Saint Maximilian Kolbe
Maximilian (Raymond) Kolbe was born on 7 January 1894 in Zdunska-Wola, near Lodz, in Poland. His parents, both Franciscan lay tertiaries, worked at home as weavers. His father, Julius, later ran a religious book store, then enlisted in the army of Pilsudski, fought for Polish independence from Russia, and was hanged by the Russians as a traitor in 1914. His mother, Marianne Dabrowska, later became a Benedictine nun. His brother Alphonse became a priest. Raymond was known as a mischievous child, sometimes considered wild, and a trial to his parents. However, in 1906 at Pabianice, at age twelve and around the time of his first Communion, he received a vision of the Virgin Mary that changed his life. ‘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’.
He entered the Franciscan junior seminary in Lwow, Poland in 1907 where he excelled in mathematics and physics. On 4 September 1910 he became a novice in the Conventual Franciscan Order at age 16. He took the name Maximilian, made his first vows on 5 September 1911, his final vows on 1 November 1914. He studied philosophy at the Jesuit Gregorian College in Rome from 1912 to 1915, and theology at the Franciscan Collegio Serafico in Rome from 1915 to 1919. On 16 October 1917, while still in seminary, he and six friends founded the Immaculata Movement (Militia Immaculatae, Crusade of Mary Immaculate) devoted to the conversion of sinners, opposition to freemasonry (which was extremely anti-Catholic at the time), spread of the Miraculous Medal (which they wore as their habit), and devotion to Our Lady and the path to Christ. Ordained on 28 April 1918 in Rome at age 24, and received his Doctor of Theology on 22 July 1922.
Maximilian returned to Poland on 29 July 1919 to teach history in the Krakow seminary. He had to take a medical leave from 10 August 1920 to 28 April 1921 to be treated for tuberculosis at the hospital at Zakpane in the Tatra Mountains. In January 1922 he began publication of the magazine Knight of the Immaculate to fight religious apathy; by 1927 the magazine had a press run of 70,000 issues. (At its peak the Knight of the Immaculate had a press run of 750,000 copies a month.)The friaries from which he had worked were not large enough for his work, and in 1927 Polish Prince Jan Drucko-Lubecki gave him land at Teresin near Warsaw. There he founded a new monastery of Niepokalanow, the City of the Immaculate, which was consecrated on 8 December 1927. A junior seminary was started on the grounds in 1929. In 1935 the house began printing a daily Catholic newspaper, The Little Daily, with a press run of 137,000 on work days, and 225,000 on Sundays and holy days.
Not content with his work in Poland, Maximilian and four brothers left for Japan in 1930. Within a month of their arrival, penniless and knowing no Japanese, Maximilian was printing a Japanese version of the Knight; the magazine, Seibo no Kishi, grew to a circulation of 65,000 by 1936. In 1931 he founded a monastery in Nagasaki, Japan comparable to Niepokalanow. It survived the war, including the nuclear bombing, and serves today as a center of Franciscan work in Japan.
In mid-1932 he left Japan for Malabar, India where he founded a third Niepokalanow house. However, due to a lack of manpower, it did not survive.
Poor health forced him to curtail his missionary work and return to Poland in 1936. On 8 December 1938 the monastery started its own radio station. By 1939 the monastery housed a religious community of nearly 800 men, the largest in the world in its day, and was completely self-sufficient including medical facilities and a fire brigade staffed by the religious brothers.
Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, he was arrested with several of his brothers on 19 September 1939. Others at the monastery were briefly exiled, but the prisoners were released on 8 December 1939, and the men returned to their work. Back at Niepokalanow he continued his priestly ministry, The brothers housed 3,000Polish refugees, two-thirds of whom were Jewish, and continued their publication work, including materials considered anti-Nazi in nature. For this work the presses were shut down, the congregation suppressed, the brothers dispersed, and Maximilian was imprisoned in Pawiak prison, Warsaw, Poland on 17 February 1941. On 28 May 1941 he was transferred to Auschwitz and branded as prisoner 16670. He was assigned to a special work group staffed by priests and supervised by especially vicious and abusive guards. His calm dedication to the faith brought him the worst jobs available, and more beatings than anyone else. At one point he was beaten, lashed, and left for dead. The prisoners managed to smuggle him into the camp hospital where he spent his recovery time hearing confessions. When he returned to the camp, Maximilian ministered to other prisoners, including conducting Mass and delivering communion using smuggled bread and wine.
