Rev. Fr. Augustine Vallooran V.C.
The worst circumstances often churn out the finest humans. It is in the darkest night that the glory of the galaxy is unveiled. It is from the furnace that pure gold is drawn. And Scripture affirms, “So are worthy men proved in the furnace of humiliation.” (Sirach 2:5)
“The Lord Guides the Humble” (Psalm 25:9)
One of the darkest hours in human history and memory is the Holocaust where six million were wiped out by the Nazi regime in the most inhuman cruel manner. The enduring terror and sorrow of Auschwitz during the World War II however, revealed to the world the highest nobility of spirit that man can achieve through the person of Maximilian Kolbe whom the Church honours as a saint and martyr. This in short is the witness to godliness offered by St. Maximilian Kolbe, a hero of our modern times. As St. Pope John Paul II said, “Maximilian did not die but gave his life for his brother.” In doing so he reflected most powerfully the salvific self-offering our Lord Jesus made for humankind. “Greater love has no man than this, that he lays his life down for his friends.” (John 15:13)
St. Maximilian Kolbe was born in humble circumstances to a poor weaver on 8 January 1894 in Poland. His baptismal name was Raymond. As a child, he seems to have been very mischievous. On one occasion his mother scolded him and expressed her concern as to what would become of him. This question stirred something within the child and led to a spiritual experience that brought about a radical change in his behaviour.
He explains this transformation as the outcome of a vision he had of Mother Mary. He saw the mother of God and asked her what would become of him in the future. She held out to him two crowns, one white and the other red. She asked him whether he was willing to accept either of these crowns – the white one was a challenge for him to persevere in purity or the red crown was an offer of martyrdom. He chose to accept both! With this experience, he gained a deep conviction that he was headed to a heavenly destination gained by the very offering of his life through martyrdom. This conviction impelled him to make bold decisions in life.
The journey of his life witnessed one more conversion in its course. As a student, he excelled in mathematics and physics - subjects essential for military studies. His teachers predicted a brilliant future for him. He also had a passionate interest in military affairs. His deeply patriotic trend of thinking led him to the idea that he should become a soldier to save his motherland Poland from slavery. The initial longing to become a priest died out as his fiery patriotism directed him towards a military career. This did not in any way reduce his commitment to prayer and to cherishing the heavenly experience of his childhood. In time as light clarifies details, the hours of prayer revealed to him that the call of his life was to live for the highest mission which is the Love of God. He laid down his dreams of becoming a soldier for his country to become a priest of God. As time revealed he remained a passionate warrior all his lifetime. Only that this fighter attitude took a spiritual orientation. He realised the world was bigger than Poland and that there were more crushing slaveries than earthly ones that man was enduring in this world. This revelation led him to found the Crusade of Mary Immaculate called ‘Militia Immaculata’ with six other companions on 16 October 1917.
“Behold, Thy Mother” (John 19:27)
His total commitment to Jesus with Mother Mary made him so free of worldly dispersions that he was focused only to live for God. We are told that day after day he came to be “mad with love for the Immaculate.” This madness of love for purity and the graces of heaven emboldened him to choose the path of great sacrifices for the Lord. He lived out this madness of love until it culminated in his martyrdom at the Auschwitz death camp. He became a martyr not merely by one moment of heroic choice with the final act of charity where he took the place of another inmate in the starvation bunker - but in every decision and activity of his life, he persevered and practised a daily martyrdom for love for God and the Immaculate.
Kolbe reveals how precious was the faithful guidance of the Mother of God in drawing him to a life for Jesus. He writes “I felt that that the Immaculate was drawing me to herself more and more closely and I used to pray to her very fervently all the time.” His strong spirituality would gain great following. He founded the first Monastery of the Immaculate in Poland by name Niepokalanow.
