The summer of 1941. Auschwitz. A prisoner escapes. In response, the Nazi guards round up ten other prisoners to be placed in a notorious starvation bunker where they will be held without food and water until they are dead. One selected man cries out, “My wife; my children!” Another prisoner steps forward and volunteers to take that man’s place. The guards consent. That man, St. Maximillian Kolbe (1894-1941), a Polish Franciscan priest, joins the other nine and ministers to the dying men, leading them in prayer and focus on God. One by one the men die. After two weeks, the impatient guards inject Fr. Kolbe and three other survivors with a lethal injection. Kolbe dies on August 14, 1941, becoming one of the most celebrated martyrs out of the madness of World War II. Fr, Kolbe was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1982. The man whose life he saved, Franciszek Gajowniczek, was present at the canonization.

Many of us are familiar with St. Maximillian Kolbe’s act of heroic sacrifice. However, there is more to the story of this remarkable man than his extraordinary final days. Fr. Kolbe was intelligent, courageous, and a leader. He lived a passionate life of faith and devotion to God, with special devotion to the Eucharist and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. And he was a pioneer in the use of modern media. These attributes are what got him into trouble with the Nazis. Fr. Kolbe was head of a Franciscan monastery in Poland at the time the Nazis invaded Poland and in the ensuing months of occupation, he and his fellow friars sheltered and hid up to 2,000 Jews and Kolbe spoke out against the oppression of the Nazis.  In February 1941 the Gestapo shut down the monastery and arrested Kolbe and four other friars. In May, Kolbe was transferred to Auschwitz. He was assigned prisoner number 16670.

There is more to the story of this remarkable man, however, than his sacrificial death. I can just scratch the surface in this short article, but will highlight three of the many things we could say about him.

First, the strength of his life was his intense devotion to the Eucharist. Kolbe often said that if the angels were to be jealous of us humans, it would certainly be for the gift we have of Holy Communion. He did not say that flippantly. He believed fervently that Jesus was truly present in the form of Bread and Wine – the Eucharist was not a mere symbol. Kolbe understood that by saying, “This is My Body, this is My Blood,” Jesus was doing more than giving a sign. He was giving his followers divine food for strength, a link to the heavenly banquet, and a genuine way to be in union with each other. Kolbe staked his life on it – and his death. He knew the Eucharist, received with full dedication and faith, makes a person more like the Person of Christ. Thus he was able to act like Christ.

Like many other saints, Kolbe had a long-standing practice of praying before what we Catholics call the “Blessed Sacrament,” the consecrated Host exposed on an altar for prayerful viewing and veneration. It is a recognition in faith that Jesus’s words, “This is My Body” are true and that Jesus, in love, is willing to remain with us in a real way. Kolbe and millions of others have drawn great strength from prayer before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Second, Kolbe was a man ahead of his time in his use of media. For years in the 1920s and 1930s, up to his arrest in 1941, Kolbe carried out a publishing ministry in Poland, sending out bulletins, founding a magazine, teaching and sharing the faith for thousands to follow and speaking out on pertinent matters of the day. Kolbe was also an early user of radio. He was one of the first to use this new innovation for religious teaching and speaking. For a short period in the late 1930s, Fr. Kolbe was “on the air,” spreading the gospel, offering a message of hope to a beleaguered people under occupation, and contesting the practices of the Nazi overlords during the war. This contributed to his first arrest in 1939, and the Nazis shut down his radio ministry. Undaunted, Fr. Kolbe and his fellow friars continued with their print publications, preaching the faith and calling out the Nazis for their atrocities until his final arrest in 1941.

Finally, St. Maximillian made a series of missionary trips to Asia in the 1930s, especially to Japan. In the early 1930s, he spent time in Nagasaki, which has been the center of the Japanese Catholic community, going back 400 years to the missionary travels of St. Francis Xavier. The Catholic community there grew, thrived, suffered severe persecution, was driven underground, and though reduced in numbers, stayed alive even as World War II broke out. Kolbe founded a monastery in Nagasaki in 1931, locating it on the “wrong” side of a hill – against the advice of some local residents. By the time war broke out, Kolbe had returned to Poland, but his monastery was occupied and in place as part of the local Catholic community, and remains so today.

On August 9th, 1945 the United States military dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The city of Kokura was the intended target but heavy cloud cover forced a diversion to Nagasaki as the secondary target. Further cloud cover and fuel issues prevented the drop on the center city. The bomb fell in the Uramaki Valley instead, directly above the Catholic Cathedral and much of the local Catholic community, a large portion of whom were killed. However, surrounding hills sheltered other areas from the blast, saving thousands of additional lives. Kolbe’s monastery, having been built on what turned out to be the far side of the hill from the blast, survived. Japan surrendered on August 14th, ending the war, four years to the day after Kolbe’s death in Auschwitz.

Men and women of heroic faith and martyrs are rarely made overnight. Although at times a sudden burst of faith can embolden someone to have the courage to die for the faith, usually that courage and conviction comes from a lifetime of closeness to God. So it was with St. Maximilian Kolbe, man of the Eucharist, innovative evangelist, and missionary in Nagasaki before the bomb.

St. Maximillian, pray for us!

1 Comment

  • Gina Wilkinson Posted April 8, 2023 4:27 am

    Very informative. I only knew of the story related to his courageous death.

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