St. Maximilian Kolbe, born near Lodz in Poland and ordained a Franciscan in 1918, had the conviction that the world was going through a time of intense spiritual crisis. As such, Christians, he believed, were called to fight for the world’s salvation through all means of modern communication, both print media and broadcast journalism. He founded a newspaper called the Knights of Mary Immaculate, which spread quickly through Poland and abroad.
In 1927, Maximilian founded a community called the “City of Mary” at Teresin, centered around the Franciscan friary where he resided. This center for evangelization attracted many lay people and became self-supporting by publishing many periodicals and running its ownradio station. In 1930, he went to Japan to study Buddhism and Shintoism, and through the Japanese edition of his newspaper spread the Christian message in a way that was in harmony with Japanese culture. In fact, in Nagasaki, he established a “Garden of the Immaculate,” which miraculously survived the atomic bomb. He also evangelized in Moscow and Malabar but in 1936 was recalled to Poland due to his frail health.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, his Marian community at Teresin became a shelter for thousands of Jewish refugees. In 1941, Nazis discovered Kolbe’s camp and arrested him. Like many Jews, Catholic priests and women religious, the Nazis put him on a train bound for Auschwitz.
In August of that year, the Nazis at that concentration camp were choosing 10 people to die by starvation in an underground bunker. When one of the selected men Franciszek Gajowniczek heard he was selected, he cried out “My wife! My children!” At this point, Kolbe volunteered to take his place. The Nazi commander replied, “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.” The offer was accepted and the friar spent his last days comforting
his fellow prisoners. Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom is praiseworthy. He did what he felt called to do. I would imagine that he bore the conviction that taking the place of a condemned man was God’s particular mission for him at that time. What stands out is that Kolbe acted the way he did because of who he was, or, better, because of who he had become. Kolbe was beatified as Confessor of the Faith in 1971 by Blessed Pope Paul VI. He was canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II who himself lived through the German occupation of Poland) in 1981. Pope John Paul II decided that Kolbe should be recognized as a martyr because the systematic hatred of the Nazi regime was inherently an act of hatred against religious faith, meaning Kolbe’s death equated to martyrdom. Gajowniczek, whose life was spared by Maximilian Kolbe, was present for the canonization. His feast day is celebrated on August 14.
It is this process of growing in holiness, through the practice of virtue, embodied by St. Maximilian Kolbe, which we can all emulate. To do this requires asking for the grace of perseverance to fulfill God’s will for us, the grace to practice virtue in moments of struggle and conflict and the grace of prayer to stay tethered to Jesus. Let us pray for the graces of perseverance, virtue and prayer, so that our “yes” to God’s call to undertake whatever mission we have in life, may always ignite and sustain our love for Jesus, who is the key to God’s plan o f creation and redemption, the ultimate end of all desire, the center of the Christian experience.
Father Comandini is managing editor of The Catholic Spirit