There’s nothing like curling up with a mug of hot black coffee and a good book. Fr. Paulin Sotowski`s leading publication on St. Maximilian Kolbe may be the best comprehensive account of this heroic figure of modern times that I have read. It is a pity that Opowieść o świętym Maxymilianie (The Story of Saint Maximilian) has not been translated into English.
St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) is widely known as a “martyr of love,” because he took the place of another man being sent with a group of prisoners to die of starvation in Auschwitz. Although the Franciscan’s death was a jewel in the crown of his life, one should be aware that throughout his life, by depending solely on Divine Providence, he was a silent protagonist in giving himself every day.
(1) Anonymous Donor
In 1907, because the minor Franciscan seminary in Lwów (Lviv) did not charge tuition, it seemed the only solution for two brothers Franciszek Kolbe and Rajmund Kolbe (later Fr. Maximilian) coming from a poor family, to get the decent education. It only remained for them to cross the Russia and Austria-Hungary frontier secretly and then make a long train trip to Lwów. However, the Kolbe’s family could not afford tickets. Of course, young Rajmund hoped for some sort of divine intervention, a grace from on high to set things right, and he did not misjudge the situation.
Fr. Maximilian prayer intention list contains, inter alios: the general of the Franciscan order, parents, brothers, other relatives, a protestant pastor, and “the one who paid for the train tickets to Lwów” – whom the saint recalled during every Mass he said.
Another year went by and their youngest brother, Józef (later Fr. Alfons) joined the two brothers.
(2) The Virgin Mary brings Mum
In the minor seminary it was the standard practice for all the students in their penultimate year to inform the father provincial whether they wanted to enter the novitiate or not. Both the Kolbe brothers decided to complete seminary and return to secular life.
As they were going to meet the provincial superior, Fr. Pelegryn Haczela, all of a sudden they were called to see their mum, Marianna Kolbe. She briefly explained that their parents had made up their minds to enter religious life.
Actually, Juliusz and Marianna Kolbe’s dreams did not come true. Eventually he became a member of the third order of St. Francis and died in mysterious circumstances at the end of the WWI; neither did she profess vows but rather worked at the beginning as a lay person at a Benedictine monastery in Lwów and then at the Felician Sisters’ convent in Kraków.
“Divine Providence in his infinite mercy, through the Immaculata, brought at a crucial moment Mum to the parlour. – In this way, God destroyed the works of the devil. – Nearly nine years have elapsed since that time. With terror as well as with gratitude to the Immaculata, who was a tool of God’s mercy – I recall that moment. What would have happened if She had not given me a hand then?”- Fr. Kolbe wrote years later.
(3) The miraculous cure
In 1915, Marianna Kolbe received a letter from her son containing information about a minor surgery that might thwart his ordination. On the thumb of his right hand an abscess had developed. Despite the treatment of a local doctor pus did not disappear and the bone badly needed scraping off. There was a grave risk of losing the thumb which meant that young Maximilian could not become a priest, according to the Church law.
Here are some excerpts from the letter.
“On hearing about this, I replied that there was a better medication, that I had received Lourdes holy water from the Seminary’s rector. When he gave it to me, he told me a story of his own miraculous cure.”
“When our doctor here in Rome heard that I had Lourdes water, he said he would be happy to make a bandage with it for me. And what happened? The next morning the doctor said that there was no longer need for surgery. After a little further treatment my thumb was healed. Glory be to God and to the Immaculata!”
(4) The mysterious envelope
As Fr. Paulin Sotowski, OFMConv mentioned in his book, the very first issue of Father Maximilian’s magazine, The Knight of the Immaculata, had a little notice on it saying, “Due to a lack of funds, the regular appearance of this review cannot be guaranteed,” and it had been financed entirely by donations. Despite the fact that Father Maximilian was not a shy person, he had great difficulty begging for money. His fellow Franciscans criticized him for taking on more than he could handle.
