Collection: St. Maximilian Kolbe
ARTIST: Julie Lonneman
Maximilian Kolbe was a Franciscan priest who had a special devotion to Mary. Maximilian is best known, however, for the way in which he lived the last few years of his life. As the Nazis rose in power, he spoke out against them. Even though he had a Germanic background, he refused to protect himself by becoming a legal German national.
In February of 1941, Maximilian was imprisoned in Warsaw and suffered great abuse and torture. He was released, only to be imprisoned a second time in May and sent to Auschwitz. While at Auschwitz, Maximilian continued in his ministry as a priest. He heard confessions, comforted other prisoners, and said Mass with bread and wine that had been smuggled into the camp.
In July, a prisoner attempted to escape. As a penalty, ten prisoners were chosen to be executed. Among them was a young husband and father who begged to be spared. Father Kolbe spoke up and asked that he be taken in place of the young man. Maximilian and the others were sent to a starvation chamber. For two weeks, he tried to keep their spirits up through praying the rosary and through singing. Maximilian was the last to remain conscious. On August 14, 1941, he and the four men who were still alive were injected with phenol.
—ND Vision, University of Notre Dame
His feast day is August 14.
Raymond Kolbe was the second of three sons born to a poor but pious Catholic family in Russian occupied Poland. His parents, both Franciscan lay tertiaries, worked at home as weavers. His father, Julius, later ran a religious book store, then enlisted in Pilsudski's army, fought for Polish independence from Russia, and was hanged by the Russians as a traitor in 1914. His mother, Marianne Dabrowska, later became a Benedictine nun. His brother Alphonse became a priest.
Raymond was known as a mischievous child, sometimes considered wild, and a trial to his parents. However, in 1906 at Pabianice, at age twelve and around the time of his first Communion, he received a vision of the Virgin Mary that changed his life.
“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 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."
He entered the Franciscan junior seminary in Lwow, Poland in 1907 where he excelled in mathematics and physics. For a while he wanted to abandon the priesthood for the military, but eventually relented to the call to religious life, and on 4 September 1910 he became a novice in the Conventual Franciscan Order at age 16. He took the name Maximilian, made his first vows on 5 September 1911, his final vows on 1 November 1914.
Maximilian studied philosophy at the Jesuit Gregorian College in Rome from 1912 to 1915, and theology at the Franciscan Collegio Serafico in Rome from 1915 to 1919. On 16 October 1917, while still in seminary, he and six friends founded the Immaculata Movement (Militia Immaculatae, Crusade of Mary Immaculate) devoted to the conversion of sinners, opposition to freemasonry (which was extremely anti-Catholic at the time), spread of the Miraculous Medal (which they wore as their habit), and devotion to Our Lady and the path to Christ.
He was stricken with tuberculosis which nearly killed him, and left him in frail health the rest of his life. He was ordained on 28 April 1918 in Rome at age 24 and received his Doctor of Theology on 22 July 1922; his insights into Marian theology echo today through their influence on Vatican II.
Maximilian returned to Poland on 29 July 1919 to teach history in the Crakow seminary. He had to take a medical leave from 10 August 1920 to 28 April 1921 to be treated for tuberculosis at the hospital at Zakpane in the Tatra Mountains. In January 1922 he began publication of the magazine Knight of the Immaculate to fight religious apathy and by 1927 the magazine had a press run of 70,000 issues. He was forced to take another medical leave from 18 September 1926 to 13 April 1927, but the work continued. The friaries from which he had worked were not large enough for his work, and in 1927 Polish Prince Jan Drucko-Lubecki gave him land at Teresin near Warsaw. There he founded a new monastery of Niepokalanow, the City of the Immaculate which was consecrated on 8 December 1927. At its peak the Knight of the Immaculate had a press run of 750,000 copies a month. A junior seminary was started on the grounds in 1929. In 1935 the house began printing a daily Catholic newspaper, The Little Daily with a press run of 137,000 on work days and 225,000 on Sundays and holy days.
Not content with his work in Poland, Maximilian and four brothers left for Japan in 1930. Within a month of their arrival, penniless and knowing no Japanese, Maximilian was printing a Japanese version of the Knight. The magazine, Seibo no Kishi grew to a circulation of 65,000 by 1936. In 1931 he founded a monastery in Nagasaki, Japan comparable to Niepokalanow. It survived the war, including the nuclear bombing, and serves today as a center of Franciscan work in Japan.
In mid-1932 he left Japan for Malabar, India where he founded a third Niepokalanow house. However, due to a lack of manpower, it did not survive.
Poor health forced him to curtail his missionary work and return to Poland in 1936. On 8 December 1938 the monastery started its own radio station. By 1939 the monastery housed a religious community of nearly 800 men, the largest in the world in its day, and was completely self-sufficient including medical facilities and a fire brigade staffed by the religious brothers.
Maximilian was arrested with several of his brothers on 19 September 1939 following the Nazi invasion of Poland. Others at the monastery were briefly exiled, but the prisoners were released on 8 December 1939, and the men returned to their work. Back at Niepokalanow he continued his priestly ministry, The brothers housed 3,000 Polish refugees, two-thirds of whom were Jewish, and continued their publication work, including materials considered anti-Nazi. For this work the presses were shut down, the congregation suppressed, the brothers dispersed, and Maximilian was imprisoned in Pawiak prison, Warsaw, Poland on 17 February 1941.
On 28 May 1941 he was transferred to Auschwitz and branded as prisoner 16670. He was assigned to a special work group staffed by priests and supervised by especially vicious and abusive guards. His calm dedication to the faith brought him the worst jobs available, and more beatings than anyone else. At one point he was beaten, lashed, and left for dead. The prisoners managed to smuggle him into the camp hospital where he spent his recovery time hearing confessions. When he returned to the camp, Maximilian ministered to other prisoners, including conducting Mass and delivering communion using smuggled bread and wine.
In July 1941 there was an escape from the camp. Camp protocol, designed to make the prisoners guard each other, required that ten men be slaughtered in retribution for each escaped prisoner. Francis Gajowniczek, a married man with young children was chosen to die for the escape. Maximilian volunteered to take his place, and died as he had always wished - in service.
Born: January 7, 1894 at Zdunska Wola, Poland as Raymond Kolbe
Died: August 14, 1941 by lethal carbonic acid injection after three weeks of starvation and dehydration at the Auschwitz, Poland death camp; body burned in the ovens and ashes scattered
Venerated: January 30, 1969 by Pope Paul VI
Beatified: October 17, 1971 by Pope Paul VI; his beatification miracles include the July 1948 cure of intestinal tuberculosis of Angela Testoni, and August 1950 cure of calcification of the arteries/sclerosis of Francis Ranier
Canonized: October 10, 1982 by John John Paul II; declared a martyr of charity
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. Let us, then, tell the Blessed Virgin that we are content, and that she can do with us anything she wishes.
—Saint Maximilian Kolbe
The most deadly poison of our times is indifference. And this happens, although the praise of God should know no limits. Let us strive, therefore, to praise Him to the greatest extent of our powers.
—Saint Maximilian Kolbe
For Jesus Christ I am prepared to suffer still more.
—Saint Maximilian Kolbe
No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?
—Saint Maximilian Kolbe in the last issue of the Knight