Among the saints who lived their consecration to the Virgin Mary in a remarkable way, one figure stands out in particular: Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest who died a martyr's death in 1941 and was canonized by Saint John Paul II in 1982. His entire life was an exemplary testimony to his absolute love and trust in the Immaculate Virgin. Here is a summary of his life as told in the Letter from Saint-Joseph de Clairval Abbey in France.
One day in 1915, an elderly gentleman was raging about the Pope and the Church before Brother Maximilian Kolbe. The young Franciscan struck up a conversation with the man. "I know what I'm talking about, youngster! I am a doctor of philosophy," the unknown gentleman exclaimed. "So am I," answered the little Brother who was twenty-one years old but looked sixteen. Dumbfounded, the man changed his tone. Then, patiently, and with inexorable logic, the Brother took up one by one each of the man's arguments and turned them against him. A witness said, "Towards the end of the discussion, the miscreant remained silent. He seemed to be in deep thought." Who then was this bold apostle, whom Paul VI described as a "type of man on whom we can model our art of living, recognizing in him the privilege the Apostle Paul had of being able to say to the Christian people: Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ (1 Cor 11: 1)"?
Raymond Kolbe, the future Saint Maximilian (canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 10, 1982), was born on January 7, 1894, of modest Polish weavers. His father was very mild, a bit reserved. His mother, Mary, was energetic and laborious. Besides two children who died very young, the household counted three boys, Francis, Raymond and Joseph. Raymond was violent, independent, undertaking and stubborn. Naturally lively and impulsive, he often tried his mother's patience, so that one day she cried out: "My poor child, what will become of you?"
This reprimand brought on a true conversion in the little boy. He became calm and obedient. His mother noticed that he often disappeared behind the armoire where there was a little altar of Our Lady of Czestochowa. There, he prayed and wept. His mother asked him. "Raymond, tell me why you are crying like a girl?" He replied, "When you said to me: `Raymond, what will become of you?' I was really troubled and I went to ask the Blessed Virgin what I would become. The Blessed Virgin appeared to me, holding two crowns, one white and the other red. She looked at me lovingly and asked me which one I chose; the white signified that I would always be pure and the red that I would die a martyr. I answered: I'll take both of them!"
Ever after that meeting, the child's soul had an unwavering love for the Blessed Virgin. Reading the works of Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort taught him that'God wishes to reveal and unveil Mary, the masterpiece of His handiwork, in these latter times when Mary must shine, more than ever, in mercy, in strength and in grace' (Treatise on True Devotion to Mary). The young Raymond gave his life to the Blessed Virgin. Marian consecration is a gift of love which offers and ties the entire person to the Immaculata. Saint Maximilian would later write, "In the same way that the Immaculata belongs to Jesus, to God, so also each soul, through her and in her, will belong to Jesus, to God, and in a much better way than without her." In fact, "The Catholic Church has always asserted that imitation of the Virgin Mary not only does not turn one away from the effort of faithfully following Christ, but that it makes it more loving and less difficult" (Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Signum magnum, May 13, 1967, No. 8).
Drawn by Mary, Raymond Kolbe embraced the religious life. On September 4, 1910, he took the Franciscan habit and the name Brother Maximilian Mary. In the autumn of 1912, his superiors sent him to the Gregorian University in Rome. His studies did not turn him away from his ideal of sanctity: to bring the greatest possible glory to God.
"The glory of God consists in the salvation of souls. The salvation and the perfect sanctification of souls – naturally starting with our own soul – already redeemed at great price by the death of Jesus on the Cross, this is our noble ideal." But the road to salvation is found in accomplishing the will of God. The young Brother also wrote to his mother: "I don't wish either health or prosperity for you. Why? Because I would wish you better than that, something so good that God Himself couldn't wish something better for you: that in all things the will of this Most Good Father be done in you, Mom, that you know in all things how to accomplish the will of God! That is the very best that I can wish for you."
