Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Maximilian Kolbe: Confessor-Martyr

He was born January 8, 1894 near Lodz in Poland. As a boy, after being scolded by his mother for being mischievous, he asked the Mother of God in a dream “what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me 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.”

In 1907, Raymond and his elder brother entered a junior Franciscan seminary in Lwow. Here he excelled in mathematics and physics and his teachers predicted a brilliant future for him in science. Others, seeing his passionate interest in all things military, saw in him a future strategist. For a time his interest in military affairs together with his fiery patriotism made him lose interest in the idea of becoming a priest. The fulfillment of his dream would lie in saving Poland from her oppressors as a soldier. However, his vocation matured with his age and he entered the Franciscans in 1910 taking the name Maximilian. From 1912 to 1915, he studied philosophy in Rome at the Gregorian College, and from 1915 to 1919 theology at the Collegio Serafico. He was ordained in Rome on 28 April 1918. Within a short time he developed tuberculosis and lost a lung. His love for our Lady grew to soon become the devouring characteristic of his life. He regarded himself as no more than an instrument of her will.

In 1927, Fr. Maximilian went to the friary of Niepokalanow, the “City of the Immaculate,” which he saw as “a place chosen by Mary Immaculate and is exclusively dedicated to spreading her cult. All that is and will be at Niepokalanow will belong to her. The monastic spirit will flourish here; we shall practice obedience and we shall be poor, in the spirit of St. Francis.” In 1930, Fr. Maximilian left Poland with four brothers on a journey to the Far East. They traveled by way of Port Said, Saigon and Shanghai, and on 24 April they landed at Nagasaki in Japan. He was immensely resourceful in his spreading the Gospel and devotion to the Virgin. By 1938 he is back in Poland as it is invaded by Hitler and annexed as part of the Third Reich. IN March of 19398, before most people thought of a war, he had said to the Brothers:

“During the first three centuries, the Church was persecuted. The blood of martyrs watered the seeds of Christianity. Later, when the persecutions ceased, one of the Fathers of the Church deplored the lukewarmness of Christians. He rejoiced when persecutions returned. In the same way, we must rejoice in what will happen, for in the midst of trials our zeal will become more ardent. Besides, are we not in the hands of the Blessed Virgin? Is it not our most ardently desired ideal to give our lives for her? We live only once. We die only once. Therefore, let it be according to her good pleasure.”

And again:

“God is cleansing Poland,” he said. “After this her [spiritual] light will shine on the world.” A footnote reads: “Although Poland was a country with much spiritual fervor and many religious vocations before the war, there has been far more zeal and far more vocations after it. Held up to the world as an example of a spiritually vibrant nation and home of the present much-loved pontiff, the image of Poland’s light shining on the world does not seem far-fetched today.”

And again:

“We are living in a time of intense penance. Let us at least avail ourselves of it. Suffering is a good and sweet thing for him who accepts it wholeheartedly.”

Father Stanley Frejlich remembers Kolbe in 1940-1941 as his philosophy teacher. In Krakow at the same time, young Karol Wojtyla was also secretly preparing for the priesthood through the illegal theology department of Jagiellonian University hidden, with several others, in the house of Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha during his clandestine study hours. He commented: “As a teacher he was the best. He shared wo much with us from his own life and his own job –especially from his period in Japan. And during our lessons he was wonderfully cheerful – always smiling. And very funny too.”

In Auschwitz, “the work was done at a run, with foremen stationed every several yards to beat any prisoner – especially priests, for whom Krott [one of the capos] had a special ferocity – who slowed down. It was a real Way of the Cross. For Father Maximilian it lasted two weeks. He was singled out to carry loads that were two or three times what non priests carried] – and carrying anything, especially at a run [with only one lung], was difficult over the uneven ground of the swamp. If he paused to rest, he was beaten with sticks. Fellow priests who saw him bleeding wanted to help, but he told them – usually with a smile - `Don’t expose yourselves to a beating. The Immaculata is helping me. I’ll get alone.’”

