When I was hired to work at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Bishop Barron (then the rector of the seminary) was renovating the St. John Paul II Chapel for the seminarians. He had new stained glass windows of several saints installed in the chapel, one of which was dedicated to St. Maximilian Kolbe. The window depicts Kolbe with a long beard, which he grew while he was a missionary to Japan, as the Japanese identified beards with wisdom. In his hand is a copy of the Rycerz Niepokalanej (Knight of the Immaculate), a monthly magazine that, despite opposition from Nazis and Communists, continues to this day. Above the Polish title is the Japanese title. Kolbe published the magazine in Japanese as part of his missionary efforts in that country. All around Kolbe are images from his life: the red and white crowns that Mary presented him in a childhood vision, the Miraculous Medal, the Icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa, a symbol of the Franciscans, and another of Auschwitz—the place where he voluntarily gave his life for a fellow prisoner. At the bottom of the window is a depiction of that very scene—one of the greatest depictions of radical Christian love. Such a love seemed impossible in the hell that was Auschwitz. But Kolbe’s witness shows the seemingly impossible to be possible, putting to rest our attempts to justify our lack of love and refusals of divine grace.
This brings to mind an insight of the Jesuit priest Henri de Lubac, which is found in his book Further Paradoxes: “One deed alone where the living Gospel asserts itself is sufficient to justify the Gospel for ever.” Maximilian Kolbe made such an act in Auschwitz, baffling some, but strengthening the faith of others. A movie that brilliantly explores this act and its effects is Kryzstof Zannussi’s Life for Life, starring a young Christoph Waltz (the great actor well known for playing the villainous SS Colonel Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds).
The movie begins with a shot of a guard dog attempting to retrieve a stick cast into watery muck. The stick seems to be beyond return, yet the dog delves in and brings it back to its owner. This shot is the main metaphor of the film. As the movie progresses, we understand the dog to represent Kolbe, and the stick to represent Jan, a prisoner at Auschwitz. Christoph Waltz plays Jan, and the following scene is of him escaping from the camp. As a consequence of the escape, the SS deputy commander randomly chose ten prisoners to be starved to death in an underground bunker. When Franciszek Gajowniczek was picked, he shouted, “My wife! My children!” That was enough to prompt Kolbe to take his place, only saying, “I am a Catholic priest.” Kolbe’s act of love shocked everyone in the camp, showing that love is indeed possible, even to the point of sacrificing one’s very life for another. Jan’s decision to escape, while cowardly in that ten people would die as a consequence, seemed natural given the circumstances. However, Kolbe’s supernatural act stood as a witness to a love evil could not conquer.
The movie follows Jan as he tries to evade the Nazis, but what he is really trying to evade is the love of St. Maximilian Kolbe. And no matter how hard he tries, justifications and all, Kolbe’s love cannot be escaped. In the last scene of the movie, Jan is in Philadelphia (which means “brotherly love”), and the only thing he can do is to stop running and recognize and receive the love that saves. I found myself doing the same as Jan, as tears streamed down my face during the movie’s credits. The movie brought to mind Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven”:
I fled Him, down the night and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways;
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
Jan never succeeds in saving himself. Like the stick in the first scene of the movie, he is seemingly beyond return. But like Adam hiding in the garden, the love of God finds him, only asking him to stop fighting and let himself be saved. So it is with all of us. Like Jan, most of us want to be comforted and justified in our self-interest. While Jan was not wrong to flee Auschwitz, he did it knowing the consequences. Ten people would be killed because of him. As almost all of the characters admit to Jan, they would have probably done the same. Yet Kolbe’s witness judges them. Since Kolbe did not identify himself before he was taken to the starvation bunker, people were not certain it was him. But the way he lived his life prior to being sent to the camp was enough to convince people that surely it was Kolbe.
Jan did not personally know Kolbe, but during his hiding, he learned about him from the people who knew Kolbe well. Jan is intrigued but still cannot admit that such a love exists. His cynicism gets the best of him as he attempts to explain away Kolbe’s actions: superstition, power, vanity. Yet those who knew Kolbe knew his love was the real thing. How many of us respond with cynicism like Jan when we encounter or learn about someone truly good? I know I do it. But the only thing I demonstrate is my lack of love and need for divine grace.
I used to show Life for Life every year when I taught a Christian States of Life class. And when I would show my students the film, I would ask them to ponder, like Jan, whether or not the Christian love (agape) Maximilian Kolbe embodied is even possible. If not, end of class, end of the Church. But it is possible under divine grace. Like Jan, the world wants to deny such a love, deeming it to be impossible. Yet such denials cannot silence or forever evade the witness of martyrs like Kolbe. Even the Nazi camp leaders recognized this but refused to receive the offer of grace. And after a long resistance, even Jan receives it. Since love is our task, let us all ask Kolbe to stop our running and hiding from divine love, instead letting it transform us into the saints God calls us to be.