St Maximilian Kolbe
Maximilian Kolbe (born Raymond Kolbe) was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar, who is best known to the world as the man who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz, located in German-occupied Poland during World War II. He is the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, families, journalists, prisoners, and the pro-life movement.
His story begins on 8 January, 1894 when Raymond Kolbe was born the second son of a poor weaver near Lodz in Poland. In his infancy Raymond seems to have been normally mischievous but one day, after his mother had scolded him for some mischief or other, her words took effect and brought about a radical change in the child's behaviour. Later Raymond explained this change: '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 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.'
In 1907, Raymond and his elder brother entered a junior Franciscan seminary in Lwow. Here he excelled in mathematics and physics - but Raymond had a love of military strategy and saw his future in the army. Before he could tell anyone about his decision his mother announced that, as all their children were now in seminaries, she and her husband intended to enter religious life. Raymond hadn't the heart to upset his parents' plans and so he abandoned his own plans for joining the army. He was received as a novice in September 1910 and with the habit he took the new name of Maximilian. He was ordained in Rome on 28 April 1918.
The love of fighting didn't leave him, but while he was in Rome he stopped seeing the struggle as a military one. He didn't like what he saw of the world, in fact he saw it as downright evil. The fight, he decided, was a spiritual one. The world was bigger than Poland and there were worse slaveries than earthly ones. The fight was still on, but he would not be waging it with the sword. At that time, many Catholics in Europe regarded freemasonry as their chief enemy; and it was against the freemasons that Maximilian Kolbe began to wage war. On 16 October 1917, with six companions, he founded the Crusade of Mary Immaculate (Militia Immaculatae), with the aim of "converting sinners, heretics and schismatics, particularly freemasons, and bringing all men to love Mary Immaculate".
Fr Maximilian's health had already begun to deteriorate. He was by now in an advanced state of tuberculosis, and he felt himself overshadowed by death. His love for Mary Immaculate now became the devouring characteristic of his life. He regarded himself as no more than an instrument of her will, and for her he strove to develop all the good that was in him, and encouraged others to do the same.
Just before the Second World War broke out, Fr Maximilian spoke to his friars about suffering. They must not be afraid, he said, for suffering accepted with love would bring them closer to Mary. All his life, he had dreamed of a martyr's crown, and the time was nearly at hand. After a brief imprisonment followed by release, on 17 February 1941 Maximilian was again arrested and sent to the infamous Pawiak prison in Warsaw, where he was singled out for special ill-treatment. On 28 May, Fr Maximilian was deported from Pawiak to Auschwitz.
There he received his striped convict's garments and was branded with the number 16670. He was put to work immediately carrying blocks of stone for the construction of a crematorium wall. On the last day of May he was assigned with other priests to the Babice section which was under the direction of "Bloody" Krott, an ex-criminal. "These men are layabouts and parisites", said the Commandant to Krott, "get them working." Krott developed a relentless hatred against the Franciscan and gave him heavier tasks than the others. Sometimes others would try to come to his aid but he would not expose them to danger. Always he replied, "Mary gives me strength. All will be well." At this time he wrote to his mother, "Do not worry about me or my health, for the good Lord is everywhere and holds every one of us in his great love."
In order to discourage escapes, Auschwitz had a rule that if a man escaped 10 men would be killed in retaliation. In July 1941 a man from Kolbe's bunker escaped. The other men of the bunker were led out. The 10 men to die were selected, including Franciszek Gajowniczek, imprisoned for helping the Polish Resistance. He couldn't help a cry of anguish. 'My poor wife!' he sobbed. 'My poor children! What will they do?' When he uttered this cry of dismay, Maximilian stepped silently forward, took off his cap, and stood before the commandant and said, 'I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.'
Astounded, the Nazi commandant asked, 'What does this Polish pig want?' Fr Kolbe pointed with his hand to the condemned man repeated 'I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.' The commandant agreed and Fr Kolbe took the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek who returned to the ranks of prisoners.
For two weeks Fr Kolbe endured in the death cell, leading the others in prayer and doing his best to console them as one by one they succumbed to thirst and starvation. After 2 weeks, the commandant decided that Fr Kolbe was taking too long to die, and ordered that he be killed by injection of carbolic acid. Fr Kolbe willing gave his arm up to the executioner to receive the lethal injection.
The heroism of Fr Kolbe went echoing through Auschwiz. In that desert of hatred he had sown love. His reputation spread far and wide, through the Nazi camps and beyond. After the war newspapers all over the world were deluged with articles about this "saint for our times", "saint of progress", "giant of holiness". Biographies were written, and everywhere there were claims of cures being brought about through his intercession. "The life and death of this one man alone," wrote the Polish bishops, "can be proof and witness of the fact that the love of God can overcome the greatest hatred, the greatest injustice, even death itself."
The demands for his beatification became insistent and in August 1947 proceedings started, then on 17 October 1971, Maximilian Kolbe was beatified. Like his master Jesus Christ he had loved his fellow-men to the point of sacrificing his life for them. "Greater love hath no man than this ..." and these were the opening words of the papal decree introducing the process of beatification.
Fr Kolbe's canonisation was not long delayed. It was the Pope from Poland, John Paul II, who had the joy of declaring his compatriot a saint on 10 October 1982. John Paul II declared him "The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century". Due to Padre Kolbe's efforts to promote consecration and entrustment to Mary, he is known as the Apostle of Consecration to Mary. St Maximilian Kolbe's feast day is 14 August, the day before the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady.