On August 14th, on the Vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Church honors a great saint.
This saint lived during the twentieth century and died a martyr during the Holocaust.
He was zealous for the Catholic Faith and had a strong devotion to Our Lady.
He is a hero and someone I believe we should pay close attention to as governments try to remove freedoms and religion from society, and the culture of death continues to spread.
You may already know of this saint, but I still encourage you to read the information below.
This Saint Spotlight is dedicated to: Maximilian Kolbe.
Today is the feast day of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Franciscan martyr. Ora pro nobis.
Born into a poor family in Russian-occupied Poland in 1894, Raymond was his given name [Rajmund in Polish]. It is said he was a mischievous little boy. One day his mother, no longer knowing what to do with him, said to him: My child, what will become of you? He was suddenly afraid and went to pray before a statue of His heavenly Mother—for this was an exceptionally pious family (all of whose living members became religious, including, eventually, the parents). He was transformed that day into a new person, having asked Her to help him correct his faults.
At age 13, Raymond and his elder brother illegally crossed the border so that they could enter the Franciscan Fathers Seminary in the polish city of Lvov, which was at that time occupied by Austria. (His parents separated to enter religious life). There he took the name Maximilian Maria to demonstrate his love and devotion to the Blessed Mother. He traveled to Krakow and Rome, continuing his studies, earning a doctorate in theology. He completed his religious studies in Rome. He was ordained a priest at age 24 on April 28th 1918 on the feast of the Marian apostle, Saint Louis Mary de Montfort.
During his time in Rome, Maximilian witnessed increased opposition to papal authority, and various attacks on the Church from both within and without. Devoted to the Immaculate Conception, he believed that the Church should be more militant in its cooperation with Divine Grace for the advancement of the Catholic Faith. Moved by this devotion and conviction, in 1917 he founded a movement called, “The Militia of the Immaculata” whose purpose would be to fight, through all the morally valid means available, for the building of the Reign of God in the whole world. In his own words, the movement would have “a global vision of catholic life under a new form that consists in a union with the Immaculata.” The means of consecration was accomplished through the Immaculata Prayer, penned by the saint.
They founded a magazine, invoking the special assistance of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux also, and the prodigious growth of this enterprise left those who could not understand its heavenly Sources mystified. Soon the walls were cracking, so to speak, by the arrival of printing presses and, above all, religious vocations. The group of volunteers for the project had to leave, but Our Lady procured for them a terrain, without charge. As a result, The City of the Immaculate was organized, where some 50 low buildings were set up and mobilized for the various facets not only of publishing, but of the Franciscan life of prayer.
Having contracted Tuberculosis as a child, Maximilian was frequently sick as he grew older. His already frail constitution weakened and he was frequently racked by violent headaches and covered with abscesses. He bore his suffering with patient endurance, but could not remain quiet about the approaching war in Europe. He became active as a radio amateur, with Polish call letters SP3RN, vilifying Nazi activities through his reports. The many publications of the Immaculata also spoke out against war and the growing disrespect for human dignity.
When the Germans invaded Poland in September of 1939, Father Kolbe realized that his monastery—like everything else—would soon be taken over. He sent most of the friars home, warning them not to join the underground resistance, but to preserve their lives for God. Niepokalanów was ransacked, including the monastery where he lived, and Maximilian, accompanied by 40 other friars, were transported to a holding camp in Germany, and later to one in Poland. He is remembered as having said at the moment of arrest:
“Courage, my sons. Don’t you see that we are leaving on a mission? They pay our fare in the bargain. What a piece of good luck! The thing to do now is to pray well in order to win as many souls as possible. Let us, then, tell the Blessed Virgin that we are content, and that she can do with us anything she wishes.”
The friars were released and allowed to return to the monastery in December of 1939. Niepokalanów became a refugee camp for thousands of Poles and Jews seeking escape from Nazi persecution. The friars shared everything they had with the refugees and the monastery became a universal shelter of brotherhood. For this reason, Father Kolbe and his friars soon came under suspicion by the Gestapo. Furthermore, German citizenship had been extended to Maximilian—as a journalist, publisher, and intellectual of advanced degree. However, he had declined to accept the offer, which infuriated German authorities and roused their suspicions further. To incriminate him, he was permitted one final printing of the “Knight of Mary Immaculate” in December of 1940. It was in this issue that Father Maximilian wrote:
“The real conflict is inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the catacombs of concentration camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are victories on the battle-field if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”
Two months later, in February 1941, Father Kolbe was again arrested—this time on charges of aiding Jews and participating in the Polish underground which stood in resistance to the Nazi regime. Maximilian was sent to the infamous Pawiak prison in German-occupied Warsaw, and subsequently to Auschwitz. There, he was given the prison number 16670, and was singled out for special ill treatment.
