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“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
This famous quote from John 15:12-13 was followed to the letter by today’s remarkable saint, Maximilian Mary Kolbe. He was born in Zduńska-Wola, Poland, during a period of political turmoil.
Parts of Poland were occupied by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Maximilian, then called Raymond (Maximilian was the name he took in his religious order), prayed for the intercession of Our Lady of Czestochowa for the reunification of his country. Thus began a life-long devotion to the Blessed Mother.
A typical mischievous boy, Raymond taxed his mother’s patience, prompting her to say that often repeated question of frustrated moms, “What’s going to become of you?”
It must have gotten through to the rascal. He prayed to the Virgin and as a result had a vision of her offering two crowns, one red (martyrdom) and one white (purity). She asked him to choose one. He chose both.
Sometime after an encounter with some Franciscans in 1907, Raymond and his brother entered the Franciscan seminary in Lwów. In 1910, he entered the novitiate. Invested with the Franciscan habit, he was given the name “Friar Maximilian Mary.” He left the order for a time to soldier in the defense of his country but would realize later that he was destined to soldier on the “spiritual” front.
He was sent to Rome to advance his theological education. This training led him to understand more fully the order’s emphasis on the Primacy of Christ that finds its most exemplary figure in the Immaculate. Mary, being the Immaculate, i.e., full of grace, mediates these graces from God through her spousal bond with the Holy Spirit.
Maxmilian obtained permission from his superiors at the Conventual Franciscan Collegio-Serafico in Rome, to found the “Knights of the Immaculate” (“Militia Immaculatae” or “M.I.”), on the eve of Oct. 16, 1917, a year before his ordination.
When he returned to Poland in 1919, he was appointed professor to the Franciscan seminarians in Cracow. He contracted tuberculosis, however, and he was deemed unsuitable for the task.
His superiors then assigned him to the office of confessor. The inherent stress in the assignment caused him to become increasingly frail, and was subsequently consigned to the sanitarium of Zakopane. There, he provided various spiritual services among his sick companions and instilled in them the love of Our Lady.
After having recovered from a long confinement – which served as a period of silence and purification for him – he launched a new apostolic. He called it the “City of the Immaculate (Niepokalanów),” almost 800 friars who worked together to evangelize in Poland and abroad through a mass media apostolate. Together they printed a monthly magazine that reached 600,000 copies per issue. In addition, there was a daily newspaper that had a circulation of one million.
In 1930, Maximilian established a mission in Nagasaki, Japan. One month after the franciscans’ arrival in the country, they were able to publish the first issue of the Japanese edition of their magazine.
In 1939, the Nazi panzers overran Poland with deadly speed. Niepokalanow was severely bombed. Kolbe and his friars were arrested and then released in less than three months, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
In 1941, Kolbe was arrested again. The Nazis’ purpose was to liquidate the select ones — the leaders. The end came quickly, three months later in Auschwitz, after terrible beatings and humiliations.
Upon the escape of a prisoner, the commandant announced that 10 men would die. As they were being marched away to the starvation bunkers, Maximilian dared to step from the line.
“I would like to take that man’s place. He has a wife and children.”
“Who are you?”
The commandant, dumbfounded, removed Sgt. Francis Gajowniczek out of line and ordered Kolbe to go with the nine. In the “block of death” they were ordered to strip naked, and their slow starvation began in darkness. But there was no screaming — the prisoners sang.
By the eve of the Assumption, four were left alive. The jailer came to finish Kolbe off as he sat in a corner praying. He lifted his fleshless arm to receive the bite of the hypodermic needle. It was filled with carbolic acid. They burned his body with all the others.
Kolbe was beatified in 1971 and canonized in 1982.