Essays, Featured, Practice

St. Maximillian Kolbe and the War Against Indifference

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More than one concentration camp survivor has remarked that one would need the pen of Dante to describe the horrors that afflicted the “great army of unknown and unrecorded victims.”[1] Hell is that abyss that skews vision and slurs speech. It shreds human community by erasing all marks of personal identity by eviscerating of all bonds of human communion—trust, mercy, and love.

During Mass celebrated at Auschwitz on June 7, 1979, John Paul II described the concentration camp as a “place, which was built for the negation of faith—faith in God and faith in man—and to trample radically not only on love but on all signs of human dignity, a place built on hatred and on contempt for man in the name of a crazed ideology. A place built on cruelty.”[2] A place “characterized by man’s fury and scorn for man, in which man was cut down to the level of a robot, a state worse than slavery.”[3] This was an era in which “the human person was degraded, humiliated, and despised. In this poisoned soil nothing but hatred could grow. One prisoner wrote: ‘Ah! How I hate them all!  They have taught me how to hate.’”[4] The camp was evil in person, a site that strove to undo persons, to empty them of what makes us most human – the free will to love.

If we were to imagine a hell on earth, Auschwitz-Birkenau would certainly top the list. The Nazi camp stands as an icon of the ruthlessness of indifference, mimicking human community as it sought to strip its inhabitants of humanity. All markers of identity were rooted out, down to the very hair on one’s body. Camp prisoners were divested of everything. For the few who escaped death upon entry, the Nazis confiscated all their clothing and possessions, including wedding rings, identity cards, family photographs. Inmates’ names were replaced with numbers. In the first years of the camp, numbers were sewn onto the inmate uniform. Later they were inscribed on the flesh. One’s entire former life was snuffed out, as though it had never existed.

And yet even amid one of darkest periods of history– ordinary and extraordinary men and women endured the daily indignity of camp life with hope and love. Men and women who had been stripped of everything, except the bare reality of existence found a flickering flame of meaning.

Auschwitz was built in the isolated, swampy town in the southwest Polish town of Oswiecim, and it lay at the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe. A barbed wire fence containing 220-volts of electricity was flung around the camp’s perimeter when the first prisoners arrived on June 14, 1940. In the beginning all of the camp’s prisoners were Polish. These men were put to work digging ditches laying railway track and water pipes under the watchful eye of their captors.

Into “this Golgotha of the modern world” came St. Maximillian Kolbe. His enormous heart had been trained for mercy through a life of sacrifice, and in the midst of an evil so dark it was nearly all-consuming, he became a space for love. He was inflamed with divine love, which he frequently reminded others has little to do with sentimentality, as it “has nothing to do with sweet tears and sentiments, but is a matter of a free will which holds fast to love even despite our aversion and hesitancy,” as John Paul II said during his papal visit to Auschwitz in 1979. Ablaze with charity, he was a sign of mercy in a place where mercilessness hung as thick as fog.

When Pope Paul VI beatified Fr. Kolbe on October 17, 1971, he described him as one whom, amidst “immense vestibule of death”[5] made himself an expiation, a victim, a burnt sacrifice. He became a “martyr of love.”[6] He realized the depth of Christ’s words: “There is no greater love than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). John Paul II echoed his predecessor when he canonized Kolbe eleven years later on October 10, 1982, calling the new saint a “shining sign of this love,” “a man who was granted the grace of carrying out these words of the Redeemer in an absolutely literal manner . . . a martyr of charity.”[7]

Mary’s Gift of Two Crowns

Maximillian’s life was plunged into the mystery of Christ through Mary. Like her, Fr. Kolbe’s soul never ceased to proclaim the greatness of the Lord even amidst great suffering. His devotion to the Mother of God, his conformity to the Sacred Heart her Son through her, means that we can apply Pope Benedict XVI’s affirmation of Mary on the Feast of the Assumption in 2005 to St. Maximillian:

“Mary was . . . ‘at home’ with God’s word, she was penetrated by God’s word. To the extent that she spoke with God’s words, she thought with God’s words, her thoughts were God’s thoughts, her words, God’s words. . . She lived on the Word of God, she was imbued with the Word of God.”[8]

All of these things can be said of him, too. Nurtured in the School of Mary, Fr. Kolbe lived the mysteries of Christ’s death with such intensity that we can really say with John Paul II that in “this Golgotha of the modern world,” Fr. Maximillian “won a spiritual victory like that of Christ himself.”[9]