It was at Rome that the Blessed Virgin inspired him to found the "Mission of the Immaculata." At the time, freemasonry was very prominent in the eternal city. Brother Maximilian explained, "When the freemasons started to go out of their way to be confrontational and raised their standard beneath the windows of the Vatican, this standard on which, on a black background, Lucifer crushed the Archangel Saint Michael under his feet, and when they started to distribute pamphlets attacking the Holy Father, the idea came to me to found an association whose goal would be to combat the freemasons and Lucifer's other fiends."
Freemasonry is a secret society with a thousand offshoots which endeavors to run the world according to principles excluding the authority of God and His Revelation. "Since the absolutely proper and special mission of the Catholic Church is to receive in their fullness and to keep in an incorruptible purity, the doctrines revealed by God, as well as the established authority to teach them, with the other helps given by Heaven in order to save mankind, it is against the Church that the freemasons deploy the most relentlessly and direct their most violent attacks" (Leo XIII, Encyclical Humanum genus, April 20, 1884).
But freemasonry also destroys lay society, because its principles contradict natural law and sap "the foundations of justice and honesty" (ibid). Quite often, the only rule that it sets forth for man is the satisfaction of his desires. On the other hand, its desire to make the State completely foreign to religion, and to administer public affairs as if God did not exist is "a boldness without equal" (ibid). Indeed, in the same way that each man has the obligation "to offer to God the most grateful worship, because it is to Him that we owe our life and the goods that go with it, so also a similar duty exists for peoples and societies" (ibid).
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a notice dated November 26, 1983, confirmed the teaching of Leo XIII: "The judgment of the Church on Masonic associations remains unchanged, because their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church, and belonging to such organizations continues to be forbidden by the Church. The faithful who belong to Masonic organizations are in a state of serious sin and may not receive Holy Communion."
Today, freemasonry exalts the "culture of death" by favoring contraception, abortion and euthanasia. It contributes to the ruin of the family. For the freemason Pierre Simon, who wrote, in 1979, "my true being is no longer my body but my lodge (Masonic)," life is "no longer a gift of God, but a material to be managed. It loses the absolute character that it had in Genesis." Thus, one can manipulate it however one wants. Likewise, "sexuality will be dissociated from procreation, and procreation from fatherhood. It is the entire concept of the family that is about to topple." Similar principles govern numerous organizations at the present time which, although not overtly tied to freemasonry, work in the same spirit. Pope John Paul II said, in Denver, on August 4, 1993: "The threats to life do not weaken with time. On the contrary, they are taking on enormous dimensions They are threats programmed in a scientific and systematic manner."
In the presence of these same forces of evil, already at work in his time, Saint Maximilian shows us a beautiful example of apostolic zeal. Following Saint Paul, he endeavored to overcome evil by good (Rom 12: 21). Strong in his Faith and solid theology, he turned to the Virgin Mary and her Divine Son. In order to come down and save us, the Word of God deigned to become man, and chose as His Mother a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary (Luke 1: 26-27). The Mother of the Saviour was provided by God with gifts commensurate with such a great responsibility. At the time of the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel greeted her as full of grace (Luke 1: 28). Explaining this expression, Pope Pius IX in 1854 proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: "The Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by singular grace and favor of God Almighty, based on the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of mankind, kept whole from any stain of original sin." Never having known sin, the Immaculata possesses an immense power against evil and she thus became the "Mother of all Grace."
Powerful against evil, Our Lady is victorious over the demon. Also, Brother Maximilian founded the "Mission of the Immaculata" on this word of God to the serpent: She (the Blessed Virgin) shall crush thy head (Gen 3:15-Douay-Rheims [Vulgate] version). The saint linked this divine prophecy to the liturgical assertion: "Through thee alone, Mary, are all heresies conquered." The goal of this Mission was to obtain "the conversion of sinners, heretics, schismatics, etc., and particularly freemasons; and the sanctification of all men under the direction and through the mediation of the Immaculate Blessed Virgin Mary."
In his zeal, Saint Maximilian desired the conversion of all sinners, because he would never say "to save souls," but "all souls." This desire corresponds to God's plan. For God so loved the world, as to give His only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting (John 3: 16). Because He first loved us, and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins (1 John 4: 10). And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world (1 John 2: 2).
