Saint Maximilian Kolbe
A fervent devotee to Mary. A master of new media. A pure, sacrificial soul. The brave Franciscan friar and eventual martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe was a man with a soldier’s heart, dedicating his life to fight in a spiritual war for souls.
He accomplished a great deal in his 47 years alive – organizing the Militia Immaculata (Army of the Immaculate One), creating a monthly periodical titled “Rycerz Niepokalanej” (Knight of the Immaculate), founding monasteries across the world, and essentially building an entire city in Poland. He is a well-known saint for his heroic sacrifice in Auschwitz, volunteering to die in the place of a stranger in the German death camp, but there is much to learn from his life, starting at a very young age.
Raymund Kolbe was born on January 8th, 1894 in Zduńska-Wola, Poland. One of five boys born to his parents, Julius Kolbe and Maria Dabrowska, he witnessed the effects of Poland’s political disunity at a young age, while growing in devotion to Jesus through Mary from the influence of his virtuous mother – who taught him to pray the Rosary, Angelus and other Marian prayers.
These daily recitations couldn’t subdue Raymund’s mischievous nature though, with the young child drawing the ire of his mother one day in 1906. “I don’t know what’s going to become of you,” she said, shaking the disobedient youth to his core. He tearfully presented himself to Lord at his usual place of prayer, where he had a vision of the Virgin Mary. He described the incident:
“That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me 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.”
Following this vision, his days as a troublesome youth were over, with Raymund and his older brother Francis joining the Conventual Franciscans the very next year. They were enrolled at a seminary in Lwow, with Raymund entering the novitiate on September 4th, 1910, where he was given the new name Maximilian. He briefly left the Order, with his Polish patriotism and love of Mary leading him to attempt to join the military forces in defense of Poland. God would soon make it clear that his mission was meant to be fought on the spiritual battlefield, and not a military one, and Friar Maximilian soon returned to the Order.
He was sent to Rome in 1912 to further his theological studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University, earning a doctorate in philosophy in 1915 and another in theology a few years later. His dedication to Mary persisted throughout his time in Rome, where as a student, he witnessed vehement demonstrations against the Pope and the Catholic Church as a whole. With numerous Freemason pamphlets being distributed and other forms of media going out to shamefully attack the Holy Father, Kolbe knew something had to be done.
On October 16th, 1917, Kolbe, along with six other friars, joined together to form the “Militia Immaculatae” (Army of the Immaculate One) to work for the conversion of all enemies of the Catholic Church. They consecrated themselves totally to the Immaculata and begin planning how to bring conversion to the Freemasons and beyond.
Kolbe was officially ordained as a priest in 1918, and he returned home to Poland the following year to continue his work of promoting Mary throughout the newly independent country. He was appointed to serve as a professor at the Franciscan seminaries near Kraków, but a severe bout of tuberculosis, which also ailed Kolbe while in Rome, derailed those plans. He was forced to take a lengthy leave of absence from teaching, but while his physical body ailed greatly from this sickness, Kolbe’s zeal for souls never diminished.
Not long after returning to Poland, Kolbe desired to start a Catholic newspaper, but lacked the funds. However, he had faith in Mary’s providence, and after praying for her intercession, he was able to collect enough donations to purchase an old printing press. After another spell of tuberculosis, Kolbe moved to a small friary in Grodno, where he operated a religious publishing press until 1926. Most notably, he founded a monthly periodical titled “Rycerz Niepokalanej” (Knight of the Immaculate) as a devotional publication to the Virgin Mary. Kolbe had seen how the enemies of the Church had utilized the media to spread hate – he knew he had the opportunity to utilize the same mediums of communication to instead spread Christ’s love, and this endeavor would change Kolbe’s life forever.
The magazine began circulating widely around the country, with a daily newspaper, Maly Dziennik, also growing in popularity. At its peak, the Knight of the Immaculate was reported to have a press run of 750,000 copies printed a month. Soon, the growing number of subscribers forced Kolbe’s printing apostolate to start looking for a larger area to continue their missionary media efforts. At the same time, a Polish Prince Jan Drucko-Lubecki was selling a large plot of land outside of Warsaw, right by a railway. When Kolbe went to negotiate with the Prince in June of 1927, he brought with him a statue of the Virgin Mary. The negotiations reached a standstill, due to Kolbe not having the amount of money the Prince was asking for the land. The Prince was willing to reduce the price if the Order would offer perpetual Mass for him and his descendants, but when the Order refused, Kolbe departed, but left the statue on the property.
When the Prince eventually told Kolbe to come collect the large statue, Kolbe merely responded with a request to let the statue remain there for awhile. After some time had passed, with the Prince constantly gazing upon the statue throughout the day, he came to realize that he was depriving the Virgin Mary of her rightful honor, and reached out to Fr. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, who he realized was a true ambassador of the Blessed Mother, to agree to his terms and sell the land.
Twenty-two friars would be the founding residents of Niepokalanów, the City of the Immaculate. It was consecrated on December 8th, 1927, with a junior seminary starting in 1929, leading hundreds of men to flock to the area in pursuit of a radically Marian life. At one point, the monastery housed almost eight hundred people, not all priests or friars, but simply men dedicated to heroic lives of poverty, prayer, and sanctity. The city quickly became a major religious printing center, with Kolbe repeatedly pointing out that success was not measured in constructing more buildings or adding more printing presses; instead, it was found in the daily deepening of one’s love for the Immaculate.
