“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” John 15:13
By far, my favorite part of Monday’s is sitting down first thing in the morning with a hot cup of coffee and letting the Holy Spirit “talk” to my heart by leading me to the “Weekly Saint”. There were a few that caught my attention, but none as much as Maximillian Kolbe did today.
Maximillian Kolbe was a Franciscan Friar in Poland during WWII.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Kolbe was offered rights of German citizenship because his father was German. Kolbe refused.
Instead, Kolbe chose to defy the Nazis and work with his fellow brothers in Christ at their monastery by offering the monastery as a sanctuary for wartime refugees. Those refugees included thousands of Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis.
Kolbe and the other friars also defied they Nazis by using the monastery as a publishing house for anti-Nazi publications. Much of the literature is now seen to be antisemitic, blaming the Jews for the rise of the Nazi party, Freemasons and Communists, in general.
It was the use of the monastery as a publishing house that was the primary reason that the Nazis arrested and imprisoned Kolbe and four of his fellow friars in February 1941.
In the spring of 1941, Kolbe was transferred to Auschwitz where he continued to minister to the persecuted. His ministry at the concentration camp led to repeated beatings and constant harassment by the Nazi guards.
In July 1941, three prisoners escaped from Auschwitz, causing the commander to chose 10 men to be placed in an underground bunker and starved to death so as to discourage any further escape attempts and squash any hope that lived inside the prisoners.
One of the chosen men was Franciszek Gajowniczek who was a Polish army sergeant and Roman Catholic. At the announcement of his fate, Gajowniczek cried out for his family. Hearing Gajowniczek’s pleas, Kolbe volunteered to take his place in the bunker. The request was granted. In the bunker, Kolbe led the men in prayers and hymns, worshiping God.
Kolbe was the last one to die in the bunker. After the other nine men died from starvation, Kolbe was put to death by an injection of carbolic acid.
On October 17, 1972, on the one-year anniversary of Kolbe’s beatification, about 150,000 people made a pilgrimage to Auschwitz to honor him.
Gajowniczek survived the war and was one of the first to speak at the ceremony at Auschwitz. He also made it his life’s work to travel Europe and the United States, telling about Kolbe’s sacrifice for him. Gajowniczek died in 1995, 54 years after his life was spared by Maximillian Kolbe.
Kolbe’s beatification was considered controversial by Catholics because he did not meet the criteria for sainthood by speaking up for the faith. It was also controversial because of the publications at the monastery.
In the end, hundreds of Polish Jews stepped forward to testify on Kolbe’s behalf, saying that he had offered them sanctuary and they were grateful to him. The Catholic Church made Kolbe a saint with the distinct stipulation that he was a saint of “charity”.
I am not a Catholic, but I do see Kolbe as a martyr for the Christian faith.
It’s true, Kolbe was not perfect. He had some thoughts that were racist. I don’t condone this for one second. But, I do not know what was it was like to live during those dreadful times during WWII. I also don’t know what was in Kolbe’s heart; only God knew that. I can only look at his actions.
He offered sanctuary to many Jews. He stood up to the Nazis by refusing to accept the protection of German citizenship. He ministered to people of all faiths while in prison. In the end, he served as a minister to ten men. He showed immense love to one, laying his life down for him. In his final days, he did the only thing left to do for the other nine. He offered them comfort and hope of life everlasting with God in prayer and song.
Yes, Kolbe is a controversial saint. No, he was not perfect. But who is? I dare anyone to not find fault with one person, saint or otherwise, throughout all of history. It can’t be done. We are all sinners and fall short of God’s glory.
But, if actions speak louder than words, then Maximillian Kobe’s actions speak volumes. He put his faith into action when it counted the most. He died showing others what Christ’s love actually means, by giving his life to save one.
A couple of weeks ago, I highlighted Wang Zhiming and said that Zhiming was immortalized in statue with nine other 20th century Christian martyrs. Zhiming is on the far right of the stature-grouping at Westminster Abby.
The statue of Maximillian Kolbe is on the far left.
For further reading:
Maximillian Kolbe: Saint of Auschwitz by Elaine Murray Stone (1997; Paulist Press)
Will to Love: Reflections for Daily Living by Maximillian Kolbe (print 2013; Marytown Press)
A Man for Others by Patricia Treece (1993; Marytown Press)
The Kolbe Reader by Anselm Romb (2007; Marytown Press)
Father, thank you for raising up faithful followers for us to learn by. Thank you for showing us, through Maximillian Kolbe’s example, that we all fall short of your glory and we are all sinners, but that we can still show people your love through our actions. Help us, however, to overcome our sins. Forgive us for the things we say that are mean to others. Help us to love all people. Help us to show compassion and care to those who are fleeing persecution. 1 John 3 says that your people show love in word and deed. Help us to open our hearts, as Jesus commanded, and care for a world that is in need of your hope.
In Jesus’ name,