Feast Day: August 14
Maximilian Kolbe was born to religiously devout parents in the little town of Zdunska Wola in Poland and given the name Raymond at baptism. He entered the Conventual Franciscans in 1907 and received the name of Maximilian. He studied philosophy and theology in Rome and received academic degrees and taught Church history in a seminary.
Ordained as a priest at twenty-four, he saw religious indifference as the deadliest poison of the day. His mission was to combat it. He had already founded the Militia of the Immaculata, whose aim was to fight evil with the witness of the good life, prayer, work and suffering. He dreamed of and then founded “Knight of the Immaculata,” a religious magazine under Mary’s protection to preach the Good News to all nations. For the work of publication he established a “City of the Immaculata”—Niepokalanow—which housed seven hundred of his Franciscan brothers. He later founded one in Nagasaki, Japan. Both the Militia and the magazine ultimately reached the one-million mark in members and subscribers. His love of God was daily filtered through devotion to Mary.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Maximilian, realizing that his monastery would be taken over, sent most of the friars home. Maximilian and others were taken away for investigation, but were soon released, returning to their monastery which became a refugee camp for 3,000 Poles and 1,500 Jews. For some time the papers continued publication, taking a patriotic independent line, critical of the Third Reich. Maximilian, who had refused German citizenship, was arrested as a journalist, publisher and ‘intellectual.’ Gestapo officers took him and four companions to Auschwitz in May 1941, then both a labor camp and a death camp. Names were exchanged for tattooed numbers; the heavy work of moving loads of logs of double weight and at double speed was enforced by kicks and lashes. Maximilian also moved the bodies of the tortured. Throughout his imprisonment and torture, Father Kolbe continued his priestly ministry, hearing confessions in unlikely places and smuggling in bread and wine for the Eucharist. He was conspicuous for sympathy and compassion towards those even more unfortunate than himself.
If anyone attempted to escape from the camp, ten men from the same bunker were selected for death by starvation. Near the end of July, following an escape, men from Maximilian’s bunker were paraded, knowing what to expect. One man from each line was selected including a sergeant, Francis Gajowniczek. When like the others he shouted out in despair, Maximilian stepped forward, saying: “I am a Catholic priest. I wish to die for that man. I am old; he has a wife and children.” The commandant, dumbfounded, perhaps with a fleeting thought of history, kicked Sergeant Gajowniczek out of line and ordered Maximilian to go with the nine. In the “block of death,” they were ordered to strip naked and their slow starvation began in darkness.
After two weeks of starvation, an injection of carbolic acid ended the life of Maximilian. He was found sitting against the wall, his face radiant and his open eyes fixed on a certain point. As one person reported, it was as if his entire body was caught up in ecstasy. As early as 1920 Maximilian had written: “I must become a saint as soon as possible.” He had also said: “Sanctity is not a luxury, but a simple duty. It is one of Christ’s first principles: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’” This same doctrine was proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council in its document on the Church (Lumen Gentium).
Father Kolbe’s death was not a sudden, last-minute act of heroism. His whole life had been a preparation. His holiness was a limitless, passionate desire to convert the whole world to God. And his beloved Immaculata was his inspiration.
St. Maximilian’s Marian spirit of love and apostolic service, accompanied by his intense devotion to Mary, shows that he was striving not only to defend the faith and to contribute to the salvation of souls, but also to win one soul after the other for the Immaculate Virgin. This he did by using all the communications media at his disposal: publications, radio, theater, and cinema. St. Maximilian Kolbe is famously known as the patron saint of media communications.
Saint Maximilian Kolbe pray for us, as the battle of religious indifference continues!
Farmer, David. “Oxford Dictionary of Saints.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Foley, Leonard, O.F.M., and Pat McCloskey, O.F.M. “Saint of the Day.” Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009.
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar.” New York: Alba House, 1992.