Saturday, August 14, 2004

Some saints give themselves away: St. Maximilian Kolbe

Today is the memorial of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Remarkable in so many ways, even before we get to the part he's famous about. As a child he has a vision/dream of Our Lady offering him either of two crowns to be his, one representing perfect holy chastity, the other the blessing of martyrdom; in his 11-year-old's innocence he asks if he can have them both, please. And, as it turned out, he did have them both.

After successful university studies in mathematics and physics, he joined the Conventual Franciscans, earned two doctorate degrees, and taught seminary for a while, then launched out into an apostolate evangelizing by the press and radio, in both Poland and Japan. At the outbreak of hostilities, he was the superior of a very large community in Poland; and because he was a priest, and Polish, and intellectual, and outspoken in the press, he was a prime target of the Nazi occupiers. He was arrested and released several times, the final straw for the Nazis was his sheltering between 3 and 4 thousand Polish refugees in his friary, at least a third of them Jewish. This earned him a one-way pass to Auschwitz. Where he continued to minister and evangelize despite extreme hardships.

Then came a particular day in the last week of July, 1941. Someone had escaped from Block 14A, and according to the rules, 10 prisoners from the same block were to be killed by starvation for every escapee. So 10 men from 14A were selected to be killed, one of them cried out in mourning for his wife and children. Fr. Kolbe stepped out and petitioned the commander to take the place of one of the selected, the one who cried out. Asked who he thought he was, he said he was a priest. Then he offered the officer a reason on the officer's level ---- "I am old and frail, he is young and strong and has a family." And his offer was accepted. He was locked away in the starvation bunker with the other nine from 14A and twenty others from the blocks of two other escapees. He ministered to his 29 fellow victims, leading them in prayers and hymns and offering meditations on the passion and last things, and helping each one to die in peace with God. After two weeks or so, the camp personnel were getting impatient; five of the prisoners were still alive and one, Fr. Kolbe, was still conscious. They needed the room for a new set of victims, so on August 14th they killed Fr. Kolbe and the others still alive by lethal injection.

Most loving Father, whose Son Jesus Christ came to give his life as a ransom for many: Grant to us the grace, as you did grant it to your servant and priest Maximilian Kolbe, to be always ready to come to the aid of those in need or distress, not counting the cost; so that we may follow in the footsteps of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and with the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
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