Remembering St. Maxmillian Kolbe, martyr of charity

Martyrdom of St. Maximillian Kolbe,
Museum Niepokolanow, Poland
On this feastday last year I happened to be on my home visit and was attending the morning Mass. Our then Parish Priest, Canon Devine, during the homily shared about the experience when in Sligo he met the man, Franciszek Gajowniczek,  for whom St. Maximillian Kolbe offered his life. It was a very moving story and I often reflected afterwards on two particular questions: "Could I ever be so selfless that I could offer my life for another?" and also "How would my life change if someone gave their very life for me?"
But who was this saint Maximilian Kolbe? Born Raymond Kolbe on the 8th of January 1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland which at that time was occupied by Russia. The Kolbe home was poor but full of love. He later became a Conventual Franciscan Friar. 
Around 1906, an event took place that marks a fundamental milestone in the life of the young boy. His mother herself related the event a few months after her son's martyrdom.

"I knew ahead of time, based on an extraordinary event that took place in his infancy, that Maximilian would die a martyr. I just don't recall if it took place before or after his first confession. Once I did not like one of his pranks and I reproached him for it: 'My son, what ever will become of you?!' Later, I did not think of it again, but I noticed that the boy had changed so radically, he was hardly recognizable. We had a small altar hidden between two dressers before which he used to often retire without being noticed and he would pray there crying. In general, he had a conduct superior to his age, always recollected and serious and when he prayed he would burst into tears. I was worried, thinking he had some sort of illness so I asked him: 'Is there anything wrong? You should share everything with your mommy!' Trembling with emotion and with his eyes flooded in tears, he shared: 'Mama, when you reproached me, I pleaded with the Blessed Mother to tell me what would become of me. At Church I did the same; I prayed the same thing again. So then the Blessed Mother appeared to me holding in her hands two crowns: one white the other red. She looked at me with tenderness and asked me if I wanted these two crowns. The white one signified that I would preserve my purity and the red that I would be a martyr. I answered that I accepted them...(both of them). Then the Virgin Mary looked at me with sweetness and disappeared.' The extraordinary change in the boys' behaviour testified to me the truth of what he related. He was fully conscious and as he spoke to me, with his face radiating; it showed me his desire to die a martyr."

He was ordained a priest in 1918 and spent his life promoting the devotion to Mary throughout Poland through the Immaculata Movement devoted to our Lady. He spread the movement through a magazine entitled "The Knight of the Immaculata". "We should conquer the universe and each soul, now and in the future until the end of time, for the Immaculata and through her for the Sacred Heart of Jesus." (St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, The Knight of the Immaculata). He would later found monasteries in Japan and India but bad health saw him transferred back to Poland. Together with some of his confreres, he was arrested in 1941 by the German Gestapo and transferred to Auschwitz. There, on 31st of July 1941, in reprisal for one prisoner's escape, ten men were chosen to die. Fr. Kolbe offered himself in place of a young husband and father. And he was the last to die, enduring two weeks of starvation, thirst, and neglect. Until the end St. Maximillian led prayers to our Lady and encouraged the other prisoners to be strong in faith. Even after 2 weeks, he did not succumb to starvation and was given a lethal injection.

Kolbe was beatified as a Confessor of the Faith by Pope Paul VI on 17th of October 1971 and canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II on 10th of October 1982, with Franciszek Gajowniczek (the man whose place he took) in attendance. Upon canonization, the Pope declared St. Maximilian Kolbe not a confessor, but a martyr.He is often depicted in a prison uniform and with a needle being injected into an arm. He is the patron saint of drug addicts, prisoners, families and the pro-life movement. 

Room of St Maximilian, Niepokolanow
In 2008 during my time in Poland, I had the possibility to visit the Monastery founded by St. Maximillian, called Niepokolanow. It was very poignant to see the room and the office of this quiet but courageous saint, where the Gestapo burst in and dragged him away to Auchwitz. He has continued to turn up on my spiritual journey in different ways, the more recent in the book by Fr. Michael Gaitley, on the preparation for Marian consecration. There is a full chapter on his love for our Lady. If you have a copy of this book, I'd suggest today to be a very appropriate day to revisit this book.

Going back to my original two questions. Every day I see that these are not actually rhetorical questions. The Scriptures tell us that there is no greater love than someone to lay down their life for their friends. The Lord might not ask me to physically 'give' my life as a martyr but everyday I am asked to die a little to what I want, and be more present to those around me and love them with a heart that only Jesus can give. How would I feel if someone gave their life for me? Well, someone did. SomeOne did when He opened his arms wide on the Cross to embrace all those who wanted love, mercy and grace. Does this change how I live? It's an opportunity to live in a blessed way, everything is grace, everything is Eucharistic thanksgiving!


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