Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Priest and Martyr

Maximilian Kolbe was born with the name Rajmund on 8 January, 1894, in Zduńska Wola, which was at that time part of the Russian Empire. Rajmund was the second son of Julius Kolbe and Maria Dabrowska. His father was an ethnic German and his mother of Polish origin. He had four brothers, two of whom died very young. His parents moved to Pabianice where they worked first as weavers. Later his mother worked as a midwife (often without charge) and ran a grocery and household goods shop in part of her rented house. Julius Kolbe worked at weaving mills and also grew vegetables on a rented lot. In 1914, he joined Józef Piłsudski’s Polish Legions fighting for Poland’s independence from Russia and was captured. Regarded as a Russian subject, he was hanged as a traitor in 1914, at the age of forty-three.

In 1907, Rajmund and his elder brother Francis decided to join the Conventual Franciscans. They illegally crossed the border between Russia and Austria-Hungary and joined a Conventual Franciscan junior seminary in Lwów. In 1910, Kolbe entered the novitiate. He professed his first vows in 1911.

In 1912, he was sent to Kraków and then on to Rome where he took final vows in 1914, adopting the names Maximilian Maria, to show his veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Rome he studied philosophy, theology, mathematics, and physics. He took a great interest in astrophysics and the prospect of space flight and the military. While in Rome he designed an airplane-like spacecraft, similar in concept to the eventual space shuttle, and tried to patent it. In 1918, he was ordained a priest. He earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1915 at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and a doctorate in theology in 1919 at the Pontifical University of St Bonaventure. During his time as a student, he witnessed demonstrations by Freemasons against Popes Pius X and Benedict XV. This inspired him to organize the Militia Immaculatae (Army of Mary) to work for the conversion of sinners and enemies of the Catholic Church, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary.

In 1919, he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis and returned to a newly independent Poland. Here his main work was teaching Church history in a seminary. After another attack of tuberculosis, he had printing presses installed at Niepokalanow, near Warsaw. Here Maximilian founded a Franciscan community which combined prayer, cheerfulness and simplicity of life with modern technology, as well as a seminary, a radio station and several other organisations and publications. He was also very active in promoting the veneration of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. His movement published its own magazine, Militia Immaculatae, in which he particularly condemned Freemasonry, Communism, Zionism, Capitalism and Imperialism. Not long after the presses were moved to Grodno, and circulation increased to 45,000. Because of this, new machines had to be installed.

Between 1930 and 1936, he went on a series of missions to Japan, where he founded a friary on the outskirts of Nagasaki, a Japanese newspaper, and a seminary (interestingly, and against against local advice, because the friary was not built on the ‘propitious’ side of the mountain, it was spared the devastation caused by the atomic bomb in 1945). After founding another community at Nagasaki, Maximilian was recalled in 1936, to be the superior of Niepokalanow, which then grew to number 762 friars.

When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Kolbe, realising that his monastery would be taken over, sent most of the friars home, warning them not to join the underground resistance. During the Second World War, the friary provided shelter to refugees from Greater Poland, including 3,000 Poles and 1,500 Jews. Maximilian was also active as an amateur radio operator, attacking Nazi activities through his reports. For some time, his newspapers continued publication, taking a patriotic, independent line, critical of the Third Reich. Kolbe, who had refused German citizenship, was finally arrested on 17 February, 1941, as a journalist, publisher and ‘intellectual’. Gestapo officers were shown round the whole friary and were astonished at the small amount of food prepared for the friars. He was imprisoned in the Pawiak prison, and on 25 May was transferred to Auschwitz I as prisoner #16670. In the camp the heavy work of moving loads of heavy logs at double speed was enforced by kicks and lashes. Maximilian also had to remove the bodies of those who died of torture. At the same time, he continued his priestly ministry, hearing confessions in unlikely places and smuggling in bread and wine to celebrate the Eucharist. He was noted for his sympathy and compassion towards those even more unfortunate than himself.

In July 1941, a prisoner from Kolbe’s barracks vanished, prompting the deputy camp commander to pick 10 men from the same barracks to be starved to death in the notorious Block 13 as punishment for his escape. In fact, the man was found later to have drowned, perhaps deliberately, in the camp latrine.)

Franciszek Gajowniczek, one of the men selected by the camp commander, cried out in distress at having been chosen, and Maximilian volunteered to take his place. He stepped forward, saying:

I am a Catholic priest. I wish to die for that man. I am old; he has a wife and children.

During days working in the death chamber of Cell 18, he led his companions in songs and prayer. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe and three others were still alive. He was finally put to death on 14 August, 1941, with an injection of carbolic acid.

Maximilian Kolbe was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971, and canonized on 10 October, 1982, by Pope John Paul II, a former archbishop of Kracov, the diocese where Auschwitz was located. Among those present was Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose place Kolbe had taken.

Maximilian Kolbe is the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, families, journalists, prisoners and the pro-life movement. Pope John Paul II also declared him the “Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century”. Kolbe is one of ten 20th-century martyrs depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London.

Franciszek Gajowniczek died on March 13, 1995, at Brzeg in Poland, 95 years old – 53 years after Kolbe had saved him. But he was never to forget the ragged monk. After his release from Auschwitz, Gajowniczek spent the next five decades paying homage to Father Kolbe, honoring the man who died on his behalf.

In December 1994, the 94-year-old Pole visited St Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church in Houston, Texas. His translator on that trip, Chaplain Thaddeus Horbowy, said:

He told me that as long as he “has breath in his lungs”, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe.

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