Prisoners at Auschwitz were slowly and systematically starved, and their pitiful rations were barely enough to sustain a child: one cup of imitation coffee in the morning, and weak soup and half a loaf of bread after work. When food was brought, everyone struggled to get his place and be sure of a portion. Father Maximilian Kolbe however, stood aside in spite of the ravages of starvation, and frequently there would be none left for him. At other times he shared his meager ration of soup or bread with others. In the harshness of the slaughterhouse Father Kolbe maintained the gentleness of Christ. At night he seldom would lie down to rest. He moved from bunk to bunk, saying: "I am a Catholic priest. Can I do anything for you?" A prisoner later recalled how he and several others often crawled across the floor at night to be near the bed of Father Kolbe, to make their confessions and ask for consolation. Father Kolbe pleaded with his fellow prisoners to forgive their persecutors and to overcome evil with good. When he was beaten by the guards, he never cried out. Instead, he prayed for his tormentors. A Protestant doctor who treated the patients in Block 12 later recalled how Father Kolbe waited until all the others had been treated before asking for help. He constantly sacrificed himself for the others.
In July 1941 there was an escape from the camp. Camp protocol, designed to make the prisoners guard each other, required that ten men be slaughtered in retribution for each escaped prisoner. Francis Gajowniczek, a married man with young children was chosen to die for the escape. At that moment Maximilian stepped forward. Fritz (the camp commandant) bellowed, "What does this Polish pig want?" The reply came: "I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children." A witness recalls: "From astonishment, the commandant appeared unable to speak. After a moment, he gave a sign with his hand. He spoke but one word: 'Away!' Gajowniczek received the command to return to the row he had just left. In this manner, Father Maximilian took the place of the condemned man." He was then sent to the starvation chamber.
A personal testimony about the way Maximilian Kolbe met death is given by Bruno Borgowiec, one of the few Poles who were assigned to render service to the starvation bunker. He told it to his parish priest before he died in 1947: 'The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.
Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him ..
Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long. The cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant ..'
So it was that Father Maximilian Kolbe was executed on 14 August, 1941 at the age of forty-seven years, a martyr of charity. The death certificate, as always made out with German precision, indicated the hour of death 12.30.
The heroism of Father Kolbe went echoing through Auschwitz. In that desert of hatred he had sown love. A survivor Jozef Stemler later recalled: "In the midst of a brutalization of thought, feeling and words such as had never before been known, man indeed became a ravening wolf in his relations with other men. And into this state of affairs came the heroic self-sacrifice of Father Kolbe.' Another survivor Jerzy Bielecki declared that Father Kolbe's death was 'a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength ... It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp."
Father Kolbe's incredible deed is an inspiration for all mankind. His life serves as eulogy to the millions who perished in World War II. He did not leave his legacy as an ode to the past - rather as a beacon of hope to the future ...
Also Known As
Apostle of Consecration to Mary
Massimiliano Maria Kolbe
Maximilian Mary Kolbe
7 January 1894
Zdunska Wola, Poland as Raymond Kolbe
14 August 1941 by lethal carbonic acid injection after three weeks of starvation and dehydration at the Auschwitz, Poland death camp and body burned in the ovens and ashes scattered
30 January 1969 by Pope Paul VI
17 October 1971 by Pope Paul VI (His beatification miracles include the July 1948 cure of intestinal tuberculosis of Angela Testoni, and August 1950 cure of calcification of the arteries/sclerosis of Francis Ranier)
10 October 1982 by Pope John Paul II (declared a martyr of charity)
against drug addiction
Courage, my sons, Don’t you see that we are leaving on a mission? They pay our fare in the bargain. What a piece of good luck! The thing to do now is to pray well in order to win as many souls as possible. Let us, then, tell the Blessed Virgin that we are content, and that she can do with us anything she wishes. - Saint Maximilian Kolbe
The most deadly poison of our times is indifference. And this happens, although the praise of God should know no limits. Let us strive, therefore, to praise Him to the greatest extent of our powers. - Saint Maximilian Kolbe
For Jesus Christ I am prepared to suffer still more. - Saint Maximilian Kolbe
No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves? - Saint Maximilian Kolbe in the last issue of the Knight Immaculate
“The real conflict is inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hetacombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are victories on the battle-field if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?” – Kolbe, February 1941