Saint of the week

St Maximilian Kolbe, 14th August

St Maximilian Kolbe was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland, in the Second World War. Blessed Pope Paul VI called him a “martyr of charity” because he gave up his life so that another person could live.

The son of Julius Kolbe, an ethnic German, and Mary Dabrowska, who was of Bohemian origins, he was baptised Raimund in the town of Zdunska-Wola in Poland where he was born on 17 January 1894.

His parents, Russian citizens, were poor but deeply devout and, according to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, were probably both Franciscan tertiaries.

Raimund was initially kept at home to work so that his brother, Frank, could attend middle school and study for the priesthood.

But the local chemist noticed Raimund’s grasp of Latin and he gave him further lessons and when the boy sat examinations for middle school he passed them easily. Both brothers were accepted into the Minorite junior seminary in 1907.

At the age of 10 years he had a vision in which Our Lady held out two crowns to him – one white and the other red – and he accepted them both.

There was a time when he doubted his vocation, however, and was about to report this to his provincial when his mother announced that he, like Frank, had decided to become a religious priest.

With both sons in the seminary, Raimund’s parents also later tested their religious vocations with his mother living as a Benedictine nun for a time and his father joining the Franciscans, before leaving to run a religious bookshop (Julius Kolbe was later hanged as a traitor after he was captured by the Russians during the First World War).

Finally conscious of a strong sense of religious vocation Raimund joined the Conventual Franciscans at the age of just 13 years, making his vows in September 1911 and taking the name Maximilian. Following studies in Poland he was sent to the Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained in the Eternal City on 28 April 1918.

St Maximilian took a keen interest in the work of evangelisation and he also developed a passionate devotion to “Mary Immaculate”; his native Poland had at that time adopted Our Lady as a national symbol.

He and a group of seminarians took vows as Knights of the Queen of Heaven in the Militant Order of Mary the Immaculate, an organisation which has since received the blessings of a succession of popes.

As he returned to Poland in 1919, with degrees in theology and philosophy, the saint was preoccupied with finding ways of reversing the de-Christianisation of Europe, principally through the dissemination of the knight’s ideas.

He propagated his Marian ideas largely through the press and most notably through millions of copies of The Knight of the Immaculate, the bulletin which first appeared in 1922 and which was published in many languages.

Initially, St Maximilian had to beg for money to launch his magazine but the operation grew in size as the popularity of the publication increased and a printing press bought with the help of a donation by an American priest allowed a substantially larger press run. His transfer to a remote part of north west Poland by superior nervous about his venture did nothing to derail the success of his publication and the operation moved into larger premises.

One of the most novel fruits of his Marian ideals was the creation of town composed entirely of friars and dedicated to Our Lady. The first of these was called Niepokalanow, the “City of Mary”, and was founded in Poland, housing 800 religious. It also housed the latest machinery for printing and magazines and newspapers in a number of languages were soon rolling of the presses.

Another Marian community was established in Japan, where St Maximilian had worked for a time, following a meeting with a group of enthusiastic Japanese students. St Maximilian and several other brothers arrived in Nagasaki in 1930 and oversaw the construction of a printing press with 2,000 kanji, or Japanese ideograms, so that the Knight of the Immaculate could be printed there too. His Garden of the Immaculata, sheltered by a hill, was to survive the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945.

In 1936, St Maximilian Kolbe was recalled to Poland where he set about opening a Catholic radio station, building a Catholic film studio and also an airfield.

The saint was in Poland and when his country fell to the Nazis in September 1938, within weeks of the outbreak of the Second World War.

He sent all but 48 Franciscans back to their families with the order to join the Polish Red Cross but not to fight in the resistance.

He and the 48 were arrested and marched off to a camp on September 19 and transferred to another on September 24. Three months later they were, to their surprise, released only to find that 3,000 Polish refugees were then sent to them, followed by 1,500 Jews. The friars helped and sheltered the refugees as best they could in their ransacked City of Mary but the persecution of the Catholic Church in Poland, accompanied by the brutalisation of the Polish people, intensified over the following 18 months and in February 1941, St Maximilian, who had refused an offer of German citizenship, was re-arrested with four companions.

They were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp where they did their best to minister to other prisoners in appalling conditions.

When three prisoners escaped from Block 14, where the saint was housed, a group of 10 men were selected for execution by starvation to death in an underground bunker as a punishment and also to deter any future possible escape attempts.

Among them was a Polish sergeant, Franciszek Gajowniczek, the father of a family, who cried out: “My wife, my children!”

St Maximilian, who had not been chosen, offered himself in the sergeant’s place. It was normal for the Nazis to shoot anyone who stepped out of line in this way but the deputy commandant hesitated to ask the saint’s profession. “Catholic priest,” came the answer and the officer agreed to St Maximilian’s request.

After two weeks of dehydration and starvation in stifling heat and darkness only the saint remained alive.

The guards, wanting the bunker to be emptied of the bodies of the condemned men so they could make room for more, decided to hasten his end by lethal injection and they dragged him outside to kill him.

“Hail Mary” was the last prayer on the lips of St Maximilian as he moved his arm to the person who was about to inject him with phenolic acid on 14 August 1941. His body was cremated at Auschwitz the following day, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

St Maximilian was beatified in 1971 by Blessed Pope Paul VI, who called him a “typical Polish hero” and he was canonised in October 1982 by Pope St John Paul II at a ceremony attended by Gajowniczek, the man he saved.

He is often invoked as a patron saint of journalists, drug addicts, families, political prisoners, and the pro-life movement. St John Paul II referred to him as the “patron saint of our difficult century”.