As a child, St. Maximillian had had a vision of Mary, in which the blessed Mother offered him two crowns. The first, the white crown of virginity. The second, the red crown of martyrdom. He rarely spoke of the encounter, and even then only obliquely. In 1941, after her son had perished in Auschwitz, Kolbe’s mother recollected her son’s childhood encounter with the Blessed Mother. Hiding under the family’s altar, Maria Dabrowska found her son, “trembling and with tears in his eyes, he told me, ‘When you said to me, ‘What will become of you?’ I prayed very hard to our Lady to tell me what would become of me. And later in Church I prayed again. Then the Virgin Mother appeared to me holding in her hands two crowns, one white and one red. She looked at me with love and she asked me if I would like to have them. The white meant that I would remain pure and the red one that I would be a martyr. I answered yes, I wanted them. Then the Virgin looked at me tenderly and disappeared.”[10] The fiat, the yes, of his childhood was confirmed over a life of practice. He made himself ready for the gift of martyrdom through the daily practice of attuning his heart to Christ through the Immaculata until that day came when he could freely offer himself as a sacrifice of love for another.

St. Maximillian became a sign of God’s mercy, exposing the lie of the concentration camp, the lie that there is no love, no communion. So efficiently cruel and so systematically dehumanizing was Nazi exercise of power, it even involved its victims in the machinations of destruction, in the ruthless logic of inequity. Nazis enlisted concentration camp inmates as spies, guards, executioners, effectively isolating people from one another in fear, distrust, and anger. St. Maximillian disrupted evil’s insidious logic, but not through accusation or revenge. For the saint exposes the lie of evil by breaking the chain of its transmission, not by passing it along. The saint defeats evil, even at the risk of dying. The saint insists on the logic of creation, the logic of charity, which makes space within itself for another.

Accepting the crowns offered to him as a child, Kolbe entrusted his love for Christ and His Sacred Heart to Mary and declared his desire to live and die for the Immaculata. The sacrifice of his whole life and the manner of his death affirmed the words of the Apostle John: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 Jn 3:16).

A Heart Trained for Mercy

 Born a subject of Czar Nicholas II in the town of Zdunska Wola on January 8, 1894, St. Maximillian was baptized Raymond Kolbe. The second of five sons born to the poor Polish weavers, Julius Kolbe and Maria Dabrowska, only three of whom would survive to adulthood, Raymond was something of a natural genius. In fact, in his sketches we find designs for etherplanes and compound telegraphs. Education under the czar was expensive and much of the population remained illiterate. A family that was able to educate one child was considered fortunate. The Kolbe’s, unable to send all of their sons to school, decided to send Francis, their eldest. Raymond remained at home to help his parents run their modest shop and to care for his younger siblings.

In 1907, at the age of thirteen and after attending a mission given by the Franciscans, Raymond and his older brother Francis disguised themselves as farmers and crossed into Austria in order to study at the Franciscan minor seminary in Lwow. At this time, there were no Catholic friaries, monasteries, and convents in Poland. They had all been shut down in 1863. In face, there was no Poland. The country had not existed political or geographical reality since it was partitioned between 1772-1795.

“Reflect often on the fact that all your greatness, all your holiness, and all your dignity depend solely on the fulfillment of the will of God; the rest: good reputation, riches . . . prayers, penances, and even martyrdom, are nothing, a waste of time, a sin, if they are outside of God’s will”

In 1912, Brother Maximillian was sent to Rome to study at the Order’s seminary, the International Seraphic College, and at the Pontifical Gregorian University. In Rome, he would receive two doctorates – one in philosophy, the other in theology. A strategic thinker, his classmates and professors recalled his sensitivity, his desire to love without limits, and his devotion to Mary and the Eucharist. His friend, Franciscan priest Joseph Peter Pal, remembered:

His love for the Eucharist and for Mary touched his enormous heart to its deepest fibers. Before or after each school hour, he visited Jesus in the tabernacle. Since both of us were a little sick, [Maximillian contracted TB while studying in Rome, and though he recovered he would feel the effects of the disease for the rest of his life, being forced to spend sometimes more than a year in the hospital] we used to take walks with the rector’s permission. . . . These were to visit various churches where the Eucharist was exposed for adoration—especially the Sacred Heart Church near Quirinal Hill, where some French sisters had perpetual adoration. He enrolled as a watcher there.[11]

Maximillian excelled at mathematics, science, and chess. As a child, he had often drawn up military plans and at one point planned to leave the Franciscans to join the fight for Polish independence. His older brother Francis did, in fact, take a leave of absence from the order to enlist in the military, and never returned to religious life, a fact that greatly pained Maximillian. In a letter written to his mother during his studies in Rome dated April 20, 1919, he remembers the unexpected visit from his mother that had prevented him from leaving the order nearly a decade before:

Dearest Mama!

