On August 14th the Catholic Church celebrates the life of a man who died wearing the notorious stripes of Auschwitz. He lived a life of professed celibacy, poverty, and obedience, and he met his martyrdom not at the end of a sword on a battlefield, but in a dimly lit bunker filled with the stench of human waste and decaying flesh. His death was meant to make him feel powerless. It was his humiliating death, however, which would engrave his name in the annals of human history, and in the trophy room of heaven.
St. Maximilian, born Raymund Kolbe in the kingdom of Poland, joined the conventional Franciscans with his brother, Francis, at the age of 13. He enrolled in minor seminary after illegally crossing the border between Russia and Austria-Hungary and was accepted into the novitiate when he turned 16. He took the name Maximilian Maria to honor Mary, whose cause he would champion all his life.
During St. Maximilian's doctoral studies in Rome, he become convicted of the need to fight the growing influence of Freemasons and other demonic forces warring against the Catholic Church, and so he founded the Militia Immaculata, a movement dedicated to the spread of devotion to Mary's Immaculate Heart. At the peak of the MI's influence, their magazine circulated to one million monthly subscribers, thanks to Kolbe's media savvy and use of cutting edge techniques in radio and publishing.
His health was not great. He'd suffered a bout of tuberculosis in his youth which left him frail, and he routinely pushed himself beyond reasonable human limits even for a person in good health. This was not a man who lived in the future; his concern was solely for the good he could do in the present moment.
St. Maximilian's efforts in the MI took him around the globe to Japan, India, and finally home to Poland where, at the outbreak of WWII, he was able to shelter more than 2,000 Polish Jews from Nazi aggression. When the Gestapo discovered his efforts, he was taken into custody and imprisoned at Auschwitz. It was May of 1941.
A few months later, toward the end of July, there was a break out in the camp. To give an example to their captives, the Nazis randomly selected 10 men to be executed in retaliation for the escape. They were to be starved to death in an underground bunker. One of the men selected to die cried out in anguish at his sentencing: "my wife, my children!"
Fr. Maximilian stepped forward.
"I am a Catholic priest," he stated simply, "I wish to die for that man."
Living in the moment. Embracing his present cross as simply the next right thing to do, St. Maximilian willingly entered the underground bunker that would become his tomb.
Reports from the prison guards tell the rest of the story. Each morning when they checked on the condemned men, Fr. Kolbe would be found kneeling or standing cheerfully in the center of the group. As hunger and thirst drove the prisoners to madness, forcing them to drink their own urine and lick the walls of the bunker for moisture, Fr. Kolbe was there, accompanying them. He was one of them and yet somehow calm in the midst of the horror. He encouraged them, he prayed with them, he heard their confessions if they so desired, and then, at the end, he alone remained conscious, watching over them and walking with them into the valley of the shadow of death.
His heroism didn't display itself in the face of a firing squad. When he stepped forward to save the life of Franciszek Gajowniczek, he was simply doing the next right thing. He lived in the moment, accepting the challenges of his situation as they presented themselves. He didn't think about 2 weeks without food or water trapped in a small room filled with panic and death. He simply saw a need, recognized his capacity to do something about it, and stepped out in faith.
When at last, on August 14th, 1941 the Nazis decided they needed the starvation bunker for new victims, Fr. Kolbe was given a lethal intravenous dose of carbolic acid to stop his lion's heart. He held out his left arm as the doctor approached him, offering himself up, until the very end, as a willing victim. His body was cremated without ceremony or reverence, like so many other millions. But his heroism echoed throughout the camp, a beacon of hope in a dark hell of suffering and human misery.
Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was canonized in 1981 by Pope St. John Paul II, who declared him “a martyr of charity.”
And Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose life St. Maximilian Kolbe ransomed? He made it home to Poland, where he lived to be 95 years old. But every year on August 14th he returned to Auschwitz to pay his respects to the saint whose life consisted of a series of choices for the present good, culminating in a sacrifice of the highest order.