14th August 2020
'Today is the feast day of Maximilian Kolbe'
"Let us not forget that Jesus not only suffered,
but also rose in glory; so, too,
we go to the glory of the Resurrection
by way of suffering and the Cross."
on a West German postage stamp, marked Auschwitz.
Today is the feast day of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan monk.
He was well known for his passionate devotion to the Virgin Mary,
his love for missionary work and, his final sacrifice,
offering his life in place of another
in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
I would like to share his life with you in the hope
that we can learn from this martyr of faith.
I make no apologies for the length of this 'epistle';
grab a cup of your favourite beverage
and settle in to let God speak to you
through the life and service to God of this incredible man.
Rajmund Kolbe was born on 8 January 1894 in Poland,
which was then part of the Russian Empire.
He was the second son, (with four other brothers),
of weaver Julius Kolbe, who was an ethnic German,
and Maria, who was a Polish midwife.
Kolbe's life was strongly influenced, when he was 12,
by a vision of the Virgin Mary.
He later described this incident:
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.
In 1907 Kolbe and his elder brother Francis
joined a Catholic branch of the Franciscans and in 1910,
Kolbe was allowed to enter the novitiate,
where he was given the religious name Maximilian.
In 1912 he was sent to Rome to study where,
five years later,
he formed a group called 'The Knights of the Immaculate'
which was dedicated to fighting for goodness,
encouraging people to have an interest in christianity
and to perform charitable works.
They published a journal which was designed to
'illuminate the truth and show the way to true happiness.'
This was successful but controversial
as it was thought by some
that there was an anti-Semitic tone to some of the articles.
Maximillian was ordained a priest in 1918
and in July 1919 he returned to Poland,
which was newly independent.
In 1922 Maximillian founded a monthly devotional publication and,
for four years, operated a publishing press
for periodicals with a Christian view point.
His activities grew in scope,
and in 1927 he founded a new Franciscan monastery near Warsaw
which became a major publishing centre, again for Christian material.
A junior seminary was opened there two years later.
Between 1930 and 1933,
Maximillian undertook a series of missions to East Asia.
He arrived first in Shanghai, China,
but failed to gather a following there
so he moved to Japan, where by 1931
he had founded a Franciscan monastery.
He did not try to impose Christianity on the locals
but respected their local religions
of Buddhism and Shintoism,
looking for a way to engage in dialogue.
Maximillian returned to Poland in 1933
for a major convention, expecting to return to Japan,
but poor health forced him to stay in Poland.
In 1938, holding an amateur radio licence,
he started a radio station using the medium,
with war approaching,
to prepare people to accept suffering with love.
After the outbreak of World War II,
Maximillian was one of the few friars who remained in the monastery,
where he organised a temporary hospital.
After the town was captured by the Germans,
he was arrested by them, then released.
He refused to sign the Deutsche Volksliste,
which would have given him rights
similar to those of German citizens,
in exchange for recognizing his ethnic German ancestry.
When he was released he continued work at his friary,
where he and other friars provided shelter to refugees
including 2,000 Jews, whom they hid from German persecution.
In 1941, the monastery was shut down by the German authorities
because he had started publishing again.
That day Maximillian and four others were arrested by the Gestapo
and imprisoned in Warsaw,
later he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner 16670.
Continuing to act as a priest,
Maximillian was subjected to violent physical punishment,
including beatings and lashings.
Once, near death, he was smuggled to a prison hospital
by friendly inmates, he spent his recovery time hearing confessions.
At the end of July 1941,
one prisoner escaped from the camp,
prompting the deputy camp commander to pick ten men
to be starved to death in an underground bunker
to deter further escape attempts.
When one of the selected men cried out,
"My wife! My children!",
Maximillian volunteered to take his place.
According to an eyewitness,
who was an assistant janitor at that time,
in his prison cell Maximillian led the prisoners in prayer.
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.
After they had been starved and deprived of water for two weeks,
only Maximillian remained alive.
The guards wanted the bunker emptied,
so they gave Maximillian a lethal injection of carbolic acid.
Maximillian is said to have raised his left arm
and calmly waited for the deadly injection.
He died on 14 August 1941.
His remains were cremated on 15 August,
the feast day of the Assumption of his beloved Virgin Mary.
The deed and courage of Maximillian Kolbe
spread around the Auschwitz prisoners,
offering a rare glimpse of light
and human dignity in the face of extreme cruelty.
After the war, his reputation grew
and he became symbolic of courageous dignity.
Pope John Paul II canonized Father Kolbe
and declared him a martyr of charity on 10 October 1982.
I hope you have found this offering
of a life of sacrifice and devotion to God
as moving and inspirational as I did.