I have read your letter of February 23, as you can imagine with great consolation as well as sadness. Poor Franciszek. . . . I cannot understand God’s mercy toward me. . . . He was the first o ask to be received into the Order . . . Together we approached for the fist time for Holy Communion, the Sacrament of Confirmation, together at school, together in the novitiate, together we made simple profession. . . .

Before the novitiate it was mostly me who did not want to ask for the habit, in fact, I wanted to distract him too . . . and then an unforgettable thing happened, as I was going from the Fr. Provincial to tell him that Franciszek and I did not want to join the Order, I heard the sound of the bell calling me into the parlor. Divine Providence, in its infinite mercy through the Immaculata, had sent you, Mother, in such a critical time to visit us. And so God disturbed all the devil’s plans. It has been nearly nine years since that time. I think about it still with fear and gratitude to the Immaculata, instrument of divine mercy. What would have happened if she had not stretched out her hand at that time?”[12]

St. Maximillian’s life, his suffering, and his death is, so to speak, a meditation on the mystery of faith hidden within the title Immaculate Conception.[13] Promulgated under Pius in1854, the dogma of Immaculate Conception was defined a mere forty years prior to Raymond’s birth. Belief in Mary’s immaculate conception, however, dates back to antiquity and was strenuously defended by the famed Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus. Only four years after its promulgation a series of Marian apparitions occurred at Lourdes, culminating in our Lady’s answer given to St. Bernadette’s repeated plea to the Lady to reveal her name to her: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

It was under the banner of the Immaculata that Maximillian, along with six other Franciscans, founded the Militia of the Immaculata. The goal was not only to tell people about the Blessed Mother, but to ignite their hearts with love for her, and through her the Sacred Heart of her Son. With keen perceptiveness, Maximillian understood that the only knowledge of value was the knowledge that flows from love. He also understood that love was not merely a sentiment, but a radical alignment of one’s will to God’s. On retreat in 1917, at the tender of age of twenty-four, he wrote: “Reflect often on the fact that all your greatness, all your holiness, and all your dignity depend solely on the fulfillment of the will of God; the rest: good reputation, riches, pleasure, activities, conversations, prayers, penances, and even martyrdom, are nothing, a waste of time, a sin, if they are outside of God’s will.”[14]

And so, marrying his devotion to the Immaculata with his tactical gifts, Maximillian set about waging war on indifference. The strategy: to set the entire world ablaze with love of Christ through the universal mediation of Mary Immaculate.

Inflamed with this love himself, he joyfully mediated upon the Immaculata even as he awaited his final arrest on February 17, 1941:

Who is the Father? What is it that constitutes His being? Begetting, because He begets the Son from eternity, and from all eternity he always begets the Son.

Who is the Son? He is the begotten One, because He is always and eternally begotten of the Father.

And who is the Spirit? He is the fruit of the love of the Father and of the Son. The fruit of created love is a created conception. Thus, the fruit of love, of the prototype of this created love, is nothing but conception. The Spirit, therefore, is an uncreated, eternal conception. He is the prototype of any conception in the live of the universe.

This Uncreated Immaculate Conception immaculately conceives in the womb of her soul [Mary’s] divine life, that is her Immaculate Conception. Even the virginal womb of her body is reserved to Him, who therein conceives in time – for all that material occurs in time—also the divine life of the God-Man. . . .

She then, woven into the love of the Most Blessed Trinity, becomes from the first moment of her existence, forever, eternally forever the ‘complement to the Most Holy Trinity.’

In the union of the Holy Spirit with her, not only does love unite these two Beings, but the first one of them is all the love of the Most Holy Trinity, while the second is all the love of creation. Thus, in this union heaven meets earth, all of heaven with all of the earth, all Uncreated Love with all created love; it is the highest expression of love.

