St. Maximilian Marie Kolbe: True Son of Mary
Just over four years ago, I knelt on a gravel path among the depressing brick buildings at Auschwitz. The sky was gray. The air was heavy with the ghosts of the horrific evil that had happened there. And yet as I knelt down outside of Cell Block 11 with other pilgrims milling around me, there was great joy and hope in my heart. With so many pilgrims coming for World Youth Day, the officials had blocked off entry to the museum portions of Auschwitz – pilgrims were only allowed to walk around outside and read what plaques were available outside of the buildings. We could not physically get into the bunker where St. Maximilian Kolbe died, so I knelt on the gravel. Moments later, a priest from our pilgrimage group knelt beside me. I cannot now remember if he started the Salve Regina, or if I did, or if somehow we began singing it at the same time, but we sang the Salve with great thanksgiving in our hearts and tears in our eyes for the witness of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe. We sang a song of loving devotion to the Blessed Mother, just as good Fr. Kolbe sang hymns of praise to Jesus and Mary as he and nine other prisoners slowly died in Cell Block 11 in August 1941.
Of the 10 prisoners sentenced to die in that cell, Fr. Kolbe was the last man left. The others had died of starvation. The guards kept coming back to check on the good priest, but he still stood or knelt praying and singing to the Lord. Finally, on August 14, the eve of the Assumption of Mary, they were tired of waiting for him to die and injected him with carbolic acid to which he quickly succumbed and went on to his heavenly reward.
August is traditionally a month dedicated to Mary – especially to the remembrance of her Assumption into Heaven. We have the opportunity this month to contemplate her life, her total dedication to the Lord, and her life of holiness as we contemplate why the Lord would assume her, body and soul, into Heaven to abide with him forever. August also gives us the chance to celebrate the life and death of Fr. Kolbe whose feast day is on the fourteenth of the month. May we learn from him how to love Mary more and more.
Mary in St. Maximilian’s Childhood
“I want to be an instrument in the hands of Mary as she is laboring to bring souls to Christ.” (St. Maximilian Kolbe)
Born in 1894, Raymond Kolbe was a part of a pretty normal, very devout Catholic family in Poland. His childhood was largely ordinary outside of one extraordinary event: Mary appeared to him at the age of 10. She came to him and presented him with two crowns – the red crown of martyrdom and the white crown of purity, and she asked which he would have. In his zeal to serve Jesus and Mary, he asked the Blessed Mother for both crowns.
In 1910 at the age of 16, he and his brother secretly crossed the border from Russian-run Poland to Austrian-run Poland so that they could enter seminary. He was sent to Rome to study by the Franciscans. He received the religious name “Maximilian Maria” for his many natural and spiritual gifts (maxi meaning “greatest” in Latin) and for his devotion to the Blessed Mother. In 1917, a year before his ordination to the priesthood, Br. Maximilian Maria found the Militia Immaculatae, which was dedicated to bringing about the reign of the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the conversion and consecration of souls to Mary Immaculate. A good number of his fellow Franciscans joined him in this.
Although we know that Maximilian’s early life was largely normal, he clearly came from a devout and pious family, who had devotion to Our Lady. When Mary appeared to him at the tender age of 10, he had no reservations in accepting the crowns of purity and martyrdom, especially from so good and loving a Mother. We should emulate this kind of regular devotion to Mary in our own homes. Whether or not we have children in the house, or whether we encounter them with other family members or friends, Marian devotion should be encouraged from the youngest age.
There are many books that teach children about Mary, as well as books that specifically teach children to do the Marian consecration. Children should be accustomed to praying the Hail Mary, as well as the family rosary. Having images or statues of Mary in the home is also important to help us remember her and her intercession on our behalf throughout the day. Children can also wear the Miraculous Medal or the Brown Scapular as a constant physical reminder of Mary’s protection and presence. These are all also important for us as adults, obviously, to help us foster our devotion to the Blessed Mother. So consider doing the Consecration to Mary, whether it be Fr. Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory or the traditional St. Louis Marie de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary. See if it is something you can do as a family or with friends – there are many beautiful Marian feasts coming up in September and October on which you can consecrate yourself to Jesus through Mary.
