In my last column, I mentioned that we named our dog Kolbe. When I introduce him to people, I find myself explaining that he is named after a person, not Colby cheese. It gives me the opportunity to tell the story of this great saint.
Tibetan Terriers are, by nature, guard dogs. We lived with one before, so we know of their fierce protectiveness. I have no doubt our previous Tibetan would have given her life for us if necessary. Given this trait, Kolbe seemed an appropriate saint to name our dog after.
St. Maximilian Kolbe’s story is well-known. While a prisoner at Auschwitz, he offered his life in exchange for another. The person he died for survived the concentration camp. Kolbe’s feast day is August 14th.
Nobody suddenly comes to that place of faith and courage where they are willing to lay down their lives for others. Instead, we get there by daily decisions throughout our lives. Saint Kolbe was no different.
He was born in 1894 and given the name Raymond. According to St.MaximilianKolbe.com, he was brought up with “the daily recitation of the Angelus, the Holy Rosary, and the Litany to Our Lady.” Despite this, he was known to get into mischief. One day, after his mother reprimanded him, she asked what would become of him.
He took her words to heart. After her reprimand, Kolbe started spending additional time in prayer. He asked Our Lady the same question his mother had asked. Mary appeared to him (some sources say in a dream) holding two crowns: one white, the other red. According to WordOnFire.org, Kolbe said:
“She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.”
From his youth, St. Kolbe developed an interest in both the military life and the life of a priest. He had dreams of saving Poland from its oppressors. According to Crusade Magazine, while Kolbe was a student in a Franciscan Minor seminary, he
… drafted a strategic defense plan for the city of Lwow which was so brilliant that it would have made a staff officer of the Imperial Austrian Army green with envy.
The day before he was to become a novice, he decided he would instead become a soldier. He convinced his brother Francis (in the seminary with him) to join him. They were about to tell their superior when a visitor showed up. It was their mother.
After some conversation, they both decided to remain in the seminary. The next day, Raymond entered the order and took the name Maximilian.
Maximilian accomplished much during his short life. He founded a religious group focused on evangelization. Later, he started a monastery in Nagasaki that survived the atomic bomb.
Saint Kolbe published a magazine called Knight of the Immaculata. According to Crusade Magazine,
From an ambitious 5,000 copies for each of the first two editions of the Knight of the Immaculata magazine in 1922, it grew to a circulation of 800,000 copies by 1938, a number that is enviable even by today’s standards. And this does not count the several other smaller publications Father Maximilian started for children, youth and for the working class.
Maximilian and his friars also started a radio station, which they used to vilify the Nazis.
Kolbe is most famous for his time in Auschwitz, but his first experience in camps was in 1939. He spent 3 months between two camps. Upon his return to the friary, according to the website Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz and other sources:
… he and the other friars began to organize a shelter for 3,000 Polish refugees, among whom were 2,000 Jews. The friars shared everything they had with the refugees. They housed, fed and clothed them, and brought all their machinery into use in their service.
Ultimately authorities arrested Kolbe again and sent him to Pawiak prison in Warsaw. From there he went to Auschwitz.
Prior to Kolbe’s execution, he continued giving of himself in other ways. His actions are a moving example of a soldier’s heart and heroic life.
St. Kolbe often he gave up his meager rations so that others could eat. During the night, rather than resting, he would go from prisoner to prisoner to ask if they needed anything of him as a Catholic priest. According to Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz:
A prisoner later recalled how he and several others often crawled across the floor at night to be near the bed of Father Kolbe, to make their confessions and ask for consolation. Father Kolbe pleaded with his fellow prisoners to forgive their persecutors and to overcome evil with good. When he was beaten by the guards, he never cried out. Instead, he prayed for his tormentors.
The same website quotes a physician as stating “‘I can say with certainty that during my four years in Auschwitz, I never saw such a sublime example of the love of God and one’s neighbor.”
In July of 1941, a prisoner on his cell block escaped. To discourage further attempts, the officials of Auschwitz retaliated by choosing ten men to die. One of the men selected was Franciszek Gajowniczek.
Gajowniczek cried out in anguish, asking what was to become of his wife and children. St. Kolbe stepped forward and said to the commandant: “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.”
Ultimately, the saint prevailed. He and the other nine condemned prisoners entered Building 13 to starve to death.
“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?
I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. The news quickly spread all around the camp. It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.
For a long time, I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact, he was with them to the last.’‘
Gajowniczek’s words are striking. “I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?” For Christians, I do not think there is a way to read this without relating it to Jesus.
Bruno Borgowiec, assigned to assist in Bunker 13, testified to the last days of St. Kolbe’s life:
“The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the center as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.
Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather 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 ..
St. Kolbe was the last to die. As the final survivor, guards gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He was 47 years old.
In Luke 9:23 (NABRE), Jesus “said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'” Our actions do matter. We can turn away from God in little things daily, which will likely lead to turning away in bigger things. Or we can deny ourselves even in small ways each day and live a little more selflessly as we grow in holiness.
People who do not understand Catholicism often accuse us of teaching that we earn our salvation through works. This is a mistaken understanding. Yet it would be wrong to deny that works are important and even necessary. One only has to read James 2, discussing faith and works. James 2:24 (NABRE) states, “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Or read the parable of the sheep and goats, Matthew 25:31-46. This parable tells of our actions determining eternal punishment or eternal life.
St. Kolbe desired to be a disciple of Jesus, even in his youth. Knowing where following Jesus can and often does lead, discipleship takes courage.
What can you do if, like me, you tend toward cowardice? Follow St. Kolbe’s example. Pray frequently. Ask God to lead you. You may find it hard to hear Him, but trust that He will bless your efforts. Evangelize; it will grow your love of God as it brings others to Him.
Deny yourself; pick up your cross daily. In this way, you, too, can develop a soldier’s heart.