Thursday, 11 August 2011
One of the 20th century’s best known examples of this supreme sacrifice was a Polish priest named Maximilian Kolbe. Born Raymond Kolbe in 1894 to a poor but deeply religious family in Russian-occupied Poland, he grew up always knowing about Jesus, demonstrated in the love of his parents, both of whom were lay members of the Franciscan order. Although Raymond was by all accounts something of a handful, when he was 12 years old everything changed.
It was about the time that he was confirmed into the Catholic church and took his first communion. While praying in church one day, Raymond was confronted with a vision of Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. In his own words: "She came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both."
A year later, Raymond went into the Franciscan junior seminary at Lwow, Poland, a kind of school for young people interested into becoming priests. While he studied there, he often found himself wondering whether he would be better suited as a soldier rather than as a priest, but by the age of 16 he had decided that he was called to the priesthood after all. He was ordained as a novice in the Franciscan order, and as is the practice, took a new name, Maximilian, after a famous Christian who had been killed for refusing to deny his faith more than 1600 years before.
Maximilian soon moved to Rome to continue his studies, and by the time he was 20, he was a fully fledged member of the Franciscan order. Ordained a full priest in 1919, Maximilian returned to Poland. There he taught church history in a seminary, and founded a Franciscan friary, which soon had over 700 members. He also established a printing press publishing a number of magazines and a daily newspaper. Eventually, he travelled to India and Japan, and set up friaries there, but eventually returned to Poland.
When the Nazis invaded his country in 1939, Maximilian rightly expected that they would eventually seize his friary, and sent most of the brothers home. Soon, he was arrested and imprisoned for a short while, but immediately on release, he used his friary as a safe house for refugees. Over 3,000 of them passed through the gates of Maximilian’s friary, 2,000 of whom were Jews. Although he had been ordered to cease production as soon as the Nazis invaded, the friary’s printing presses were turned to producing pamphlets and newspapers protesting against the Nazi regime. In 1941, the Nazis shut the community down and Maximilian was arrested again. This time he was sent to Auschwitz.
Here, despite his ill health, Maximilian was put on a detail carrying logs, along with a number of other clergymen. If he slackened his pace, the guards set the dogs on him. If he fell over, he was beaten up.
Throughout this time, Maximilian made a point of continuing to act as a priest to the other inmates, hearing confessions, sharing what little food he had, and giving comfort in every way he could, even though there were many who were not suffering as badly as he was himself. Even when he had been beaten up, Maximilian used his time in the infirmary to encourage the people there and to hear their confessions. He even made sure that he was always the last to receive treatment in the infirmary. Rudolph Diem, the Protestant doctor in the infirmary, was later to recall: “I can say with certainty that during my four years in Auschwitz, I never saw such a sublime example of the love of God and one's neighbour.”
One night in July 1941, one of the prisoners in Kolbe’s block escaped, and as a result, Maximilian Kolbe was to perform his final act of sacrifice. It was the policy of the brutal camp commandant, Fritsch, to call to assembly the prisoners of a block where there had been an escape, where they would remain for the entire day. If the prisoners in question had not been caught by the end of the day, ten men would be executed for every escapee. Sure enough, at the end of the day, ten men were chosen, among them a young Polish sergeant named Franciszek Gajowniczek, who, on being chosen, began to beg for the sake of his wife and children.
Maximilian stepped forward. Respectfully removing his cap, he offered to go in the place of the young Polish soldier. Those who were there recalled later that the commandant was so stunned by this gesture that he was unable to speak. Eventually, he curtly sent Gajowniczek back to his place. Maximilian replaced him. The ten men were locked in a cell and left to starve to death. But as the days wore on, there were no cries for mercy, no sounds of weeping. For, in the bunker, Maximilian continued to comfort his fellow victims. The people in the cell survived longer than anyone has a business to, and in the end, the Nazi guards came in and finished off the remaining four prisoners with lethal injections of carbonic acid. The last prisoner conscious was Maximilian Kolbe, who finally had the opportunity to win the red crown that he had been offered so many years ago.
Franciszek Gajownizcek survived. He was present with his large family, his children and grandchildren, at the ceremony in 1982 which marked Maximilian Kolbe officially becoming a saint of the Catholic Church. Gajownizek died in 1995, a great-grandfather who never forgot what the old priest had done for him.
A few brief reflections in the light of Kolbe’s powerful witness:
First, Christian love is one of Christianity’s most powerful arguments for the existence of God. The Bible tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8) but God is invisible. If our love reflects God’s love, God is made visible through us.
Second, Christian love therefore is one of the Church’s most effective evangelistic tools, and a powerful means of drawing people to God. It is also, unfortunately, one of the things we are most poor at.
Third, we are all called to be martyrs, although maybe not to the extent that Kolbe was. The word ‘martyr’ means simply ‘witness’ something Jesus calls all Christians to be (“you will be my witnesses..” Acts 1:8). But that will mean putting ourselves out, ‘sacrificing’ ourselves in some way. Kolbe’s act of martyrdom represents one extreme that this may take us to, but there are different degrees along the road.