The members of the Mission would offer themselves completely to the Blessed Virgin Mary Immaculate, as instruments in her hand, and would wear the Miraculous Medal. They would daily recite the following prayer: "O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee and for all those who have not recourse to Thee, most particularly for the freemasons and for all those who are commended to Thee."
Brother Maximilian's health was not strong. Despite that, he studied very courageously, passed his exams brilliantly and became a doctor of philosophy in 1915. He obtained, with the same success, a doctorate in theology four years later. Meanwhile, he was ordained to the priesthood on April 28, 1918. He envisaged using his education to instruct his neighbor and thus to contribute to the salvation of souls.
His desire was to "put all progress in the service of the glory of God," that is, to christianize modern culture. Vatican Council II declared, in our time, that the Church's objective in favoring the individual disciplines of higher level education is "that a progressively deeper understanding of them may be achieved, and by a careful attention to the current problems of these changing times and to the research being undertaken, the convergence of faith and reason in the one truth may be seen more clearly. Thus the Christian outlook should acquire, as it were, a public, stable and universal influence in the whole process of the promotion of higher culture. The graduates of these institutes should be outstanding in learning, ready to undertake the more responsible duties of society, and to be witnesses in the world to the true faith" (Gravissimum Educationis, 10).
But the saint had to realize that good is not accomplished without the cross. Indeed, as Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus reminds us, "Only suffering gives birth to souls." Towards the end of 1919, Saint Maximilian was sent to Zakopane, to a sanatorium where religious support was lacking. Even though he was ill, he undertook a difficult apostolate among his comrades with the help of the Miraculous Medal. One by one, he won over their hearts and minds, and did so well that they invited him to give conferences. The apostle of Mary was expecting just that. Many unbelievers converted.
Then Father Kolbe started a series of "chats on apologetics," on the existence of God and the divinity of Christ. The love that he showed for the truth came across in a letter written to his brother, Joseph: "In our time the greatest poison is indifference, which finds its victims not only in the middle class but also among the religious, in different degrees." Pope Pius XII said, "All Christians should have, as much as possible, a deep and organic religious education. Indeed, it would be dangerous to develop knowledge in other areas of learning and to leave religious heritage unchanged, in the state that it was in early childhood. Since it is of necessity incomplete and superficial, it would be strangled, perhaps destroyed, by a godless culture and by the experiences of adult life, as shown by all of those whose faith has run aground on account of unrevealed doubts and unsolved problems. Since it is necessary that the foundation of Faith be rational, a sufficient study of apologetics becomes indispensable" (March 24, 1957).
In 1927, Father Maximilian founded the Franciscan Marian community of Niepokalanow, Poland (literally, the community of the Immaculata). Everything there was consecrated to Mary. There were many who asked to be admitted to the novitiate, to the point where the convent numbered up to a thousand religious. Father Kolbe said, "At Niepokalanow, we lived with only one idea, if it can be expressed that way, which was willingly chosen and loved: The Immaculata!" The press, whose influence continued to grow, appeared to him as an area ripe for apostolate. With the idea of evangelizing, he launched the magazine "The Knight of the Immaculata," which soon became the most important publication in Poland. In 1939 more than a million copies were distributed.
Far from being the only objective of Father Maximilian, Poland was only a starting point. Hardly three years after founding Niepokalanow he met some Japanese students on a train. They struck up a conversation and Father offered them some Miraculous Medals. In exchange, the students gave him some small wooden elephants that they used as fetishes. After that, the saint continued to think of how pitiful these souls were without God. So one fine day he presented himself to his provincial and asked him permission to go to Japan to found a Japanese Niepokalanow. The Father Provincial asked him, "Have you got the money?" He answered, "No."—"Do you know Japanese?"—"No."—"Well, do you at least have some friends there to support you?"—"Not yet, but I will find some with the grace of God."
