Sometimes hope can seem like nothing more than a nostalgic remnant of a bygone age but one saint whose faith endured in the most hopeless situation can teach us to persevere.
Born Raymund Kolbe in Poland in the late 1800’s, St. Maximilian Kolbe would grow up to pioneer new avenues of evangelization, defend two popes against attacks and found monasteries in India and Japan – all while battling severe health issues that would sideline most people. But it was the unbelievable gift he gave to a stranger at the end of his life that made him a legend – and a standard bearer for all true Catholics.
When Kolbe was 12, he was visited by the Virgin Mary, forever altering his life and the impact he would have on the world. The Mother of God offered Kolbe a choice between two crowns: one meant he was to live a pure life; the other would require him to be a martyr. Kolbe boldly asked if he could have them both.
Kolbe consecrated himself to Mary and she would guide his ministry for the rest of his life.
The next year, Kolbe and his brother Francis joined the Conventional Franciscans. Over the next decade, Kolbe would go on to earn multiple doctorates. Kolbe established the Army of the Immaculate One with an eye to convert – rather than defeat – those individuals and groups who were attacking the Church. He also founded and published the “Knight of the Immaculate,” with the purpose of “…the conversion of sinners, heretics, schismatics and so on, above all the Masons, and for the sanctification of all persons under the sponsorship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Mediatrix.”
Kolbe ministered in India and Japan founding monasteries in both countries before his tuberculosis became so debilitating that he had to return home to Poland. The timing of this return was fateful because shortly thereafter Poland would be invaded by Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east.
When it became clear that the Germans and the Russians would carve Poland in two, most Catholic priests fled the country. This was prudent as both the Nazis and the Communists had equal interest in stamping out the Catholic Church. Both ideologies, National Socialism and Communism could only maintain their grip on power in the absence of God. Hitler and Stalin both knew that if the people could be convinced that there was no hope in Christ, they would have no choice but to turn to the state for the illusion of salvation.
Kolbe persevered and even published his materials under the Nazi regime’s nose, knowing the dreadful risk he was taking. During the horrendous occupation of his homeland, Kolbe worked from his monastery publishing anti-Nazi literature and sheltering more than 2000 Jews from the Germans.
Contrary to what many anti-Catholic voices like to promulgate, the Nazis hated the Catholic Church and persecuted Catholics alongside Jews and anybody else who posed a threat to them. Kolbe was one of the very few Franciscans who remained in Poland under the Nazi occupation and he soon experienced their wrath.
Kolbe’s monastery along with his publishing operation was shut down and Kolbe was arrested and sent to the most enduring symbol of the pure evil that was Hitler’s Third Reich: Auschwitz.
As a Catholic priest, Kolbe was singled out by the SS officers for maximum brutality. He was constantly assigned to carry the heaviest loads – far heavier than possible for an average man enduring starvation and fatigue – and he was punished when he would collapse under the immense weight. These punishments consisted of lashing with ropes and being kicked in the torso and face for extended sessions.
On at least one occasion, after passing out from the beating he received, Kolbe was dumped in the freezing mud and left for dead. A testament to the inspiration he was to those around him was that his fellow prisoners secretly dragged him to the infirmary and helped him to recover. Had this act been discovered, it would have meant the most severe punishment for them all.
St. Maximilian Kolbe was the embodiment of Christ’s love and gentleness in the harshest and most hopeless of places. Though literally dying of starvation himself, he would often share his pitiful ration of soup and bread with others. At night, he would minister to other prisoners, taking confessions and comforting those with whom he was imprisoned. Kolbe would implore others to forgive the guards and pray for them. Even as he himself was subjected to repeated unmerciful beatings by the guards, he would pray aloud for them.
Auschwitz guards controlled escape attempts in ruthless fashion. If anyone escaped from the camp, ten men from his bunker would be thrown naked into Building 13 where they would be left to suffer and die of thirst and starvation. One day a man disappeared from Kolbe’s bunker and ten men were picked to pay the price in Building 13 – Kolbe was not one of them.
One of the men selected for this unspeakably cruel torture, Francisiszek Gajowniczek, broke down upon the thought of wife and sons. He lamented what his wife and children would do without him. Without hesitation, Kolbe stood up and looking the guard straight in the eye requested to take the man’s place. This was one request the guard was willing to grant.
Saving Gajowniczek’s life could have been Kolbe’s final act of love and he would still be worthy of merit – but it wasn’t. Inside the dreaded bunker of death the other nine men suffered mental breakdowns from the extreme physical torment of hunger. Some drank the buckets of urine to fight the unquenchable thirst. One by one, they began to die in agony. As each man passed on, Kolbe would pray over the corpse and then lead the surviving men in prayer.
Each of the men died until there was only one left alive in the chamber of horrors: Fr. Kolbe. The priest had outlived the expectation of the camp authorities and the space was needed for more victims. The head nurse was charged with hastening Kolbe’s demise. On August 14, 1941, the German nurse, named Bock, entered the cell to find Fr. Kolbe praying peacefully. Upon seeing the agent of death enter his cell, Kolbe calmly held up his left arm. The man proceeded to inject a lethal dose of carbolic acid into Kolbe’s vein. While saying a prayer, Kolbe peacefully and willfully slipped away.
A witness charged with removing the corpses from the cell later recounted how he found Kolbe sitting against the wall with his eyes open, his head drooping sideways and his face calm and radiant. Kolbe entered death as he had life, with complete submission to God’s will. He venerated the Blessed Mother Mary, whose visit all those years ago had set him on his remarkable path to sainthood, and devoted his life to her beautiful response to God: “Be it done to me according to thy Word.”
There is so much for modern Catholics to learn from the example of St. Maximillian Kolbe, and those lessons are needed now more than ever. At a time when the Church is under attack, not only from all sides, but also from within, our fight must be spiritual and our strategy must be centered in Christ. Kolbe was a man of great peace, but this did not make him a coward. This is a distinction that very few people in modern times have the ability to understand.
Kolbe never hesitated to stand up when he saw terrible events transpiring, nor did he run from them. His life was dedicated to loving service and protection of others and is a model for Christians the world over, but especially in the West. He had unshakeable faith in God and because of this he was able to bring peace to those without hope and save those without options.
God gives us the saints to show us how He wants us to live and now more than ever is the time for us to heed the lesson. The world seems on the brink of tearing itself apart and different opinions about it turn friends into enemies. Kolbe saw his country being destroyed by two warmongering nations obsessed with the accumulation of power. He responded to it as a Christian is called to respond to such things: he helped those he could. One person cannot save the world but one person can save someone else’s world.
The Christian is called to a life of struggle, for it is through suffering and struggle that one truly meets God. There are Christians in the U.S. – prominent ones – who refuse to help refugees because of the harm that “could” come from it. Hiding 2000 Jews from the Nazis was one of the reasons St. Kolbe ended up in Auschwitz, but he did it without reservation. And coming down from Heaven and revealing Himself to us led to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. There is no valid basis in Christianity for refusing to help others in the name of self-preservation. It may be instinctual, it may be prudent and it may be the best course of action for an individual or nation’s survival – but it is not Christian.
When we do suffer the pains that result from doing things God’s way, we must persevere as did St. Kolbe in the horror of Auschwitz. Rather than lamenting our pain or misfortune, we must continue to look for how we can bring comfort to others in pain in whatever way we can. Would I be able to share my one pitiful piece of stale bread a day with others while myself starving? I would like to think so but the truth is it is unlikely. St. Kolbe was above and beyond, but that’s why he is a saint. We don’t necessarily have to venture that far into the lion’s den, but we do have to at least enter the arena.
I have written much about fear because it is the one state of mind that will turn humans into beasts. In a concentration camp, where torture, brutality and the possibility of death surround every single moment, fear was understandably – and with very few exceptions – the only constant. One of those exceptions was St. Kolbe. A survivor of Auschwitz, Jozef Stemler, who knew Kolbe, gave a beautiful summation of the saint’s effect in the camp:
“In the midst of a brutalization of thought, feeling and words such as had never before been known, man indeed became a ravening wolf in his relations with other men. And into this state of affairs came the heroic self-sacrifice of Father Kolbe.”
Despite enduring unbelievably harsh conditions – harsher than many of his co-prisoners – Kolbe was the beacon of the love and compassion that Christ called all His followers to be. In Christ, there is no fear because He has defeated it and there is nothing to be afraid of. To follow Christ is to be completely unafraid, even of death itself.
St. Kolbe did not lead a rebellion against the Nazis in Poland, nor did he lead a revolt in the concentration camp. Rather, he did what he could to help those who were suffering alongside him in whatever ways he could, certain that he was doing God’s will and that God would deliver him at the right time. He had complete trust in God and God did not fail him.
There is much to be done in the world and if there were more people who lived and believed as St Kolbe did, it would get done. Service and self-sacrifice is the Christian model of living. A compete trust in God to always be there for us, to guide us and to answer our prayers is all we need rely upon. Fear of getting hurt, though logical and prudent, is not an option. We must trust that God has us in the palm of His hand and go forth into this cruel world to spread the light that has been given to us.
It is time for Christians to rise to the great calling we have been given and live from a position of love. Though there may be many with whom you disagree and feel hold beliefs that are disgraceful, disgusting and evil, it is time to put down the weapons and let go of the anger. It is time to pray for them and work for peace. Not because Robert Malone says so, but because Jesus Christ does.
 St. Maximillian Kolbe, 1938
 Bruno Borgowiec, private testimony to his parish priest on his deathbed, 1947
 Luke 1:38