It took him great toil, stress and suffering for the establishment of this monastery. It is important to note that he took up this entire struggle in spite of his poor health. Towards the end of his studies in Rome, he suffered his first bout of tuberculosis and he became quite ill, often coughing up blood. Throughout the rest of his life, he was dogged by poor health but never complained - looking at every discomfort as a precious offering he could make towards his heavenly mission. The doctors had pronounced him incurable; one lung had collapsed and the other was damaged. It was with this ill-health that he built up the monastery of Niepokalanow. At first it consisted of a few shacks with tar paper roof. Nothing could stop it from flourishing. Within a few years, there were more than one hundred seminarians and the numbers were still growing. Before long, it became the largest friary in the world housing seven hundred and sixty two inhabitants! The priests in parishes all over the country reported a tremendous upsurge of faith which was attributed to the literature emerging from the Friary.
“You Will Be My Witnesses To The Ends Of The Earth” (Acts 1:8)
Fr. Maximilian Kolbe’s fighter attitude would not let him rest content in his native land Poland. He undertook a long journey in 1930 to Japan and came to reside in Nagasaki. The legendary experience of Maximilian in Nagasaki was nothing less than a testimony to the power of daily martyrdom. His only shelter was a wretched hut whose walls and roof were caving in. They slept on the straw and their tables were planks of wood. He knew not a word of Japanese and he had no money. In short all the odds were against him. Yet a year later he would inaugurate a monastery there by name ‘The Garden of the Immaculate’! It was built on the slopes of a mountain which was much criticised. The choice of this site in the suburbs was because of poverty but it proved a great blessing because in 1945 when the atom bomb razed Nagasaki to the ground, the monastery remained shielded from all the effects simply because of its location. Today it forms the centre of the Franciscan Province in Japan.
When Kolbe left Japan on his way back to Poland, he stopped by Kerala and established a printing press to spread the word of God. He left a trail of evangelistic work.
His tireless hard work for the love of God was not limited to establishing monasteries. In his era, he was prophetic in the approach to using media for reaching the masses with the Good News of Jesus. When he returned to Poland in 1919, he started a monthly journal by name ‘Knight of the Immaculate’. Its aim was as he explained “to illuminate the truth and show the true way to happiness.” As there were no funds, he started printing 5000 copies. In a few years time, the circulation swelled to one million copies! He soon started a daily newspaper ‘Maly Dziennik’. The media ministry of Maximilian became so effective that the Catholic Church in Poland was deeply influenced. He also gained a radio licence to step up the fervour of faith among the masses.
“Do Not Be Surprised of the Trial By Fire” (I Peter 4:12)
When Poland was overrun by the Nazi forces of Germany in 1939, Kolbe was arrested under general suspicion. At what should have been a gloomy moment he encouraged his confreres - “Courage my sons! Don’t you see that we are living 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.” Indeed he had embarked on his last mission.
He was sent to the work camp in Auschwitz. Martyrdom as a way of life continued. He and other priests arrested with him were made to carry heavy blocks of stone for the building of a crematorium wall. Their work was overseen by a dreaded ex-criminal called ‘Bloody Krott’ who was known to despise priests. Krott came to single out Kolbe for brutal treatment. Despite the awful conditions and the cruel treatment in Auschwitz, it is reported that Kolbe kept deep faith and equanimity. On one occasion, Krott compelled Kolbe to carry the heaviest planks until he collapsed. He then beat Kolbe brutally and left him in the mud thinking he was dead. The fellow prisoners secretly took him to the camp dispensary where he recovered.
A marked characteristic about him was his consistent selflessness, always more concerned for the needs of his fellow prisoners - often sharing his meagre rations with them. He sent a letter from the camp to his mother: ‘Dear Mama, at the end of the month of May I was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is going well with me. Be peaceful about me and about my health because the good God is everywhere and provides for everything with love. It would be well that you do not write to me until you will have received other news from me because I do not know how long I will stay here. Hearty greetings and kisses, affectionately. Raymond.’