Having obtained authorization, Father Kolbe left in 1930 with four Brothers for Japan. Thanks to their labor, boldness, prayers and confidence in the Immaculata, they created "Mugenzai no Sono," which translates as "the garden of the Immaculata." Two years after the foundation in Japan, Father Maximilian left to start a foundation in India. Having great difficulties, he prayed to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Had he not made a pact with her when he was in Rome to pray every day for her canonization, but that in return she would be the patroness of his works? Saint Thérèse honored her part of the contract. All of the obstacles magically disappeared. But, brought low by fever, the apostle of Mary Immaculate had to return to Poland in 1936.
In September 1939, war broke out. Saint Maximilian carried on his apostolate with more zeal than ever. "If good consists in the love of God and in all that springs from that love, evil, in its essence, is a negation of love," we read in his last article. Such is the true conflict. In the depths of every soul, there are these two adversaries: good and evil, love and sin. Saint Augustine expressed this conflict in these terms: "Two loves built two cities: love of self and disregard for God made the earthly city; love of God and disregard for self made the heavenly city" (City of God, XIV, 28).
On February 17, 1941, Gestapo agents seized Father Kolbe and four other Brothers and first took them to the Pawiak prison in Warsaw. While there, Father was violently beaten for being a religious and a priest. He wrote to his children remaining at Niepokalanow: "The Immaculata, most loving Mother, has always surrounded us with tenderness and will watch over us always. Let us be led by her, more and more perfectly where she wishes and according to her pleasure, so that, fulfilling our duties to the end, we may, through love, save all souls." Several days later, Father Kolbe was transferred to the camp at Auschwitz.
Soon hospitalized following severe beatings, he spent his nights hearing confessions, despite it being forbidden and the threat of reprisals. He knew how to turn evil itself into good, and one day said to a sick person: "Hate is not a creative force. Only love is creative. These sufferings will not make us bend, but they should help us to be even stronger. They are necessary, with other sacrifices, so that those who come after us may be happy." He shared among his companions the experience of the Paschal Mystery, in which suffering lived in Faith is transformed into joy. "The paradox of the Christian condition singularly clarifies that of the human condition: neither tribulations nor suffering are eliminated from the world, but they take on a new sense in the certainty of participation in the Redemption carried out by Our Lord and the sharing of His glory" (Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation On Christian Joy, May 9, 1975).
At the end of July, 1941, a prisoner in block 14, the same as Father Maximilian, escaped. The chief of the camp had warned that, for each escapee, ten men would be condemned to die of hunger and thirst. One of the unfortunate ones picked out for death, Franciszek Gajowniczek cried: "Oh! my poor wife and children that I will never see again!" Then, from among the crowd of comrades from which they had been separated, Father Maximilian cleared a path and came out of the ranks. "I would like to die in the place of one of these condemned men," and he pointed out the man who had been crying out. "Who are you?" the chief asked. Father answered, "A Catholic priest." For it was as a Catholic priest that he wished to give his life. The officer, dumbfounded, was silent for a moment and then accepted the heroic proposition.
On death row, the jailers realized that something new was going on. In place of the usual cries of distress, they heard songs. The presence of Father Maximilian had changed the atmosphere of the frightful cell. Despair had given way to prayer full of hope, of acceptance and of love, towards Heaven, towards the Mother of Mercy. On the eve of the Assumption, only Father Maximilian was still totally conscious. At the moment when the guards came in to finish him off, he was in prayer. Seeing the syringe, he himself offered his emaciated arm for the fatal injection.
During his lifetime, Saint Maximilian Kolbe loved to repeat: "On this earth we can only work with one hand, because with the other we must really hold on so that we don't fall ourselves. But in Heaven, it will be different! No danger of slipping, of falling! Then we shall work even more, with both hands!" We ask him to intercede with the Immaculate Virgin and Saint Joseph for you and all of those who are dear to you, living and deceased.
Dom Antoine Marie OSB
This article is reprinted with permission from the Abbey of Clairval, France, which every month publishes a spiritual newsletter on the life of a saint, in English, French, Italian and Dutch. Their postal address is Abbaye Saint-Joseph de Clairval 21150 Flavigny sur Ozerain, France. The website is www. clairval.com.