stand in the sun without food and water. When the escaped prisoner was not found, a prison guard called out the names of ten men who were to die in his place. When prisoner Francis Gajowniczek heard his name called, he cried out, "Have mercy! I have a wife and children." Fr. Maximilian Kolbe moved forward silently. Asked what he wanted, he replied, "I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children." Hesitating a moment in face of this noble gesture, Nazi Commandant Fritsch accepted the replacement. Maximilian and nine others were sent to starve to death in the hunger block.
During those two final weeks, Maximilian led the victims in hymns and prayer. When he became too weak to speak aloud, he whispered his prayers. After two weeks, only four of the ten were still alive. Maximilian alone was completely conscious. The guards needed the space for more prisoners and decided to hasten the deaths with lethal doses of carbolic acid. Maximilian was last. Weak though he was, he raised his arm to receive the injection, triumphantly embracing martyrdom. Fr. Kolbe suffered a painful death, so that another might live. The details were well documented and are known by many because the guard who kept the records was so impressed during Maximilian's two-week ordeal that he logged more detail than was required.
The heroic life of Maximilian Kolbe is a powerful witness of service. Despite, the loss of his father, his own poor health, the forces of religious apathy around him, and the evil Nazi regime, Kolbe spent his life centered on serving others out of love for Jesus Christ and Mary, his mother. A theologian, a great communicator, a generous laborer, a prisoner, Kolbe died at Auschwitz as he had always lived, serving others and giving all that he had for love of God and neighbor. Named a Saint and Martyr by Pope John Paul II on October 10, 1982, Kolbe joins the communion of saints as a model of self-sacrifice, as the patron of political prisoners and as a living testimony to the shining light of Jesus Christ amidst the darkest moments of human history.
Pope Francis at Auschwitz one year ago
As we commemorate the feast of St. Maximlian Kolbe on August 14, we remember Pope Francis' silent visit one year ago on July 29, 2016 in Auschwitz-Birkenau when the Pope wrote in the Book of Honour, “Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty”
That Friday morning, after celebrating Mass privately in the chapel of the archbishopric of Krakow, Pope Francis transferred by car to the city of Oswiecim, whose history is marked principally by the tragic events of the Second World War. In Oswiecim the Nazis built the largest extermination camp in the history of humanity: Auschwitz-Birkenau, where between 1940 and 1945 more than 1,100,000 people were murdered. Today, with more than 45,000 residents, Oswiecim is the centre of many peace initiatives, a meeting-place for people of different nationalities and religions. In 1998 it received from the secretary-general of the United Nations the title of “Peace Advocate”.
During the period in which the camp was active, the Nazis sent to Auschwitz Polish political prisoners in particular, mostly representatives of the country’s cultural élite, a total of 150,000. As time passed they also began to sent prisoners of other nationalities and in spring 1942, there began the mass extermination of Jews. More than one million European Jews and 23,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and tens of thousands of citizens of other nationalities lost their lives there. The martyrs of Auschwitz include the Polish priest St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe (1894-1941), the Carmelite nun of Jewish origin St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein and her Carmelite blood sister, Rosa.
The date of the liberation of Auschwitz, 27 January, was designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations in 2005. After the liberation of the country, on 2 July 1947, the Polish parliament approved the conservation of the site of the concentration camp, instituting the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1979, upon request by Poland, it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Upon arrival at the site of the Auschwitz Conventration Camp, Pope Francis was received by Bishop Román Pindel of Bielsko-Zywiec, and by the mayor of the city. He travelled by car to the entrance of the Museum, where he was awaited by its director. Francis entered the camp on foot through arch at the entrance, and proceeded by electric car to Block 11, possibly the most symbolic place in Auschwitz, which includes the “Death Wall” where the Nazis shot prisoners before moving their bodies to the crematorium. In the autumn of 1943, when the shootings were transferred to the crematorium of Birkenau, the wall of executions was dismantled, but in 1946 the former prisoners of the camp rebuilt it.
Francis paused to pray in silence in Roll Call Square, where prisoners were hanged and where St. Maximilian Kolbe offered his life in exchange for that of another prisoner. At the entrance to Block 11, he was received by the prime minister of Poland, Beata Maria Szydlo, and went on to meet, one by one, ten of the camp’s survivors, the last of whom gave him a candle which he used to light the lamp he had taken as a personal gift to the camp.
After being received at the doors of the “hunger cell”, the location of the martyrdom of St. Maximilian Kolbe, by the Superior General and Provincial of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor Conventual, he entered alone into cell 18 of the underground part of Block 11, where the Polish priest died. Hunger was one of the many forms of death penalty that existed in Auschwitz. The prisoners, chosen from the block or working group from which a prisoner had escaped, were condemned to a slow death in the camp’s hunger cells. There is now a commemorative plaque and a candle, given by St. John Paul II, in the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Upon leaving, the Pope signed the Book of Honour with the following words: “Lord, have mercy on your people, Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty” Franciscus, 29.7.2016.
At 10:30 that morning Pope Francis arrived at the camp of Birkenau, the largest camp in the complex situated in Oswiecim. The Nazis began its construction in autumn 1941, ousting the inhabitants of the village of Brzezinka and destroying their houses. In Birkenau the majority of the extermination structures were built: four crematoria with gas chambers, two provisional gas chambers, and around three hundred barracks to house the prisoners destined for work or condemned to a slow death. There were around 100,000 prisoners in 1944.
Pope Francis travelled alongside the railway by electric car, up to the Monument to the Victims of Nations, inaugurated in 1967 between Crematoria II and III. The monument is a high platform on various levels and the shape of its component elements recalls tombs and gravestones, while the highest symbolizes the chimney of the crematorium. Before the monument there is a series of commemorative slabs with a phrase in the 23 languages used by the prisoners, which reads, “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945”.
Upon arrival at the Monument, Pope Francis was received by the Polish Prime Minister and the museum’s director, in the presence of a thousand people, and walked alongside the commemorative plaques, after which he prayed in silence and set down a lighted candle. At the end he met 25 Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who saved Jews from Nazi persecution. Finally, a rabbi recited Psalm 130 in Hebrew, which was then read in Polish by one of the survivors. At the end of his visit to Birkenau, the Holy Father returned to Krakow.
On his feast day August 14, we pray to St. Maximilian Kolbe: Pray for us. Pray for all those who are imprisoned today because they have publicly professed their faith in Jesus Christ. Pray for the new Christian Martyrs of our day.
Photos courtesy of Osservatore Romano and the Salt and Light archives.