At Lourdes, the Immaculata did not say of herself that she had been conceived immaculately, but, as Bernadette repeated it, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” . . . The Holy Spirit dwells in her, lives in her.[15]

St. Maximillian often referred to Mary as “the Spouse of the Holy Spirit,” the very Spirit who swept over the waters at creation; the very Spirit who goes ahead of Israel as “a pillar of cloud by day and by night a pillar of fire” (Ex 13:21). This is the Spirit who, from the first moment of her existence . . . established His dwelling in [Mary’s] soul,” and overshadowed her at the Annunciation, who moved the infant John in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth. This is the Spirit who descended upon the Apostles as tongues of fire. Mary is the source of grace for us because “where she goes, she takes the whole Holy Trinity.”[16] Through this ineffable and perfect union between all the love of the Trinity and all the love of creation, Mary conceives Jesus Christ, “the prototype of the perfect.” The Son of God comes into the world through Mary’s fiat – her grace-filled cooperation. She offers the ‘yes’ of all creation and for all creation. Claiming nothing for herself, she is made fruit in her bond of unity with God.[17]

The Son of God, the salvation of the world, comes from the Father through the Holy Spirit, and becomes incarnate in the hallowed space under Mary’s heart, a heart impressed with the Word of God. In the tabernacle of her womb, the Sacred Heart of the child dwells and she carries within her the fullness of God, Love in the flesh, in her flesh. Jesus Christ is flesh of her flesh and bone of her bones. In darkness and silence, the Word of God descends into the womb of Immaculata, a wordless infant. Under her tired, dirty peasant’s heel, the devil is crushed.

It is in loving the Spouse of the Holy Spirit that we are united to the One who fed at her breasts, who delighted in her smile, who gazed back into her eyes, who babbled ‘Mama’ at her knees, the one who changed water into wine at her prompting and who entrusted her to the beloved disciple as he laid down his life for his friends upon the Cross. None of this detracts in the slightest from the centrality of her Son. As John Paul II remarked in his homily on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1982, less than two months after St. Maximillian’s canonization, Mary’s splendor “does not obscure nor diminish the absolute centrality of Jesus Christ in the order of salvation, but illuminates it and proclaims it vigorously, because Mary derives all her grandeur from him. . . . Mary’s role is to make her Son shine, to lead to him, and to help welcome him.”[18]

Maximillian’s heart burned with the desire to become a Son of Mary, to become alter Christus – another Christ and to bring a world ravaged by war to the tender, Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculata.

Primacy of Love

St. John declared “God is love” and Maximillian saw love everywhere. All of creation is an expression, an echo of divine love; a gift in which God makes room, so to speak, for the other, for that which is not God, even at the risk that the other may not return that love. The primacy of love, which Fr. Kolbe strained to articulate in the last hours before his arrest, originates with the Father. Mary’s fiat returns this love to its source, presenting us with “the archetype and fullness of every creature’s love,”[19] a love that derives all its grandeur from Christ. Saints, Fr. Kolbe wrote his notebook, are made after this pattern, being reborn in Mary’s womb “after the form of Jesus Christ.”[20] His desire to love as she loved, to participate in her fiat, to love without limits, and to help others do the same, knew no bounds.

Under Fr. Kolbe’s direction, the friary opened its doors to upwards of 3,500 displaced persons – men, women, and children fleeing or forced off of their land by the Third Reich.

On October 16, 1917, as the Great War raged around them, Brother Maximillian and six other Conventual Franciscans, founded the Militia of the Immaculata, which Pope Benedict XV blessed a year and a half later on March 28, 1919. The goal of the M.I. was and is to “extend as much as possible the very gentle Kingdom of the Sacred Heart of Jesus through Mary Immaculate”—to spread the civilization of love. Maximillian did not hesitate to use any means at his disposal to fulfill this mission.