On June 15, 1941, he managed to write a letter to his mother, which was smuggled out of the camp. It read:
“Dear Mama, At the end of the month of May I was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is well in my regard. Be tranquil about me and about my health, because the good God is everywhere and provides for everything with love. It would be well that you do not write to me until you will have received other news from me, because I do not know how long I will stay here. Cordial greetings and kisses, affectionately. Raymond.”
During his time at Auschwitz, Saint Maximilian remained true in his devotion to Our Blessed Mother, doing all that he could to ease the burdens, struggles, and suffering of his fellow prisoners. At night, he moved from bunk to bunk, saying:
“I am a Catholic priest. Can I do anything for you?”
A prisoner later recalled how he and several other men often crawled across the floor at night to be near the bed of Father Kolbe, to make their confessions and ask for consolation. Father Kolbe pleaded with his fellow prisoners to forgive their persecutors and to overcome evil with good. When he was beaten by the guards, he never cried out. Instead, he prayed for his tormentors.At that time, to discourage escapes, the guards at Auschwitz had a rule that if a man escaped (or attempted to escape), ten men would be killed in retaliation. In July 1941, a man from Kolbe’s bunker was believed to have escaped (although it was later discovered that he had drowned in one of the camp latrines). Ten men were selected to die in the most horrific manner—the ten would be placed in a “starvation chamber” where they would suffer without food or drink for two weeks. At the end of that time, if any survived, they would be executed by having carbolic acid injected into their veins.
One of the ten men selected, Franciszek Gajowniczek, sobbed upon being pulled out of formation: “My poor wife. My poor children – what will they do?”
Maximilian stepped silently forward, took off his cap, and standing before the commandant, said:
“I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.”
The Nazi commandant asked, “What does this Polish pig want?”
Father Kolbe pointed with his hand to the condemned Franciszek Gajowniczek and repeated:
“I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”
Mr. Gajowniczek would later recall:
“I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?
I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. The news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.
For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the to the last.”
Father Kolbe, along with the other victims, were left to starve in Building 13. Maximilian Kolbe encouraged the others with prayers, psalms, and meditations on the Passion of Christ. After the two weeks, only four remained alive. The cell was needed for more victims so the camp executioner came in and injected a lethal dose of carbolic acid into the left arm of each of the four dying men. Kolbe was the only one still fully conscious. With a prayer on his lips, the last prisoner raised his arm for the executioner.
Bruno Borgowiec, a fellow prisoner assigned to give services to that bunker, gave a personal testimony about Maximilian Kolbe’s death to his parish priest before he died in 1947:
“The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the center as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men. Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked: ‘this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him.’ Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long. The cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant.”
Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe was 47 years old when he was executed, on the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady. His body was burned in the crematorium on the following day, the Feast of the Assumption. He had stated years earlier:
“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 is one of ten 20th-century martyrs from across the world whose statues stand above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London. After his canonization in 1982 St. Maximilian Kolbe’s feast day was included on 14th August in the General Roman Calendar used of the Roman rite of the Catholic Liturgy (ordinary form). Beatification was by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and at his canonisation by Pope John Paul II in 1982.
- Both of Raymond’s parents were virtuous. His mother formed his early years and led him in the daily recitation of the Angelus, Rosary and Litany of Loreto.
- After being reprimanded by his mother and asking the Blessed Virgin what would become of him, Our Lady appeared to Raymond. She showed him two crowns: one red and one white. The red meant he would be a martyr, and the white meant he would persevere in purity. When asked to choose one, he chose both.
- The name Maximilian means “greatest” and is of Latin origin.
- During religious formation, he left to join the military forces in defense of Poland under Mary’s patronage. He realized this wasn’t God’s plan for him and that his mission was to fight on the spiritual battlefield and save souls.
- Maximilian was a profound theologian. His insights into the Immaculate Conception anticipated the Marian theology of the Second Vatican Council and further developed the Church’s understanding of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces and Advocate for God’s people.
- The Militia Immaculatae, also known as Knights of the Immaculate and MI, was founded by Maximilian one year before his ordination. It is a worldwide evangelization movement that encourages total consecration to Mary as a means of spiritual renewal for individuals and society. The mission is “To Lead Every Individual With Mary to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.” It is now present on five continents and in forty-six nations. It has approximately four million members.
- Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose life was saved, was present when Maximilian Kolbe was beatified and canonized. During a visit to the United States in 1994, he told his translator that “so long as he … has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe.” He died in 1995 at age 93.
- Pope Paul VI called Maximilian the “St. Francis of our times” at his beatification ceremony because of the great love he demonstrated during his life.
- Pope John Paul II canonized Maximilian as a “martyr of charity”.
- In 1979, Pope John Paul II visited St. Maximilian’s death chamber and proclaimed him the “Patron Saint of Our Difficult Age”.
- He’s also the patron of: drug addicts, families, journalists, prisoners, and the pro-life movement.
Saint Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!