This love was further put into action by Kolbe when from 1930 to 1936, he traveled to Nagasaki, Japan alongside four other friars, in hopes of starting a mission there. His missionary heart had no bounds, and despite many barriers of language, opposition from local authorities and lack of finances, they were able to publish the Japanese version of their magazine, titled “Seibo no Kishi” as well as establish a new City of the Immaculate, named “Mugenzai no Sono”, or “Garden of the Immaculate.” Most notable about this monastery was that Kolbe prayerfully built it on a side of a mountain that he was advised against, due to Shinto beliefs viewing it as the side “not in tune with nature.” When the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, the monastery was untouched from the blast by the other side of the mountain, which bore the brunt of the explosion. Had he built the monastery on the preferred side, it would not still be standing to this day.
Kolbe would become the superior at Mugenzai no Sono one year after their arrival to Japan, with the Japanese version of The Knight surging to 50,000 subscribers by 1933. However, health issues continued to assail Kolbe, and after a brief trip to Malabar, India in an attempt to open another monastery, he returned to Poland in 1936. By this time, Niepokalanów had an airport, medical facilities, and even its own fire brigade. In 1938, Kolbe also held an amateur radio license and started a radio station, Radio Niepokalanów, to continue to use modern media to spread the word of God. He hoped to one day build a motion picture studio, but those plans were halted in 1939, when during WWII, the Nazis occupied Poland.
Kolbe was one of the few friars who remained at the monastery, which had been converted to a temporary hospital, when the Nazis raided Niepokalanów. Kolbe was arrested on September 19th, 1939, but released on December 8th. He refused to sign the Deutsche Volksliste, a Nazi institution translated to “German People’s List” which would have given him rights similar to those of German citizens, in exchange for recognizing his ethnic German ancestry. Instead, he returned to the ransacked monastery, undeterred, to continue his missionary work.
The monastery would become a safe haven for refugees and displaced families, with Kolbe helping hide 3,000 Polish refugees, two-thirds being Jewish, from the Nazis. They also continued their publication work, including many materials that were critical of the Nazi party.
On February 17th, 1941, the monastery was officially shut down, and Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo alongside four others. They were imprisoned in the Pawiak prison, located in Warsaw, before being transferred to Auschwitz on May 28th, as prisoner 16670.
Upon his arrest, Saint Maximilian said, “Courage, my sons. Don’t you see that we are leaving on a mission? They pay our fare in the bargain. What a piece of good luck! The thing to do now is to pray well in order to win as many souls as possible.”
Kolbe continued to act as a priest while in Auschwitz, despite being subject to violent harassment for doing so. He received numerous beatings and lashings but continued to minister to all those around him in the dark, heartless prison. At one point he was beaten so badly, the prisoners had to smuggle him into the camp hospital, where he heard confessions as he recovered. It is said that Kolbe would conduct Mass within the prison, using smuggled bread and wine, and would step aside from the food line to allow others to eat, despite the rations being pitiful to begin with. He was unflinching in the midst of incredible harshness, and maintained the gentleness of Christ at all times, pleading with his fellow prisoners to mercifully forgive their persecutors.
At the end of July 1941, a prisoner escaped from the camp. Nazi camp protocol required that ten men be killed in retribution for every one that escapes, prompting the Nazi commander to pick the ten souls to be slaughtered. Francis Gajowniczek, a married man with young children was chosen as one of the ten, and when selected he cried “”My wife! My children!” When Fr. Maximilian Mary Kolbe heard his anguished cries, he stepped forward. “What does this Polish pig want?” the Nazi commander asked, to which Kolbe replied that he was a Catholic priest wishing to take Gajowniczek’s place. Astonished, the commander granted the request, and Kolbe was led off to the starvation chamber.
According to an eyewitness from the prison, an assistant janitor within Auschwitz, what happened next was beyond comprehension. Inside the prison cell, Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer each day. Whenever the guards would check on the condemned men, he was calmly standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell. Two terrible weeks of starvation and water deprivation followed, with Kolbe hearing the whispered prayers of his fellow prisoners as they passed away, leaving only him alive in the cell. The guards, wanting the bunker emptied for more future cruelty, decided Kolbe’s time was up.
Kolbe was given a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Some eyewitnesses at the injection say that he calmly raised his left arm up, offering his arm to the executioner. He died on August 14th, 1941, and his remains were cremated on August 15th, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary.
On January 30th, 1969, Kolbe was declared venerable by Pope Paul VI. He was also beatified by Pope Paul VI on October 17, 1971, who recognized him as a Confessor of the Faith, but not a martyr. On October 10, 1982, Pope John Paul II surprisingly arrived at Kolbe’s canonization wearing red vestments, to officially recognize him as a martyr. JPII wanted to make a point that the Nazi systematic hatred of entire categories of humanity was inherently a hatred of entire religious faiths. Francis Gajowniczek, the prisoner Kolbe replaced in the death chamber, was present for both his beatification and canonization ceremonies.
He is the patron saint of journalists, media communications, the pro-life movement, recovering drug addicts, political prisoners, and families. At his canonization, JPII called Kolbe “the “patron for our difficult century.” In the midst of another difficult century, let us look to Kolbe’s devotion to Mary, his ability to embrace modern technology to spread God’s love, and his heroic sacrifice in the face of evil to inspire us forward in our heavenly journey.