So often the saints we read about were men and women of old. Today’s Saint Maximillian Kolbe is a relative modern Saint. Canonized in 1982 by Pope John Paul II – his life makes fascinating reading.
Born on the 8th of January, a second son to a poor Catholic weaver and his wife. He was baptized Raymond. His parents had a great devotion to Our Lady and after being scolded by his mother for once again being mischievous he asked the Blessed Mother what was to become of him. Our Lady appeared to him holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked him if he was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one was for purity and the red was for the gift of martyrdom. He decided to accept both. This was a deciding moment in his young life and it was to go on and frame all his future decisions.
In 1907, Raymond and his brother entered a junior Franciscan seminary in Lwow. He was a bright student but for some time he contemplated leaving the priesthood and becoming a soldier so that he could free his beloved nation from her oppressors. However before he could tell anyone about his plans his mother announced that as their children were now in seminary she and her husband were entering religious life. Raymond didn’t have the heart to upset his parents’ idea so he abandoned his idea of joining the military. In 1910 he took the habit and received his new name Maximilian. After studying in Rome he was ordained in 1918.
His ideas about being a solider never quite left him. While he was in Rome he came to see that the world was indeed at war, a spiritual war. He also realized that Poland was not the only place with problems. The fight was still on, but he would not be waging it with a sword but with love.
The first fight he picked was with the Freemasons. They were very prevalent in Europe at that time. On 16th October 1917, with six friends he founded the Crusade of Mary Immaculate with the aim of “converting sinners, heretics, schismatics and Freemasons, and bringing all men to love Mary Immaculate.”
In 1919 he returned to Poland. His country was now free again; something that Maximilian attributed to Our Lad. He was determined to get every Polish person loving Mary in their hearts. He began to publish a monthly magazine, its aim was to “illuminate the truth and show the way to true happiness”.
Maximillian was suffering with ill-health. The doctors told him there was nothing they could do for him. He had one collapsed lung and the other was damaged. However this did not stop him.
He set up a radio station, a printing-house and helped establish a new friary at Teresin.
Before long the printing presses were printing 750,000 copies of his magazine the Knight of Immaculate. Then in 1935 they began to produce a Catholic newspaper, “The Little Daily,” of which 137,000 copies were printed on a weekday and 225,000 on Sundays and holydays.
Not content with all of this activity Fr.Maximilian requested to go to the mission lands of Japan. In February of 1930, he left Poland and arrived in Nagasaki in April. Within the year a new friary was founded on the side of a mountain which at the time was dictated by the needs of the poorer communities. This proved to be a very fortunate spot because when the atomic bomb flattened most of Nagasaki the friary escaped with just a few broken windows.
Despite his passionate zeal for Mary, Fr Maximilian was very aware of the belief systems of others and he entered into gentle dialogue with Buddhist priests and those who followed Shintoism.
While still in Japan he founded a junior seminary and he continued to publish his magazine. Getting itchy feet he once again set forth for new lands and went to Malabar where he hoped to found a third friary, but he was called back to Poland by his superiors.
Shortly after his return the Second World War broke out and Poland once again had occupying forces within her borders.
After helping to house, clothe and feed over 2000 Jews, Maximilian was arrested and sent to Pawiak prison. Here he was maltreated by an officer who after seeing his habit and rosary asked him if he believed in Christ. When the priest answered “I do” he was struck. The SS man repeated his question several times and always receiving the same answer went on beating him. Shortly after this he was given prisoners’ clothes to wear and was shipped to Auschwitz.
Here the treatment was no better. Often beaten and on one occasion left for dead Maximilian was taken to the camp hospital. Although he was suffering, he spent time hearing people’s confessions and encouraging them with words about the love of God.
After the war many people came forward with testimonies and stories about this great man and all that he had done and said. But I think for many people his last act of bravery is the one he is remembered for.
Escape always brought reprisals from the guards who ran the camp. On this day three men had escaped during the night, so ten were taken from the camp to be placed in the underground cells to starve to death. One of the men, a Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out when he was chosen. He wept for his wife and children and pleaded to be spared. The guards were not interested in such things but were startled when Maximilian stepped forward and offered to take this mans place. They shrugged and consented. The ten men were led away to the “death cell” where for two weeks this very ill priest led them in prayer and song. One by one the men died leaving only Maximilian. An embarrassment to the guards he was administered a lethal dose of carbolic acid.
His heroism did not go unnoticed in that dreadful place. In the darkness of those war years Maximilian sowed the seeds of peace and love. His reputation grew and papers all over the world were soon running stories on this Saint. He had captured the hearts of the people. I love the fact that when St John Paul beatified him the man whose life he saved was there with his family and children. I cannot begin to imagine how that must have felt or the deep gratitude they must all have carried in their hearts for this poor Franciscan priest.
To celebrate this feast I think a good polish dish is needed. There are so many Polish supermarkets around, so it won’t be difficult to find some authentic Polish treats to feed the family!