Mary in St. Maximilian’s Priesthood
“Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.” (St. Maximilian Kolbe)
In 1919, Fr. Kolbe returned to his beloved Poland and continued his ministry with the Militia Immaculatae. In 1922, he founded Knight of the Immaculate, a monthly magazine dedicated to spreading the mission of the Militia Immaculatae. Five years later with 17 other Franciscan brothers, Fr. Kolbe founded a monastery called the City of the Immaculata which grew from 18 to over 650 in the first 12 years of its foundation. Fr. Kolbe’s zeal for and delight in Mary’s role as mother and intercessor was contagious and spread like wildfire throughout Poland. At the height of its publication, the Knight of the Immaculate magazine printed a million copies for Poland alone. In 1930, Fr. Kolbe took several other brothers to Japan to found a City of the Immaculata in Nagasaki. His eventual plan was to have one in every nation in the world, and have Knight of the Immaculate published in every language to help spread the message of Mary lovingly bringing her children to Christ. He returned to Poland in 1936 to be treated for advanced tuberculosis but was tireless still in his evangelizing efforts.
Fr. Kolbe’s life was dedicated to pondering the meaning of the Immaculate Conception. He loved other Marian apparitions as well, but spent many hours contemplating her appearance to St. Bernadette at Lourdes and her revelatory words “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Not only “I was immaculately conceived” which is true, but that Mary is the Immaculate Conception in her person. He spent special attention to pondering the relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit. It is reported that hours before the Gestapo arrested him, he received an answer to his prayers about this mysterious relationship: Mary is the created Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit is the uncreated, eternal Immaculate Conception of the love of the Father and the Son. He was in the midst of completing a work titled, “I am the Immaculate Conception” when he was arrested.
St. Maximilian’s love for Mary can be externally noted by the sheer volume of output dedicated to her. His creative energies apparently knew no bounds. In addition to the monthly magazine, the friars also utilized the radio and had plans for a film studio to spread the message of the Militia Immaculata. But this external work was fueled by deep, penetrating interior devotion. He spent countless hours contemplating the mystery of Mary’s life and love. The fruit of this contemplation were his tireless efforts to bring others closer to Jesus through the Blessed Mother.
May we never forget that we are called to ponder the mystery of Mary throughout our lives. The Sacred Scripture reveals much to us in its few words about her, and many saints have added to the Church’s understanding of who and what she is. May we, like St. Maximilian, take the time to know her better so that we might love her more.
Mary with St. Maximilian in Auschwitz
“O Immaculate, my life (every moment of it), my death (where, when, how), and my eternity belongs totally to you. Of everything you do whatever you like.” (Prayer of St. Maximilian Kolbe to the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Fr. Kolbe remained close to Mary even through his arrest and imprisonment at Auschwitz. He preached to his fellow prisoners, led them in prayer, and continued to spread his message of Mary’s intercession and guidance. In late July 1941, a prisoner from his cell block escaped and ten men were randomly chosen to die as a deterrent to others from attempting to escape. One of the men chosen to die cried out in sorrow about his family and Fr. Kolbe offered his life in exchange for the other man’s. He had lived with the crown of purity for many years, but now Mary’s offering of the crown of martyrdom was about to come to fruition.
It took several weeks for the men to die in Cell Block 11. In that time, Fr. Kolbe preached consolation to his fellow prisoners, he heard their confessions, and he sang hymns of praise and thanksgiving to Jesus and Mary. We know this because the Nazi guards on duty at the time testified to it – they were shocked that this man condemned to die continued to sing hymns to the Lord and to Our Lady. As written above, Fr. Maximilian Maria Kolbe died on the eve of the Assumption, forever uniting himself to Our Lady in the remembrance of God’s generous love to her.
We too can keep Mary close to us in tribulation and suffering through continued devotions and prayers. The rosary is especially fruitful in times of difficulty. If facing our own death or the death of a loved one, how consoling it is to repeat time and again, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death.” May our hopes be buoyed as well by remembering to sing hymns of praise and thanksgiving in the midst of our trials, as St. Maximilian did as he watched the men around him die and waited for death himself. We have the great grace of so loving and tender a mother, she will not abandon us when we suffer.
St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe and Mary Immaculate, pray for us!