Growing up, history was always my favorite subject in school. I was drawn to read about and learn more about the period around the of WW II, particularly the Holocaust. A very sad and cruel thing the Holocaust was, it somehow struck a chord with me; more so the stories of hundreds and hundreds of courageous men and women whose lives were powerful examples of real heroes.
One man in particular is recognized by the Catholic Church today, on his feast day August 14th. His name is St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan friar; the two great loves of his life were Jesus Christ and Our Lady, Mary the Blessed Mother. Maximilian was born in 1894 to simple family. As a child he was strongly influenced by a dream he had of the Blessed Mother: "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 me 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."
While a student studying in Rome, he witnessed vehement protests against the Pope, and was inspired to organize and create, the Militia Immaculata, or the Army of Mary, to work for conversion of sinners and enemies of the Catholic Church through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. The Immaculata friars utilized the most modern printing and administrative techniques in publishing catechetical and devotional tracts, a daily newspaper with a circulation of 230,000 and a monthly magazine with a circulation of over one million.
In 1919, he returned to the newly independent Poland, where he was very active in promoting the veneration of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, founding and supervising the monastery of near Warsaw, a seminary, a radio station, and several other organizations and publications. Between 1930 and 1936, he took a series of missions to Japan, where he founded a monastery at the outskirts of Nagasaki, a Japanese paper, and a seminary. During the War, Fr. Kolbe provided shelter to some 2,000 Jewish refugees in Poland and openly condemned the Nazi activities on the radio.
February of 1941 Fr. Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned until May 28 when he was transfered to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670. As if the life of this holy priest didn't already scream holiness, his remaining months were a living testament to the words of Jesus, "No one has greater love than to lay down one's life for a friend" (John 15:13). He gave away his meager food portions to other prsioners; he forgave the guards and even heard some of their Confessions. In July 1941, 10 prisoners were selected for death by starvation as punishment for another's escape attempt in Block 13. One such man, Francis Grazonigeck, cried out, "My wife! My children!" Fr. Kolbe stepped forward and took that man's place to die in the starvation cell. In the starvation cell, he celebrated Mass each day for as long as he was able and gave Holy Communion to the prisoners covertly during the course of the day; the bread given to prisoners was unleavened and so could be used in the Eucharist, and sympathetic guards gave him materials, including wine, that he could use. He led the other condemned men in song and prayer. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe and three others remained alive. He encouraged others by telling them that they would soon be with Mary in Heaven. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. When Kolbe was the last survivor, he was killed with an injection of carbolic acid. Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection. His remains were cremated on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary. Pope John Paul II declared St. Maximilian as "The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century"
Fr. Kolbe's is just one of the many stories of what true holiness looks like. His entire life even up to the moment of his death was given for others out of love for Jesus and Mary.
In a special way on his feast day today, may St. Maximilian (and all the saints in Heaven) pray for each of us individually, our lives, and our world.
Dear St. Max, please pray for us all...and thank you for your witness!