After returning to Poland, Fr. Kolbe set about forming groups of Militia Immaculata and establishing a printing press. Despite the massive post-war devastation that afflicted the fledgling country, including structural damage, social upheaval, and an uncertain currency, he was successful not only in founding the Marian newspaper, Knight of the Immaculata but grew the publication at a time when others were folding. With the help of a small contingent of fellow Franciscans, Maximillian published the first issue of the Knight in 1922, with a print run of 5,000 copies. By 1927, the press run was up to 60,000. Also in 1927, Fr. Kolbe founded Niepokalanow (City of Mary) near Warsaw. The original community included two priests and eighteen friars, but by 1938 had become the largest friary in the world with nearly 800 members operating the largest printing press in Central Europe, with a press run of a million copies. Meanwhile the Militia of the Immaculata had close to 700,000 members in Poland alone and several hundred thousand additional members abroad. By this time, too, there was a children’s magazine, the Little Knight, and a budding radio station. Maximillian had traveled to India and China and established a mission in Japan, near Nagasaki. He learned Japanese and started Kishi, a Japanese Knight. His goal: to establish a ring of Marian centers around the globe.

All that Fr. Maximillian did was animated by his desire to be reborn in the form of Christ in the heart of Mary. His contemplation of Mary was remembering in the deepest, biblical sense; for to remember (zakar) is to make present the events of salvation—to live the mysteries of faith—to live the mysteries of Love. Again and again, he expresses his desire to love without limits. In an article penned for the Knight, published in 1938, Fr. Kolbe reflects on love of neighbor:

Loving one’s neighbor, he writes, not because he is ‘nice,’ worthwhile, wealthy, influential, or just because he is grateful. For such would be petty reasons, unworthy of a male or female Knight of the Immaculata. Genuine love rises above the creature and plunges into God. In Him, for Him and through Him it loves everyone, be they good or bad, friends or foes. It offers a helping hand, full of love to everyone; it prays for all, suffers for all, wishes good to all, wishes happiness to all, because that is God’s will![21]

Animated by charity, Maximillian radiated mercy.

The Gaze of the Saint: Only Love is Creative

The Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, sent an already fragile Poland into chaos. Yet, under Fr. Kolbe’s direction, the friary opened its doors to upwards of 3,500 displaced persons – men, women, and children fleeing or forced off of their land by the Third Reich. Fr. Kolbe was offered and declined German citizenship, a way out of persecution. Meanwhile, he continued to petition the German censors at Board of People’s Education and Propaganda for permission to print the Knight, and succeeded in securing a 120,000 copy run on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1940. In his final published article, “Truth,” he writes: “No one can change any truth. One can only seek the truth, find it, acknowledge it, conform one’s life to it, walk on the path of truth in each matter. . . . Only truth can be and is the unshakable foundation of happiness, both for individuals and for the whole of humanity.”[22]

Two and a half months later, after Mass and breakfast, the Gestapo arrived at the City of Mary to arrest Fr. Kolbe. Br. Rufin Majdan later recalled that Maximillian, dressed in his good habit that was normally reserved for holy days, greeted the Gestapo, saying, “Praised be Jesus Christ.” He calmly set about giving the Third Reich officers a tour, which concluded with his arrest. He was transported to Pawiak Prison until his transfer to Auschwitz at the end of May 1941 along with 320 other prisoners. Like millions of others herded under the cynical sign: “Work Leads to Freedom,” Fr. Maximillian’s head was shaved, and he was stripped of his name and given the number #16670. Indifference begins with the erasure of all signs of humanity. Even in the early days of the camps, the Third Reich was efficient at eroding all humanizing features of the men, women, and children brought there to work and to die. Unknown to the SS-guards and Capos, mercy had snuck into Auschwitz.

Into a place where ruthless indifference stifled communion, Fr. Maximillian made his body a space for mercy. He heard confessions made in whispers at night. He held secret conferences throughout June and July of 1941, instructing others in the lives of the saints and martyrs. Though sick himself, he often gave his rations away. He reminded fellow inmate Joseph Stemler “Hate is not creative; only love is creative.”[23] Where evil had eroded human dignity, he dared to affirm it. Where evil had divided men, he brought them together. Where evil declared that there is no mercy, he dispensed it.

Maximillian’s ascent to Golgotha made room for a burning expansiveness of love. Like Christ, whose pierced side makes a space in his body for us to enter his Sacred Heart, Maximillian’s body become a space of quiet joy in the dense fog of evil. He endured, but did not pass on the hatred and indifference that spread and circulated like cancer.

In the poisoned soil of hate, God transplanted a rose—in a man who lived in the palm of the Blessed Mother. Because he was formed in the memory of Love, Maximillian was able to walk in Christ, to fulfill his commandment: “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37–8). And thus, his death is a paradox. It is a sign. In dying he affirmed the value every human life because in dying he affirmed the value of one man’s life.

