St. Maximilian Kolbe, seen in a portrait at left, sacrificed his life for another at Auschwitz in 1941. Illustration courtesy of Militia Immaculata

Maximilian Kolbe accepted Our Lady's call to purity, martyrdom

By 
  • August 17, 2016

“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 16:13). This is the Gospel that St. Maximilian Kolbe preached with his life and death. On the 75th anniversary of his death (Aug. 14), the Church celebrated his heroic sacrifice in 1941 when he volunteered his life in place of a fellow Auschwitz inmate.

“There was no worse hell on Earth than on Auschwitz and the other concentration camps and yet because of his union with Our Lord through Our Lady, he rose above that,” said Fr. John Grigus, rector of the National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Illinois.

Grigus said the 75th anniversary marks a significant milestone not only for the national shrine and the Conventual Franciscans order, but for the whole world. He cited Pope John Paul II, who called Kolbe “the patron saint of our difficult century.”

“It’s not just about Auschwitz. It’s also for the trials we go through in our lives,” said Grigus. “It’s what’s happening in our city streets. It’s what’s happening in the world with ISIS. We still need to gather around Our Lady and each other so that our truths of our faith be sustained.”

To mark this anniversary, the National Shrine celebrated a week-long novena to commemorate the sacrifice Kolbe made not just in Auschwitz in 1941, but throughout his whole life.

Grigus said Kolbe’s sacrifice began at the age of 12 when he kneeled in front of an image of the Blessed Mother and she appeared to him in a vision. Kolbe later describes the experience in his writings:

“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 purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said I would accept them both.”

A year after this vision, Kolbe and his elder brother, Francis, joined the Conventual Franciscans, a branch of the Franciscan order.

Br. Gabriel Mary Mesina, a Canadian member of the Conventual Franciscans, went on pilgrimage earlier this month to follow Kolbe’s footsteps in Poland.

Mesina said that being able to visit Pabianice, Kolbe’s hometown, was one of the most special moments of the pilgrimage because it called to mind his own call to their vocation.

“We got to pray in front of that image and have Mass at that altar that Our Lady offered the crowns to St. Maximilian at,” he said. “I really also tried to imagine Our Lady those two crowns because I really think that all Christians are called to walk the path of the two crowns.”

Kolbe carried the vision of the two crowns in his heart as he entered in formation and study with the Conventual Franciscans. He remained diligent during his years of formation, but not without overcoming many doubts and temptations.

As rumblings of the First World War began to rise in Poland, Kolbe felt compelled to leave the Order and join the military forces of Poland.

“He was very military-minded,” said Mesina. “But he realized that God wanted him to found a spiritual army to combat very intentionally and directly the forces of Satan. And he knew no better way than under the banner and the generalship of Our Lady.”

On Oct. 15, 1917, Kolbe obtained permission from his superiors at the Conventual Franciscan Collegio-Serafico in Rome to start a new movement which he named the Militia Immaculata or MI.

He, along with six fellow friars, consecrated themselves to the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary and worked for the conversion of sinners and enemies of the Catholic Church, especially the Free Masons of that time.

Kolbe believed in using modern technology and innovation as tools for evangelization. As a priest and superior in Niepokalanow (City of the Immaculate), he and his fellow friars operated a printing press to make religious posters. In 1922, Kolbe also founded a monthly periodical called Rycerz Niepokalanej, or Knight of the Immaculate.

“I think he prepared Poland for difficult times to come,” said Grigus. “He sent over a million periodicals and they were for all ages, even for young kids. They were trading them like they were baseball cards or football cards.”

Between 1930 and 1936, Kolbe left Poland for a series of missions to East Asia. In 1931, he moved to Japan where he founded a monastery in Nagasaki and started a Japanese edition of his periodicals, Seibo no Kishi. The monastery he founded remains a prominent site for the Catholic Church in Japan.

In 1936, Kolbe returned to Poland because tuberculosis had caused his health to falter. But his heart for evangelization never weakened. In 1938, he started a radio station, Radio Niepokalanow, as another means to spread the Gospel.

“He’s really a modern saint,” said Grigus. “The millennials are high into technology and Maximilian’s idea was to use the latest technology that the world has available to propagate the Gospel.”

When the Second World War broke out, Kolbe was one of the few brothers who remained in the Niepokalanow monastery. He continued to publish religious works and used the publishing house to issue a number of anti-Nazi German publications.

On Feb. 17, 1941, Kolbe finished writing his final and most comprehensive essay on the Virgin Mary’s identity as perfectly united to the Holy Spirit. Hours later, the monastery was shut down and Kolbe was arrested.

As he was taken away by the Gestapo, he is famously known to have said, “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.”

On May 28, Kolbe was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670.

In reflecting on his visit to Auschwitz during World Youth Day, Mesina felt an incredible connection to his patron saint. He kneeled in front of the wall of Kolbe’s cell block 18 and prayed there for about 45 minutes.

“He turned that death bunker, the most hellish place, into a chapel,” said Mesina. “People would hear the rosary being prayed and hymns to Our Lady being sung... The prisoners would be so wrapped up in prayer that sometimes they wouldn’t even notice when the SS guards would come in for their daily check.”

In July 1941, a prisoner from Kolbe’s barracks escaped. In order to set an example, the commander of the barracks choose 10 men for the starvation bunker. One of the men selected, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!” Seeing the man’s distress, Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

Kolbe suffered two weeks of starvation before he was killed by lethal injection to make room for more prisoners.

“It’s ironic that fo

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