This was the last letter of Kolbe from the camp and he would not live very long after that. It was shortly after this that the final tribulation was to set in.
“Blessed Are They Who Are Persecuted For The Sake Of Righteousness” (Matthew 5:10)
Three prisoners escaped from the Auschwitz camp. The camp leader vented his fury by ordering ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker. One of the ten, was a certain Franciszek Gajowniczek. Struck by the harsh summons to death, he cried aloud in deep grief, “My wife, my children.” At this tragic scene Kolbe stepped forward, volunteering to take his place. The Nazi commander seeing a prisoner step out of line grunted, “What does this Polish pig want?” Kolbe pointed to the condemned Franciszek and fearlessly explained, “I’m a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place because he has a wife and children.” Rather shocked the commander ordered the change. Franciszek later said, “I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?”
Kolbe was led away with the other nine to the underground bunker where they were to be starved to death. The dark chambers of death were illumined throughout with prayer. Kolbe throughout the hours would lead the men in prayer, encouraging them to put their trust in God. Whenever the guards checked the cell, Kolbe would be seen kneeling in the middle and leading the others in singing hymns to God. As they were diminishing in their physical strength, the prayers continued as frail whispers. One by one the inmates of the starvation chambers fell to the ground lying on the floor. Kolbe remained kneeling as he looked cheerfully in the face of the prison guards.
Bruno Borgowiec, a Polish prisoner who had the duty of overseeing these prisoners later testified, “Fr. Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain. Rather he gave courage to others, encouraging them and praying with them.”
Falling to the ground all of them died of dehydration and starvation. Only Kolbe survived and in order to empty the bunker they had to execute him with the administration of a lethal injection. Those who witnessed this say he calmly accepted death with his arms lifted up. His life mission on this earth was accomplished by his faithful response to live and die as a martyr. Kolbe once said, “Every man has an aim in life. For most men it is to return home to their families. For my part I give my life for the good of all men.” The spirit of martyrdom that animated Kolbe all through his life was indeed crowned in the final act of total giving.
Fr. Zygmunt Rusczak a fellow prisoner recollects later, “Each time I saw Fr. Kolbe in the courtyard, I felt within myself an extraordinary effusion of his goodness. Although he wore the same ragged clothes as the rest of us, with the same tin can hanging from his belt, one forgot this wretched exterior and was conscious only of the charm of his inspired countenance and of his radiant holiness.” This divine charm that expressed itself in the heroic self sacrifice was recognised officially by the canonisation of Kolbe in 1971.
Jerzy Bielecki, a Polish leader and Holocaust survivor, declared that “Fr. Kolbe’s death was a shock and yet was filled with hope bringing new life and strength. It was like a powerful shaft of life in the darkness of the camp.” His life and death was a sharing in the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul, “If we have died with Him we shall also live with Him.” (2 Timothy 2:11). The death of Jesus was not the end of His life and mission but the culmination of it. The life of Kolbe that started as a martyrdom in daily sacrifices culminated in the ultimate offering through his death. The rays of the glory of the Resurrection were spreading all through his life and activity. In the desert of hatred in Auschwitz he sowed love and gentleness. The Polish bishops wrote “The life and death of this one man alone can be the proof and witness of the fact that the love of God can overcome the greatest hatred, the greatest injustice and even death itself.” For all of us who are living and struggling to cast out the evil in our midst, Kolbe is a great hero showing us the way.
Let Us Pray
Heavenly Father, we thank You for giving us martyrs who brilliantly point out to us the glory beyond this earth. We thank You for St. Maximilian Kolbe and every such prophet who in the hours of deepest darkness revealed to us that the Light of Heaven cannot be quenched or diminished by the deepest darkness. In the moments of our struggles, let us never lose heart. May we be able to find inspiration in Your Ever Faithful Presence. Your Son has promised us that He would never leave us alone. Let His Light shine upon us in the darkest moments of our life that we may be witnesses of hope.