Saturday, August 14, 2010

Feast Day: St. Maximilian Kolbe

Today is the feast day of Catholic priest and martyr, Franciscan Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, a man who sacrificed his life for another's in the death camp the world has come to know as "Auschwitz".  I have a special love for this saint:  a fellow Pole, an amazing priest who worked hard for the spread of God's kingdom even before WW2, and my eldest son's Confirmation saint.  He is also the "Hero of Auschwitz" ... a man of God who sacrificed constantly for his fellow prisoners ... a man who worked for God and the Blessed Mother.

The following is based on an article I wrote back in 2003 after a trip to Poland with some college students. 

Arbeit Macht Frei” – work makes you free.

Or so says the main gate of Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Oswiecim, Poland. A rather ironic statement. However, at least one man in Auschwitz proved this statement to be true. St. Maximilian Kolbe proved that work, if it’s God’s work, does make you free.
I knew little about this Polish saint before going to Auschwitz in February 2003. I traveled with a group of college students and my three-month old son on a “peace pilgrimage” to Southern Poland. The Franciscan priest accompanying us on this pilgrimage explained that St. Maximilian’s focus was love, that this was the real essence of the man.

I would see, promised our priest, that St. Maximilian’s worked proved the truth of “love not war”.

The snow was falling as our bus pulled up to the “State Museum in Oswiecim”, better-known as “Auschwitz Concentration Camp”. I was struck by the absolute stillness, the deathly silence of the place. The snow’s purity muffled my footsteps as I wandered the camp. The barbed wire and “Halt/Stoj!” signs, with a black skull-and-crossbones, dramatically reminded me of the theme of this “living museum”.

Signs in Polish, English and other languages explained what I was seeing – the gallows erected near the roll-call area for hanging prisoners who helped others escape, the crematorium and gas chambers for gassing or burning hundreds of thousands , the “death wall” for shooting prisoners. I was seeing proof of “man’s inhumanity to man.”

At the very back of the camp – past all the brick barracks where an average of 13-16,000 prisoners were housed (many of whom never walked out alive) – I found what I was searching for. The last block of the camp. Here is Block 11, the “Death Block”.

Here is where St. Maximilian sacrificed his life so that another (a husband with children) could live. Here is where he was locked, naked, in a basement cell with 9 others and given no food or drink. Here is where he worked to keep up the spirits of those jailed with him. Here is where he prayed and ministered, ignoring the abuses of the guards. Here is where he and his cellmates could hear fellow prisoners shot at the “death wall” right outside the small cell window. Here is where, still praying after three weeks of deprivation, he raised his left arm for the fatal injection.

Here is where St. Maximilian Kolbe did his final work for God.

The cell now has the eternal flame of a victory candle and bouquets of flowers. A place of prayer – the stillness and peace of the cell gave me a glimpse of this “hero of Auschwitz”. Almost a church-like atmosphere reigned here in this dark and dank basement. In Cell 21, perpendicular to St. Maximilian’s cell, there are scratchings in the wall that show Christ on the Cross and Christ’s Sacred Heart; scratchings made by a Polish officer at the time of St. Maximilian’s internment in Cell 18. Cell 18 is the peace of Auschwitz – the reminder that God lives even in a place of such unspeakable evil.

But, who is this man that would be beatified by Paul VI in 1971 and canonized by John Paul II in 1982?

Raymond Kolbe, born in a small Polish town in 1894, was a typical boy whose mother despaired of him ever being able to stay out of trouble. At 10 years old, this future saint prayed to the Blessed Mother, asking her what his future might hold. In a dream he saw the Blessed Mother hold out two crowns – the white crown of purity and the red crown of martyrdom. The Mother of God asked Raymond which he would choose – he chose both. At 16, he donned the Franciscan habit, choosing the name Maximilian.

Fr. Maximilian obtained two doctorates – in philosophy and theology – never losing his love and reverence for the Mother of God. In fact, with six other men, he began the Knights of the Immaculata – a group dedicated to Mary Immaculate as a tool for the conquest of souls. In his own words:
“…a movement that must enthuse souls, snatch them from Satan, and, won for the cause of the Immaculata, incite them to the apostolate of making the reign of Jesus Christ a reality.”
After a few years, he built the “City of the Immaculata” near Warsaw, where he and his brother priests could do the work of this great apostolate. Niepokalanow (as it is in Polish) is a priory built to help spread devoition to the Blessed Mother and defend the Catholic faith through modern media.

Continuing in his vocation as a Franciscan, Fr. Maximilian traveled to Japan to convert souls. For six years he worked and prayed with the Japanese. Called back to Poland in 1936, he was appointed superior of Niepokalanow. Three years later, Germany conquered Poland and deported Fr. Maximilian and 36 of his brother priests to a prison near Berlin. Released in 1940, he was again arrested and interred in Pawiak jail in Warsaw in February of 1941.

On May 28, 1941, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was transferred to Auschwitz from Pawiak. 320 other prisoners went with him (a group that included many other priests). Three days later, the camp commandant came and took Fr. Maximilian and four other priests, and handed them over to one of his subordinates.
“Take these useless creatures and parasites of society and show them what work means!”
Fr. Maximilian spent the next 2-1/2 months on heavy labor work squads. His chronic tuberculosis and poor nutrition never stopped him from his missionary zeal:. spending his time preaching to his fellow prisoners about the love of God and the beauty of offering pain and suffering to Jesus. He loudly, and proudly, proclaimed himself a Catholic priest and willingly suffered all humiliations and violence heaped on him by his Nazi guards.

Stories abound about his many kindnesses – giving his bread to others, exhorting the men to bear up, allowing others to be served first. Fr. Maximilian whispered to a fellow prisoner:
“Hate is not creative, love is creative. Our sorrow is necessary that those who live after us may be happy.”
At the end of my visit to Auschwitz, I realized that the right kind of work does indeed make you free. St. Maximilian Kolbe preached (in words and actions) love and peace, suffering for Jesus, the belief and trust in God’s providence, and of course, his confidence in the Blessed Mother’s many graces. It took another four years for the evilness that was Auschwitz to end.

But St. Maximilian Kolbe’s work there, work for God, indeed made him and those he touched, free. This is the true message of Auschwitz.

St. Maximilian Kolbe, hero of Auschwitz, pray for us!

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