“Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13
That verse certainly comes to mind whenever I think of St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast we celebrate today. So it’s not surprising to read that these were the opening words of the papal decree introducing his beatification. St. Maximilian Kolbe was arrested in Poland in February of 1941, and in May sent to the Auschwitz death camp. As prisoner #16670, he eventually laid down his life for another prisoner on August 14, 1941, at the young age of 47.
When a prisoner escaped late in July of that year, ten men from his barracks were picked to suffer death by starvation as both punishment and deterrent. Fr. Maximilian offered to take the place of one of the men; Franciszek Gajowniczek had let out a cry of pain for his family and this holy priest volunteered to take his place.
What followed were weeks of unimaginable horror, as the men suffered the pains of dehydration and starvation. But this holy man not only offered to be one of the suffering, he ministered to them as well. After three weeks there were only four prisoners left alive. It was on this day in 1941, the day before the Church celebrates the Assumption of St. Maximilian’s beloved Mary, the Immaculata, that Fr. Kolbe and three fellow prisoners were killed with injections of carbolic acid.
By the late 1940’s the cause for Fr. Kolbe’s beatification had begun. He was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and canonized by his fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II in 1982.
For those who know little beyond the story of the horrific and glorious last days of this saint, I would like to share nine things you should know:
1. Mary appeared to him as a boy.
Baptized as Raymund Kolbe, our saint was a normal child and the stories of his childhood don’t have the false patina that Flannery O’Connor said exist in the stories of pious children. Yet there is this one stunning exception. One night in Kolbe’s childhood, Our Lady appeared to him in a dream holding a white crown and a red crown. He later related, “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.” So, yes, St. Maximillian had a normal childhood, but with one tremendous difference that was to define the course of his life.
2. He always wanted to be a soldier.
As a student, the young Raymond excelled in what we now call the STEM areas of study (science, technology, engineering, and math). He also had a passionate interest in all things military. A childhood dream of the priesthood was almost lost for this ardent patriot with a soldier’s heart, as he had hoped for a military career defending his beloved Poland. Complications caused him to abandon these plans and he entered the Franciscan noviate late in 1910 and was ordained in 1918.
His still had a soldier’s heart, but now waged a spiritual war. With several friends a new type of army was founded, the Militia Immaculatae, an army to convert sinners and bring all to love Mary Immaculate.
3. He founded a religious group focused on evangelization.
By the time he was in his early thirties, Fr. Kolbe founded a religious house near Warsaw, Niepokalanów – the City of the Immaculate, from which to expand his evangelization efforts. Starting with a handful of friars, within a decade it grew to house nearly 1,000! He and a handful of his brothers travelled to Japan, where they opened another house in Nagasaki.
4. He was a master of the new media.
Fr. Kolbe was a man of his times and thoroughly modern in his evangelization. The friars’ made use of the most modern printing technology and distribution strategies for their materials, their arsenal in the Militia’s spiritual war. They had started a radio station and Fr. Kolbe even had plans for a movie studio.
5. He has a statue at Westminster Abbey.
St. Maximilian Kolbe is among twenty modern martyrs from across the globe who have been honored with a statue on the façade of Westminster Abbey. This priest who had no greater love than to lay down his life can be seen above the west door of the abbey, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and seventeen others.
6. You can acquire relics of St. Maximilian.
Though St. Maximilian’s body was incinerated at Auschwitz, there are first class relics available for veneration. Years before the saint’s death, a somewhat prescient barber in his community started saving clippings of Fr. Kolbe’s hair and beard. Parishes may obtain a first class relic for public veneration through Niepokalanów. The community can also accommodate requests for second class relics and provide prayer cards with relics.
7. The prisoner whom St. Maximilian saved attended his canonization.
There was one extraordinary man in attendance at St. Maximilian’s canonization: Franciszek Gajowniczek. Though spared the torture of the starvation bunker, Gajowniczek had still suffered greatly. He was in Auschwitz for over five years and his sons did not live to see the day of his release. Those prisoners who had grown so fond of Fr. Kolbe were particularly cruel to Gajowniczek, as they blamed him for the loss of their beloved friend and priest. But he received consolation in 1982, in St. Peter’s Square, when the man who offered his life for Franciszek’s was declared a saint.
8. There are St. Maximilian pilgrimage sites, even in America.
Niepokalanów is still a thriving community. There is even a museum which pilgrims visit in large numbers. If you live in the United States and your travels will not take you abroad, you can still plan a pilgrimage to the National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe at Marytown in Libertyville, Illinois, about thirty miles north of Chicago.
9. The pope declared him the patron saint of the twentieth century.
St. Maximillian is the patron saint of families, prisoners, journalists, political prisoners, drug addicts and the pro-life movement. St. John Paul II declared him to be “the patron saint of our difficult century.” The evils which made the twentieth century so difficult were not left behind as we moved into the twenty-first century.
Let us continue to call upon the intercession of this saint and continue to come to Jesus through his mother, Mary, the Immaculata.