Some Saints of the Church seem to really stand out from the crowd – the crowd of normal and everyday humanity, but also the ‘crowd’ of the blessed in Heaven. Maximilian Kolbe is such a Saint and he occupies a notable place in the history of the Twentieth Century. His death is something of a point of reference for that age, and it is also a contradiction to that era and to the terrible events which came to characterise it. His story is now very well-known but it bears repeating, even if in a brief and simple form here.
It is interesting to note, too, that three of the greatest Saints of the Twentieth Century all came from Poland – Faustina Kowalska, Pope John Paul II, and Maximilian Kolbe.
He was not always called Maximilian – at birth and throughout his earlier years, his name was Raymond (‘Rajmund’ in Polish). He was the son of a weaver and a midwife, one of five sons. Even in childhood he was devoted to the Mother of God and he told the story of something which happened when he was 12, an event which was to become a foundation for all that would follow in his later life. Here is how he himself described it –
“That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then She came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me 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.”
A year later, Rajmund and one of his brothers joined the Conventual Franciscan seminary in Lwow. Three years alter, he was permitted to enter the noviciate and he received his new religious name – Maximilian. He made his final vows as a Franciscan in 1914. By that time, he was already in Rome studying for the doctorate in philosophy which he gained the following year. He went on to earn a doctorate in theology, also.
More importantly for our story here, however, in something which took place in 1915. Along with a few friends, Maximilian formed a group which they called the ‘Militia Immaculatae’ – the Knights (or Army) of the Immaculate. The aim of this group was to encourage consecration to Mary Immaculate. Part of the inspiration for this were events Maximilian had witnessed in Rome – demonstrations organised by Freemasons where they raised the ‘black standard’ showing Saint Michael being trampled by Lucifer, while giving out little pamphlets attacking the Holy Father. Part of the spiritual goal of the new Militia Immaculatae, then, was the conversion of sinners – and especially Freemasons. In fact, this was such an important goal to the young Friar that he amended the prayer given on the Miraculous Medal, so that it read –
‘O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee – and for all those who do not have recourse to Thee, especially the Freemasons, and all those recommended to Thee.’
Maximilian had a great devotion to the Miraculous Medal, named in honour of the Immaculate Conception, and he believed conmpletely in the power of the Woman depicted upon it, distributing all of God’s graces as She chooses. He would give away thousands of these and would say –
“Even though a person be the worst sort, if only he agrees to wear the medal, give it to him…and then pray for him, and at the proper moment strive to bring him closer to his Immaculate Mother, so that he might have recourse to Her in all difficulties and temptations .. This is truly our heavenly weapon, a bullet with which a faithful soldier hits the enemy, i.e. evil, and thus rescues souls.”
He returned to Poland after ordination to the Priesthood and was assigned a teaching role in the seminary at Krakow. However, his health was already deteriorating because of the tuberculosis from which he was suffering and so his teaching role was dotted with long absences. At it’s completion in 1922, he began publication of a new magazine which he called ‘Knight of the Immaculate’, having taken inspiration from the similar French magazine, the ‘Sacred Heart Messenger’. Over the next few years, his publishing operation would grow and it’s spread would reach far and wide. He also travelled to the Far East, where he founded monasteries and began work on localised versions of his magazine, before returning to Poland and starting work on a new radio station.
By this point, all the pieces were in place for what would be the outstanding event of his life. His work had been entirely dedicated to the Immaculate Mother of God and he was using every means at his disposal to bring souls to Her, so that She might lead them to Her Son. He even founded a ‘City of the Immaculate’, called Niepokalanow. He knew perfectly well that the Blessed Virgin is the one most able to lift souls to the heights of sanctity and to bring them closest to Her Divine Son, and his part in all this was to lead those should to Her.
Through the printed media, through radio, by travelling – everything was for Her. He had already given everything – but soon, he would be asked to complete the sacrifice.
The Second World War was underway and Maximilian had remained at the monastery, using it as a hospital to treat the sick and wounded; he also sheltered many refugees including many Jewish people, whose lives were in terrible danger because of the atrocities of the Nazi regime. It was perhaps not surprising that in February 1941, the Nazis closed the monastery and arrested Maximilian and his confreres, sending them first to a local prison before having them transferred to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where he would spend the remaining two and a half months of his life.
In the camp, he continued his priestly role – and particularly by hearing the confessions of the prisoners, many of who would shortly face death one way or another. It is also said that he made Rosaries for the prisoners, using bread dough on pieces of string.
Toward the end of July, there had been a successful escape from the camp; in response to this, the deputy camp commander chose ten other prisoners who would be sent to the bunker and left there to starve to death. Amongst the ten was a man named Franciszek Gajowniczek, a sergeant in the Polish army who had been caught and sent to Auschwitz the previous October. Hearing his name called out, Gajowniczek broke down, calling out the names of his family, whom he feared he would never see again. Watching and listening, Maximilian instantly stepped forward and spoke directly the deputy camp commander –
“I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children”.
Although astonished, the switch was permitted and Gajowniczek stepped back. The chosen ten were taken away.
Staff later reported that in that bunker, Maximilian remained serene, leading his companions in prayer and encouraging them to trust in God and the Blessed Virgin. After two weeks starvation, only Maximilian remained alive and so the gfirard injected him with carbolic acid, and this ended his life. The date was 14 August 1941. He was cremated the following day – the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven.
Maximilian Kolbe was raised to the honours of the Altar and declared a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II, a fellow Pole, on 10 October 1982 – at the same time, he was unofficially declared a ‘Martyr of Charity’ – having given his life freely, as an actor charity. He had already been declared a ‘Confessor’ when beatified by Pope Paul VI eleven years earlier.
Maximilian composed a beautiful prayer of consecration to Mary Immaculate, and it is reproduced here –
O Immaculata, Queen of Heaven and earth, refuge of sinners and our most loving Mother, God has willed to entrust the entire order of mercy to You.
I, (name), a repentant sinner, cast myself at Your feet, humbly imploring You to take me with all that I am and have, wholly to Yourself as Your possession and property. Please make of me, of all my powers of soul and body, of my whole life, death and eternity, whatever most pleases You.
If it pleases You, use all that I am and have without reserve, wholly to accomplish what was said of You: “She will crush your head,” and “You alone have destroyed all heresies in the whole world.” Let me be a fit instrument in Your immaculate and merciful hands for introducing and increasing Your glory to the maximum in all the many strayed and indifferent souls, and thus help extend as far as possible the blessed kingdom of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
For wherever You enter, You obtain the grace of conversion and growth in holiness, since it is through Your hands that all graces come to us from the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
V. Allow me to praise You, O Sacred Virgin.
R. Give me strength against Your enemies.