The Event:

There were 600 men in Block 14. Someone had escaped the Block. Fritsch , the camp Commandant barks: “`The fugitive has not been found. In reprisal for your comrade’s escape, ten of you will die by starvation. Next time, it will be twenty.’ Immediately, the selection begins. Palitsch and a prisoner-secretary precede him with pad and pencil to take down the numbers of the condemned; Fritsch walks down the first row of identically garbed, nameless men. He meanders slowly to prolong their terror. Perhaps he is even so sick that he enjoys the feeling that each life is momentarily his to dangle helplessly before its owner before setting it down or shattering it forever. He scrutinizes faces. The, with a gesture, he chooses his first victim from the front row. This does not mean the rest in that line are safe, however, He might take another. Even when the tenth man is chosen, the SS had been known to go on and take eleven, twelve, thirteen – as many as eighteen. After the first row is inspected, the order is given: `Three paces forward.’ They move up, leaving an alley between them and the second row so that arrogant Fritsch can one by one, stare each of these hapless souls straight in the face, while musing with leisurely care on his fate. Francis Mleczko recalls:

“I was in about the fifth or sixth row back and fifth or sixth man frm the end Fritsch started at. As he came closer and closer my heart was pounding. `Let him pass me, let him pass me, oh pass, pass,’ I was praying. But no. He stopped directly before me. With his eyes, he examined me from my head to my feet, then back again. A second complete up and down. I saw the [secretary] pose his pencil to write my number. Then, in Polish, Fritsch orders, `Open you mouth.’ I open. He looks. He walks on. I breathe again.

They are coming to Kolbe. His admirers can only think God will never permit a son who has given his whole life to his Father’s work – and whose work of studding the world with Christian communication centers is so far from finished – to be condemned by these agents of evil. Fritsch does not even pause.

But now he is beckoning to Palitsch. They are examining Koscielniak, who watches the two SS officers exchange looks:

It seemed to me this look would never end and in a moment I would be called out… But no, they passed me and chose someone else. I began to tremble from relief…

The line of the forlorn souls, the condemned, is growing. At each selection, Fritsch’s newest victim steps out forever from the Block ranks to join this death row. When the SS officer reaches the eighth row, the sinister quota is almost filled. Wojtkowski:

"I am thinking my luck is okay. Then suddenly he points down the row at me and calls `You!’ I freeze in terror and can’t move. Since I don’t put my foot forward, my neighbor decides Fritsch is calling him. Unsure, he puts one foot slightly out.

“Not you, dummkopf Polish swine,’ Fritsch snarls, and points at me again. Then suddenly, in a split second, he changes his mind and, as my neighbor starts to step back, he orders him forward and takes him instead of me. I remain paralyzed…

"Finally the grisly selection is complete. Fritsch turns to Palitsch, the noncommissioned officer who likes to brag about the numbers he has shot at the execution wall by Block 11. Together the SS officers check the secretary’s list against the numbers on the condemned. As their German passion for accuracy occupies them, one of the victims is sobbing. `My wife and my children!’ It is Francis Gajowniczek. The SS ignore him.

"Suddenly, there is movement in the still ranks. A prisoner several rows back has broken out and is pushing his way toward the front. The SS guards watching this Block raise their automatic rifles, while the dogs at their heels tense for the order to spring. Fritsch and Palitsch too reach toward their holsters. The prisoner steps past the first row.
It is Kolbe. His step is firm, his face peaceful. Angrily, the Block capo shouts at him to stop or be shot. Kolbe answers calmly, `I want to talk to the commander,’ and keeps on walking while the capo, oddly enough, neither shoots nor clubs him. Then, still at a respectful distance, Kolbe stops, his cap in his hands. Standing at attention like an officer of some sort himself, he looks Fritsch straight in the eye.
`Herr Commandant, I wish to make a request, please,’ he says politely in flawless German.
Survivors will later say it is a miracle that no one shoots him. Instead, Fritsch asks,
`What do you want?’

`I want to die in place of this prisoner.’
And Kolbe points toward the sobbing Gajowniczek. He presents this audacious request without a stammer. Fritsch looks stupefied, irritated. Everyone notes how the German lord of life and death, suddenly nervous, actually steps back a pace.
The prisoner explains coolly, as if they were discussing some everyday matter, that the man over there has a family.

`I have no wife or children. Besides, I’m old and not good for anything. He’s in better condition,’ he adds, adroitly playing on the Nazi line that only the fit should live.
`Who are you?’ Fritsch croaks.
`A Catholic priest.’
Frisch is silent. The stunned Block, audience to this drama, expect him in usual Auschwitz fashion to show no mercy but sneer, `Well, since you’re so eager, we’ll just let you come along too,’ and take both men. Instead, after a moment, the deputy-commander snaps,
`Request granted.’ As if he needs to expel some fury, he kicks Gajowniczek, snarling, `Back to ranks, you!’