“When we ran out of money and desperately needed 500 Polish marks to finish the printing, which nobody else knew, in our Franciscan church, on the altar dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, someone had left an envelope marked “For Thee, my Immaculate Mother.” When it was opened we found the missing sum of money – 500 Polish marks. For the last 20 years we have encountered so many such instances that they cannot be regarded as pure coincidence, and it is hard to credit religious naivety for this.”
(5) God’s blessing on publishing work
Between 1930 and 1936, with only one lung due to a bout of tuberculosis, while living in abject poverty and working tirelessly, the “madman of the Immaculata” undertook a series of missions to the Far East, at first in China, and then in Japan and Malabar in India.
On April 24, 1930 Kolbe arrived in Japan to start the first Polish Franciscan mission in Nagasaki from scratch. He neither had a recommendation letter to a local bishop nor did he know the Japanese language. Yet, with scarce resources, having no knowledge of Japanese culture, methods of printing and types, they published within a month 10,000 copies of their first number of Knight of the Immaculate. He named it Mugenzai no Sono, a literal translation of “Garden of the Immaculata.”
Throughout those turbulent years the Saint revealed characteristic determination, grounded in his firm belief that Japan was the plan of the Immaculata, and he could not be deterred. By 1935 the number of missionaries rose from 5 to 20, including 4 native vocations; and a minor seminary was established which counted 16 students and three lay lecturers. At that time the magazine had a monthly circulation of 50,000 copies, making it the largest Catholic periodical in the country!
(6) Supernatural strength in “hell”
One fascinating phenomenon was that SS men in Auschwitz literally couldn’t stand Fr. Kolbe’s glance, and would yell at him ‘Look at the ground, not at us.’
According to Bruno Borgowiec, an interpreter and camp prisoner who was assigned to service the death bunker:
“Fr. Maximilian seemed to have been endowed with a sort of supernatural strength. He encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked, “This priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him.”
Rudolf Franz Höss, the commandant of the concentration and extermination camp, who ordered the ten to die, was responsible for 1,000,000 to 2,500,000 other deaths. At the end of the war Höss was arrested and, days before dying, wrote to the state prosecutor:
“In the solitude of my prison cell, I have come to the bitter recognition that I have sinned gravely against humanity … May the Lord God forgive one day what I have done.”
Höss converted on his deathbed, confessed to a priest, and returned to the Catholic faith of his youth before being hanged.
There is a spiritual link between the martyrdom of Kolbe and the conversion of Höss; likewise, the Catholic Church associates the first martyr St. Stephen with the transformation of Saul into a believer, later to become St. Paul.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the Saint provides us, like Sr. Faustina Kowalska, the supreme model of complete and unconditional trust in God in every situation of life. These events are no more than the natural response of a merciful God to the abiding faith of man. Our Lord said, “The more a soul trusts, the more graces it will receive” (Diary 1578). One can even assume that they represent only the tip of the iceberg of those St. Maximilian experienced during his entire religious life.
In 1917, in Rome, Fr. Maximilian established, with other Franciscans, the Catholic Organization of the Militia Immaculatæ (MI). Its main purpose was “To seek the conversion of sinners, heretics, schismatics, Jews etc. and especially the Freemasons, and obtain the sanctification of all under the protection and by the mediation of the Immaculate Virgin.”
Even to this very day, its goal continues to be the sanctification of as many souls as possible under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
At present some Catholic leaders, many perhaps unwittingly, seem intent on spoiling young people through seemingly innocuous overtones that stem from the organization which is intrinsically hostile to Christianity, the United Nations. It suffices to search websites and find “Sustainability will be the new central objective of World Youth Day, Lisbon 2023.” This dangerous economic paradigm belonging to a larger ideological structure contrasts starkly with objectives pursued by Saint Maximilian Kolbe. Hence, I would not financially support my adult children’s plans for going to Lisbon if they asked me to do so.
“The present vast overpopulation, now far beyond the world carrying capacity, cannot be answered by future reductions in the birth rate due to contraception, sterilization and abortion but must be met in the present by reduction of numbers presently existing. This must be done with whatever means necessary.”(Initiative for the United Nations ECO 92 Earth Charter)
Saint Maximilian, ora pro nobis!