Teaching Our Faith — A saint for our times

Today it often feels as if we have a critical shortage of heroes. Professional athletes fall from grace clutching steroid-filled syringes. Politics seem awash in acrimony, distortions and special interests. The church itself has reeled from the scandal of child sex abuse. From “Toddlers in Tiaras” to the lamentably pervasive “housewives,” contemporary media creates a growing sense that the worst human traits, such as self-absorption and gluttony, are the norm rather than the exception.

Yet our modern world is full of heroes — even saints — ordinary people who serve as a shining example of grace, humility and service to others. Their quiet example just doesn’t grab the spotlight. That is one reason I am drawn to the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe, declared “The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century” by Blessed John Paul II.

I learned about St. Maximilian from my parents, my first and best teachers of Christian faith who were living when my son, Max, was born. They introduced us to a 20th century hero who gave the ultimate gift by laying down his life for a stranger.

St. Maximilian was born in 1894 to a Polish working class family and named Raymond. Early on, he was deeply influenced by a childhood vision of Mary that led to a lifelong devotion to Jesus’ mother — the most perfect example of humble acceptance of God’s will.

Kolbe was dedicated to learning. He and his older brother Francis joined the Conventual Franciscans in 1907, and he took final vows in 1914, adopting the name Maximilian Maria — reflecting his dedication to Mary. He eventually attended college in Rome where he studied mathematics and physics and earned degrees in both philosophy and theology.

He was a leader and strategic organizer. He founded “Militia Immaculata,” or the Army of Mary, to inspire conversion through Mary’s divine intercession. In the 1920s and 30s he founded monasteries in Warsaw, Japan and Niepokalanow, the latter of which became a virtual city known as a vocational hub and publishing center of religious books, pamphlets and periodicals.

In fact, Kolbe saw the power of media to communicate and rally people to good and courageous action. He founded a daily newspaper, magazine and radio station which were ultimately used to speak out against the rising tide of Nazi atrocities. Interestingly, Kolbe is the only canonized saint to have an amateur radio license; today, he would likely blog and tweet, marshalling all the resources of social media to spread his Christian message.

But he did more than urge action. As World War II began, Kolbe’s Polish monastery sheltered refugees, including some 2,000 Jews.

This led to Kolbe’s arrest by the German Gestapo, imprisonment at the dreaded Auschwitz death camp, and a new name: Prisoner #16670.

In July 1941, in retaliation for a prisoner escape, the camp commander randomly selected 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker. When one of the men cried out, “My wife! My children! What will they do?” Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

Eyewitnesses reported that during this death watch, Kolbe celebrated Mass each day and sang hymns with the other men. Each time guards checked, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell. After two weeks, only Kolbe remained. He was given a lethal injection on Aug. 14 and cremated the following day — ironically, the feast of the Assumption of Mary.

St. Maximilian Kolbe was canonized on Oct. 10, 1982, with Francis Gajowniczek, the man he saved, in attendance. Gajowniczek lived 53 years after the fateful switch and was quoted as saying that “so long as he … has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe.”

World War II represents one of the darkest hours of human existence. Yet out of that horrific catastrophe have come countless stories, like those of St. Maximilian, of incredible courage and self-giving love.

Kolbe mirrors the message of Jesus: that in the face of unimaginable evil, the human spirit can soar in service to others.

That’s a message we can all use today.

Alice Bridges,
Corporate Director
KentuckyOne Health

The Record
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