Prisoner in ranks are never allowed to speak. Gajowniczek says:
`I could only try to 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 or reality?...”[1]

“After two weeks, “the prisoners were dying one after the other, and by this time only four were left, among them Father Kolbe, who was still conscious. The SS decided things were taking too long… One day they sent for the German criminal Bock from the hospital to give the prisoners injections of carbolic acid. After the needle prick in the vein of the left arm, you could follow the instant welling as it moved up the arm toward the chest. When it reached the heart, the victim would fall dead. Between injection and death was a little more than ten seconds.
“Some of Kolbe’s friends were brash enough to request that his body not be burned, but buried. The request was denied. … Years earlier he had said, `I would like to be ground to dust for the Immaculate Virgin and have this dust be blown away by the wind all over the world.”[2]

John Paul II at Auschwitz

“From the helicopter pad on the outskirts of town, the Pope was driven to the gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp in limousine constantly pelted with flowers thrown by the half-million Poles lining the roadway. But this was neither the place nor the moment for smiles. John Paul walked through the wrought-iron entrance gate with its infamously cynical inscription, Arbeit Macht Frei [Work Makes you Free], and along the gravel paths separating the red-bricks barracks buildings until he came to Block 11. There, in the basement, in Cell 18, Maximilian Kolbe had died a martyr to charity. The Pope knelt in prayer, kissed the cement floor where Kolbe had lain in agony, and then left a bouquet of red-and-white flowers and an Easter candle brought from Rome. Outside Block 11 was the `Wall of Death,’ against which prisoners were executed by firing squad. Enroute to praying there with West German’s Cardinal Hermann Volk, the Pope met and embraced seventy eight-year-old Franciszek Gajowniczek, whose life Father Kolbe had saved by his self-sacrifice.”[3]

Beatification as Confessor (white) Canonization as Martyr (red)

“Kolbe’s canonization was set for St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, October 10, 1982. But a question had arisen. Father Kolbe was widely regarded as a martyr, but was he a `martyr’ in the technical sense of the term – someone who had died because of odium fidei, `hatred of the faith’? He had not been arrested because of odium fidei, and witnesses to his self-sacrifice had testified that the Auschwitz commandant, Fritsch, had simply accepted Kolbe’s self-substitution for the condemned Fransciszek Gajowniczek without evincing any particular satisfaction that he was killing a priest. The theologians and experts of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (the Vatican office that considers beatifications and canonizations) had argued that Kolbe, while undoubtedly a saint, was not a martyr in the traditional sense of the term….

“John Paul II appointed two special judges to consider the question from the theological and historical points of view. Their reports were then submitted to a special advisory commission. The majority of the commission concluded that Blessed Maximilian Kolbe’s self-sacrifice did not satisfy the traditional criteria for martyrdom, heroic as ti undoubtedly was. On the day of his canonization, it was unclear whether Kolbe would be given the accolade of a martyr, as many Poles, Germans, and others wished.

“October 10, 1982, a magnificent autumn morning, found a quarter of a million people in St. Peter’s Square, where they saw a great banner, a portrait of Father Kolbe, draped from the central loggia. Still, the question hung in the air: Would Kolbe be recognized as a martyr?
The answer came when John Paul II processed out of the basilica and into the square wearing red vestments, the liturgical color of martyrs. He had overridden the counsel of his advisory commission, and in his homily he declared that `in virtue of my apostolic authority, I have decreed that Maximilian Mary Kolbe, who following his beatification was venerated as a confessor, will henceforth be venerated also as a martyr!’”[4]

And so as a young boy when Kolbe dreamed of asking our Lady “what was to become of me,” she held out to him two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked him if he was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that he should persevere in purity and the red that he should become a martyr. He said that he would accept them both. And so it was!

[1] Patricia Treece, “A Man for Others,” Harper and Row (1982) 169-171.
[2]) Ibid. 176
[3] George Weigel, “Witness to Hope,” Harper and Row, Cliffside Books (1999) 314-315.
[4] Ibid. 447.