Modern Day Saint
Maximilian Kolbe, Martyr
(1884 to 1941)
Raymond Kolbe was born in Zdunska-Wola, Poland on January 7, 1884. At a very young age, Raymond had a vision in which the Blessed Mother offered him a life of purity or a life of martyrdom. Fearlessly, he chose both.
Raymond received the habit of the Conventional Franciscans and the name of Maximilian on September 4, 1910. He was ordained a priest in Rome in 1918, having earned a doctorate in theology and having founded the Militia of Mary Immaculate to advance Marian devotion. This group is now called the Knights of the Immaculata.
In 1920, Maximilian suffered from tuberculosis and was confined to a convalescent home for two years. After his recovery he returned to Poland and continued his ministry in the Knights of the Immaculata. He then went to Japan and India, spreading the special devotion to those countries.
Recalled to Poland in 1939, Maximilian faced the Nazi occupiers of his homeland and realized that his apostolate was being targeted. In that year, he was arrested by the Gestapo, but was fortunate enough to be released. In February 1941, he was arrested again and confined in Warsaw. On May 28, 1941, with two hundred and fifty other prisoners, he was sent to Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp. He and the other priest prisoners were singled out for special punishment details and beaten. Throughout, Maximilian assured his companions that the Nazis "will not kill our souls." He added: "And when we die, then we die pure and peaceful, resigned to God in our hearts."
In August 1941, Maximilian saw a Polish soldier, Francis Gajownniczek, chosen as a victim of retaliatory execution for the escape of a prisoner. He announced to the startled German commandant: "I am a Catholic priest from Poland, I would like to take his place, because of his wife and children." Francis Gajownniczek was returned to the ranks, and Maximilian became a condemned victim.
With the nine other chosen prisoners, Maximilian was placed in a starvation unit, deprived of food and water. They did not cry or weep, but recited the Rosary and sang Marian hymns. A Nazi officer was so impressed by their piety and courage that he kept a careful documentation of the days of suffering. At the end of two weeks Maximilian and three other prisoners were still alive. They were given lethal injections by the camp executioner on August 14, 1941, and their remains were cremated the next day.
Pope Paul Vl beatified Maximilian in 1971.
Pope John Paul ll canonized Maximilian Kolbe as a martyr on October 10, 1982, declaring him the "Patron of our Difficult Century." He stated that, "Maximilian Kolbe, like few others, was filled with the mystery of the divine election of Mary."
This one man, Maximilian Kolbe, who chose to give his life for another in a brutal Nazi death camp, stands before the world today as both an insignia of a terrible age and as a magnificent symbol of Catholic perfection. He was one of the most dedicated men of our times. An ideal for other Catholics as well as priests.
The above was edited from an article on Maximilian Kolbe in John Paul ll's book of Saints published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
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