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For a large part of the liturgical year, we devote ourselves to listening to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects unfolded as we seek God's truth and understanding.
Maximilian Kolbe, Priest and Martyr, 1894-1941
Most often, we think of martyrs as those who suffered for their faith during the early days of the Church. Yet Maximilian Kolbe was a martyr in the 20th century.
Maximilian was the prior of the largest friary in the world located at Niepokalanow, a small village near Warsaw in Poland. When World War II began in 1939, Hitler's Germany quickly overran Czechoslovakia. Father Kolbe prayed for the world, but he knew that his country was going to be involved. Poland, in fact, was next.
When Poland fell in September, 1939, the friary was taken over by the Nazis and turned into a deportation camp for refugees, political prisoners, and Jews. Yet Kolbe and the few priests remaining with him saw this as an opportunity to conduct a ministry to the sick and terrorized prisoners.
Adolph Hitler's plan for Poland was to exterminate the Jews, the governing class, and the intellectuals. The remainder of the population would be forced into slave labor for the Nazis. Priests were to preach what the Nazis told them and to keep the people submissive. This was not a plan which Maximilian Kolbe could subscribe to. Arrested in February, 1941, he was found guilty of writing unapproved materials and sentenced to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Upon his arrival at the camp in May, 1941, Father Kolbe was told by an SS officer that the average life expectancy of priests in the camp was one month.
Like others prisoners who were not scheduled for immediate execution, Maximilian was assigned to a labor detail. The guards were quick to beat prisoners who, through exhaustion, fell down on the job. One time, Maximilian collapsed under a heavy load. He was kicked and beaten by the guards, then shoved into a ditch and left for dead. Another prisoner somehow got Maximilian to the camp hospital where he miraculously survived and regained his strength. After his recovery, Maximilian was assigned to another barracks and work detail. In this barracks, he continued his ministry, offering encouragement and the little food which was his ration to his fellow prisoners.
In the camp, prisoners who tried to escape, if caught, were subjected to a slow and agonizing death as a lesson to others. If a prisoner was successful in an escape attempt, the Nazis would usually select several of his or her barracks mates to die. This happened in Maximilian Kolbe’s barracks, and ten of his fellow prisoners were chosen to be starved to death in a bunker. One of these cried out, "My poor wife! My poor children! What are they to do?"
Hearing this, Kolbe stepped up to the commandant and offered to die in the man's place. Approaching the commandant was unheard of and could, of itself, bring a death sentence. But the Nazi officer accepted his offer. Maximilian marched off with the other prisoners to the windowless bunker where all food and water were cut off. Normally, those assigned to die in the starvation bunker could be heard throughout the camp wailing and crying in despair and attacking one another. This time, those in the camp heard singing from the bunker.
Father Kolbe, a gentle shepherd, was leading his flock to Jesus, the Great Shepherd. Maximilian Kolbe was the last of the prisoners to die. On August 14, 1941, when the Nazis needed the bunker for another batch of prisoners, a doctor, several SS troops, and another prisoner went into the bunker, the latter to carry out the bodies. Kolbe, barely alive, was sitting against the wall with a smile on his face, as if seeing some distant vision. The doctor injected him with a poison and, in a moment, Father Maximilian Kolbe was dead, still with a smile on his face.
St. Maximilian Kolbe was canonized on October 10, 1982. We celebrate his memorial on the date of his death, August 14.
Maximilian’s message today: Maximilian Kolbe was a 20th century martyr who gave up his life for another. In many ways, we all suffer as martyrs in some form. Think of those with AIDS or cancer, or those who have undergone a traumatic change in their lives, such as a death or divorce. It is how we approach this suffering, this martyrdom, which counts.