Inflamed with charity, St. Maximillian consumed the evil of indifference and indifference of evil. He exposed the lie of hell, the lie that there is no love, as a cynical show. He was a burning flame of love so bright, so piercing that the SS guards could not endure his gaze. Auschwitz survivor Bruno Borgowiec recalled that Fr. Kolbe “looked directly and intently into the eyes of those who were entering the cell” to collect the bodies of the dead. “Those eyes of his were always strangely penetrating. The SS men couldn’t stand his glance, and used to yell at him, ‘Schau auf die Erde, nicht auf uns!’ (Look at the ground, not at us.’)”[24]  These seven words, perhaps, sum up the logic of indifference as the refusal of another’s gaze. Like Dante’s depiction of the lowest circles of hell, where even light becomes an offensive intrusion into one’s space, the guards suffered under love’s gaze.

In Cell 18 of Block 11—the hunger block—Fr. Kolbe led the other prisoners in prayers, hymns, and the rosary as one by one they died.

In his book Prolegomena to Charity, French philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion writes, “Christ vanquishes evil only by refusing to transmit it, enduring it to the point of running the risk, in ‘blocking’ it, of dying.”[25] And so too his saints. Maximillian’s daily response to grace made him more profoundly human until he could not even see his persecutors as enemies. Plunged into Christ’s charity, he could only see in love. Conformed to the God who is Love, he emptied himself on behalf of another, lying down his life for a friend. For Maximillian even strangers and enemies were friends. Not in a sentimental sense but in all its radical, piercing, resplendence. His love of neighbor is in the end a love that makes space within itself for others, even at the risk of being hated, even at the risk of being executed.[26] Herein lies the creative power of love: it is animated through sacrifice, the giving of oneself up without reserve.

On July 29, 2016, Pope Francis became the third successive pontiff to visit the prison camp. Whether by plan or by providence, his visit fell nearly seventy-five years to the day since prisoner #16670 had stepped forward out of the ranks of his fellow prisoners and volunteered to take the place of a man condemned to death. Witnesses recall the camp’s deputy commander SS- Karl Fritsch leisurely walking up and down rows of men, selecting those who would die with chilling indifference. Upon hearing his fellow inmate, Francis Gajowniczek, cry out, “My wife! My children!” Maximillian approached Fritsch and requested that his life be accepted as a substitute. His simple explanation, reported by witnesses: “I am a Catholic priest.” With this matter-of-fact testament of identity, Kolbe would die as he had lived—an icon of the royal priesthood of Christ. Entering the ranks of the nameless condemned, he became one of more than 1.1 million men, women, and children to die within these walls of hatred. He did not know the man he had volunteered to replace, but he was so practiced in love that it made little difference. They were stripped naked and cast into the starvation cell. As one biographer puts it, “God had snuck into hell.”[27] Kolbe’s will had so completely merged with God’s that it was truly no longer he who lived, but Christ in him.

In Cell 18 of Block 11—the hunger block—Fr. Kolbe led the other prisoners in prayers, hymns, and the rosary as one by one they died. He and another prisoner lingered on, until after about two weeks the Nazis decided they were taking too long to die. Animated by the desire to sow the fruit of hate, the Nazis exercised ruthless indifference. Valuing the space of Cell 18 more than the bodies within it, on August 14, 1941, the SS ordered that Maximillian be killed by a lethal injection of carbolic acid. His body, which had become a Eucharistic sacrifice, was incinerated in the crematorium the following day, the Feast of the Assumption.

An Epidemic of Indifference

In a letter to his younger brother and fellow Franciscan dated April 28, 1919, Kolbe writes that there is “a very serious epidemic of indifference.”[28] It remains so in our own age. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.[29]

Indifference breaks the bonds of communion. It rules out sacrifice. Indifference hardens our hearts; it makes us less merciful, less human. We live in a world that daily, even hourly, convulses in violence. Euphemism upon euphemism programmatically obscures both human dignity and the brutality that erodes it.

Auschwitz mimicked human community, all the while collapsing the possibility of love. And yet, despite his efforts, the Strong Man, is exposed as the idiot whose tale, so full of sound and fury, is unmasked as an illusion. Through the Immaculata, God became man. Christ invaded humanity not to destroy us, but to remain with us. So completely conformed to Christ, for St. Maximillian the words of the Psalmist became a reality:

If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;

if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.

