The Story of a Modern Martyr
By REV. DANIEL F. McSHEFFERY
Just a little more than a hundred years ago, in 1894, Raymond Kolbe, the son of pious and poor parents, was born in a little community of Zdunska-Wola
near the city of Lodz in Poland. His mother and father worked in a cottage shop as weavers.
At a very early age, the younger Kolbe became attracted to the monks of the Conventual Franciscan Order who worked at their monastery in Lodz. At 17, he pronounced his temporary religious vows and took the religious name of Maximilian. He went to Rome where he studied philosophy and theology, and received his academic degrees.
Throughout his teenage years, he developed a strong devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. Because of this great devotion, he added the name Mary to Maximilian when he made his solemn profession as a Franciscan in 1914. He finished his studies and was ordained a priest in Rome in 1919. Immediately following the ceremonies, he returned to work in his beloved Poland.
Shortly after his return to his native land, he was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. He suffered a near fatal attack. His bout with this serious illness weakened him. He bore the effects of the disease for the rest of his life.
Despite his frail constitution, he assumed the full-time position as professor of Church history at the Franciscan seminary. He became a popular and effective teacher, and began to spread his ministry beyond his students to the people of Cracow.
He recognized that although almost all those living in the area professed to be faithful Catholics, their knowledge of the faith was elementary. They were unable to defend themselves against the attacks of the anti-clerical and agnostic intellectuals in the city.
Maximilian founded a small newspaper to provide his readers with an effective means of apologetics. As readership grew, his small staff found the obsolete presses could not keep up with the increased circulation. Though funds were scarce, the production was moved to the city of Grodno and new machinery was installed. Some priests and lay brothers offered to help in the project and quickly the circulation grew to more than 45,000.
In 1926, he suffered another serious attack of tuberculosis, but his weakened condition did not prevent him from reaching his goal of establishing a Franciscan community to continue his apostolate of the printed word. The site of the new foundation was at Niepokalanow, about 15 miles from the Polish capital of Warsaw.
His printing presses were moved and the huge monastery began to take shape. He called it "City of the Immaculate." Literally hundreds were attracted to Niepokalanow because of the unique spirit developed by Father Kolbe. The community was founded on the traditional Franciscan approach of combining prayer, poverty and a cheerful disposition. To this approach, he added modern technology and a huge printing press.
The success of the new foundation " the Militia of Mary Immaculate " was phenomenal. Soon, they began to publish daily as well as weekly newspapers, magazines and pamphlets. Copies of the publications were distributed in several countries, including the United States and Japan. The community grew and worldwide membership of the Militia of Mary Immaculate passed 700,000 by the time World War II began.
When the horde of the German army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Father Kolbe realized that the Gestapo would take over his beloved monastery. He sent his friars home with a warning that they should not take an active part in the underground resistance movement. The religious superior and most of the leaders were taken away to be interned. Their period of confinement was short-lived, and in a few weeks they were allowed to return to the monastery.
Niepokalanow became a refugee camp. In a few months, there were more than 3,000 Poles and 1,500 Jewish refugees being taken care of. The friars continued to print their newspapers and other publications. Bravely, they continued to write about the Church and to support patriotic and anti-Nazi causes.
In an effort to win him over, Father Kolbe was offered German citizenship by the Gestapo. He refused. Angered by his stubborn resistance, they arrested the superior and four of his associates. Kolbe was accused of being an intellectual who published articles that were critical of the Third Reich and the occupation of Poland. In May 1941, they were taken to Auschwitz, which had become a notorious labor camp and death camp.
During his three-month incarceration in Auschwitz, the priest suffered many cruel indignities and was made to work many long hours on short rations. Never a healthy person, he suffered greatly from this treatment.
The names of the prisoners were exchanged for tattooed numbers. The Gestapo guards kicked and beat the prisoners unmercifully. For weeks, they were forced to move heavy logs at double speed. Father Kolbe was also made to move the bodies of other tortured dead into a common grave. Many of his companions were literally worked to death.
Still a priest
In the face of all this, somehow he continued to exercise his priestly ministry. He continued to give absolution through the Sacrament of Penance. Others quickly learned that he was a priest and sought his spiritual help.
Somehow, his friends managed to smuggle into the camp bread and wine to be used in the celebration of the Eucharist. Within sight of the vicious guards, the imprisoned priest celebrated Mass for his imprisoned flock. Even members of the Gestapo recognized the compassion and love he demonstrated to those who were suffering even more than he was. His reputation spread, and he became more beloved by the prisoners and hated by the guards.
The rules at this notorious death camp were inhuman and strictly enforced by sadistic soldiers. For example, if anyone attempted to escape from the camp, ten men from the same bunker were selected at random and condemned to death by starvation. On the last day of July 1941, one of the prisoners from Kolbe's bunker was successful in an escape attempt.
The guards were enraged. They gathered the men together and paraded them before the inmates. One man was selected from each line. A total of ten were removed from the ranks and told that they would be taken to the death chamber where they would be deprived of food and drink as a punishment for the escape and a warning to the rest.
Taking his place
One of those selected for death was Sgt. Francis Gajowniczek, a young husband and father who had been conscripted into the Polish army. He begged the guards for mercy and pleaded on behalf of his wife and children who would have no one to care for them.
As they prepared to drag him away, Father Kolbe stepped forward and said to the commandant: "I am a Catholic priest. I wish to die for that man. I am old and sick; he has a wife and children."
The commandant looked at the weakened condition of the priest and quickly realized that he could get much more work out of the young soldier. In keeping with their custom of eliminating the handicapped, he pushed Gajowniczek aside and ordered the Franciscan priest sent to the death chamber.
The ten were deprived of food and water. The priest spent his waking hours preparing his fellow inmates for their impending death. He encouraged them to die with dignity, reading to them prayers for the dying and the Gospel accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus.
One by one the condemned men died. After 14 days, there were only four left alive. Remarkably, the only one of the four who remained fully conscious was the weak and tuberculosis-ridden Father Kolbe.
To end the priest's life, the commandant ordered that he be injected with a lethal does of carbolic acid. Shortly after the injection, the guards found him sitting against the wall, his face radiant and his open eyes staring at what appeared to be a vision. As one of his fellow prisoners reported, it seemed that his entire body was caught up in ecstasy. The body of the martyr was quickly cremated with his companions.
Now a saint
Six years after his death, Pope Pius XII ordered the beginning of the investigations leading to his beatification. His beatification by Pope Paul VI quickly followed in 1971, and in 1982 St. Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II.
Fittingly, an honored guest at the canonization ceremony was Sgt. Francis Gajowniczek, the man whose life was saved by the martyrdom of Father Maximilian Kolbe. We celebrate his feast on August 14.
Rev. Daniel F. McSheffery,is a pastor in Connecticut.)