Today the church remembers a contemporary saint whose life was one of self-giving love: Saint Maximilian Mary Kolbe, Priest, Martyr, and Defender of the Defenseless.
Born in the last years of the 19th Century in Lodz, Poland, Raymond Kolbe joined a Franciscan order in his early teens, taking the names Maximilian and Mary, a testament to his devotion to Christ’s mother.
Saint Max (as I like to call him) left his Russian-ruled stretch of Poland to study in Rome, was ordained there, and taught church history for a time. Mission and evangelism caught his attention, and he began a movement to create friaries and publications for the propagation of Roman Catholicism throughout the world. His friaries in Poland, Japan, and India housed hundreds of Franciscans in the early 20th Century.
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Saint Max’s friary in Warsaw took in thousands of Polish citizens and fifteen hundred Jews, providing sanctuary from the occupying forces. Because he sheltered those being demonized, and because his publications encouraged people to be faithful to the church, not to Nazi nationalism, Saint Max was taken to Auschwitz with four of his fellow friars, and the friary was permanently closed.
At Auschwitz Saint Max continued to be a priest: hearing confessions and celebrating the Mass with contraband bread and wine.
In July of 1941 a prisoner from Kolbe’s bunk escaped and, as punishment, ten prisoners from the same bunk were selected for death as a deterrent to such action. One of the men, Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek, was married with a family on the outside. Having served Sergeant Francis communion for years, Saint Max knew this about him and offered up his life in exchange for his fellow prisoner.
The guards allowed it, as Sergeant Francis was young and strong and by now Saint Max was elderly and weaker.
The ten prisoners were thrown in isolation to die slow deaths by starvation. After two weeks the guards checked on the men, and only Saint Max and one other were still alive. Not waiting for nature to take its course, Saint Max was injected with carbolic acid on this day in 1941.
Saint Max is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church, that when the powers want to force you to turn your back on your fellow humans, no matter their creed, you disobey…even if it costs you your life.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.
You can visit a shrine dedicated to this saint in Libertyville, IL called “Marytown.” There you’ll learn more about his life, his theological genius, and yes, his defiant death.
-historical bits taken from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
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