Darkness is not dark for you,

and night shines as the day.

Darkness and light are but one.

You formed my inmost being;

you knit me in my mother’s womb (Ps 139: 8; 12–13)

In the face of the poison of indifference we are called to love without limit. Maximillian Kolbe’s childhood fiat was confirmed through a life of joyful sacrifice that was sealed in his death, a death like Christ’s, a death conformed to Love itself. So immersed in the God who is Love, he saw love everywhere, even piercing the depths of Sheol, as his final letter to his mother attests. Dated July 15, 1941, he writes:

My Beloved Mother,

Toward the end of May, I came by a train to the Auschwitz camp. All is well with me. Beloved Mama, do not worry for me and for my health, because the good God is in every place and with great love He thinks about everyone and everything.

It would be best not to write to me before I send you another letter, because I do not know how long I will remain here.

            With warm greetings and kisses,

                        Raymond Kolbe[30]

           

Editorial Note: This essay was originally delivered as a presentation in the Saturdays with the Saints series, hosted by the McGrath Institute for Church Life during the fall of 2016.

Featured Photo: Icon of St. Maximilian Kolbe at the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa, Poland; Bogdan Migulski, CC-by-2.0.

[1] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, (Boston: Beacon, 1946, 2006), 3.

[2] Pope Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Pilgrimage to Poland: Homily at Auschwitz-Bierkenau (June 7, 1979), no. 1.

[3] Ibid., Press Conference of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Vatican City, October 14, 1971 in Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit: The Marian Teaching of St. Maximillian Kolbe by H.M. Maneau-Bonamy, O.P., trans. Richard Arnandez, F.S.C., (Libertyville: Marytown, 1975), 121.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paul VI, Beatification of Father Maximilian Mary Kolbe, October 17, 1971 in Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit: The Marian Teaching of St. Maximillian Kolbe by H.M. Maneau-Bonamy, O.P., trans. Richard Arnandez, F.S.C., (Libertyville: Marytown, 1975), 125.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pope Saint John Paul II, Canonization of Blessed Maximillian Mary Kolbe, October 10, 1982 in Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit: The Marian Teaching of St. Maximillian Kolbe by H.M. Maneau-Bonamy, O.P., trans. Richard Arnandez, F.S.C., (Libertyville: Marytown, 1975), 143.

[8] Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Castel Gandolfo (August 15, 2005).

[9] Pope Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Pilgrimage to Poland: Homily at Auschwitz-Bierkenau (June 7, 1979), no. 1.

[10] Patricia Treece, A Man for Others: Maximillian Kolbe the “Saint of Auschwitz in the Words of Those Who Knew Him,” (Libertyville: Marytown, 1982), 1-2.

[11] Treece, 14.

[12] Maximillian Kolbe, The Collected Writings of St. Maximillian Maria Kolbe, Vol. 1: Letters, ed.  by Antonella Di Piazza, (Nerbini International: 2016), 378.

[13] Manteau-Bonamy, 6.

[14] Maximillian Kolbe, The Collected Writings of St. Maximillian Maria Kolbe, Vol. 2: Various Writings, ed.  by Antonella Di Piazza, (Nerbini International: 2016), 1573.

[15] Ibid., 230-2302.

[16] Kolbe, Collected Writings: 2, 1753.

[17] Ibid., 2121.

[18] Pope Saint John Paul II, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1982 in Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit: The Marian Teaching of St. Maximillian Kolbe by H.M. Maneau-Bonamy, O.P., trans. Richard Arnandez, F.S.C., (Libertyville: Marytown, 1975), 153.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Kolbe, Collected Writings: 2, 1753; 2244.

[21] Ibid., 1893.

[22] Ibid., 2152-53.

[23] Treece, 188.

[24] Ibid., 228.

[25] Jean Luc Marion, Prolegomena to Charity, (New York: Fordham, 2002), 9.

[26] Ibid., 167.

[27] Treece, 226.

[28] Kolbe, Collected Writings: 1, 379.

[29] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, (Vatican City: Vatican, 2013), no. 2.

[30] Kolbe, Collected Writings: 1, 1514.

Jessica Keating

Jessica Keating is the director of the Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.