Picture yourself in the death camp at Auschwitz. You’re standing in formation with all your fellow prisoners. The Nazis who run the camp have a harsh disincentive to escape: for every inmate who finds a way to break out of the camp the guards pick out ten other prisoners at random and starve them to death. As it happens, there has been such an escape, and the prisoners have been called together for the purpose of choosing the ten. The guards finish selecting their victims, and before it even begins to sink in that you are not among those chosen for the starvation bunker you see one of those who were chosen break down, begging to be released because he’s a husband and father. What do you do?
This very situation was faced by St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast we celebrate today. St. Maxilimilian had already lived an incredible life before he found himself in Auschwitz. He first answered the call to sanctity at a very early age, when he had a dream in which the Blessed Mother offered him two crowns: the white crown of purity, or the red crown of martyrdom . . . he chose both. He went on to earn both of those crowns.
From the very beginning St. Maximilian was eager to spread the faith. He became a Conventual Franciscan, and before he was even ordained he founded The Militia Immaculata, a movement open to all Catholics that aims for the spiritual renewal of individuals and society through the consecration of its members to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Evangelization is a large part of the Militia’s mission, and so St. Maximilian founded a large community for that purpose in his native Poland, where he published a magazine he called The Knight Of The Immaculata. He later went to Nagasaki, Japan, where he established a similar community. He quickly became fluent in Japanese so that he could publish in that country as well.
He evangelized through the written word and by the example of his sanctity, but also with his personal warmth and prodigious generosity. Those who knew him at Auschwitz (an amazing number of whom somehow survived the experience) always spoke of his constant concern for his fellow prisoners, in spite of the sometimes worse abuse that he himself was suffering. St. Maximilian had always said a Christian should strive to be a man for others. In the end, he lived out that conviction in a most powerful way.
Let’s return to the the incident with which we started above. When he saw his fellow inmate begging his captors to spare his life for the sake of his wife and children, St. Maximilian stepped forward and, in emulation of our Lord Jesus Christ, offered to die in his place, an offered accepted by the astounded camp commandant. In the starvation bunker St.Maximilian continued to serve his fellow men and women, leading the other condemned prisoners in prayer and in singing hymns (which we know because of the testimony of some of his German guards, whom he also won over). His captors eventually killed him on August 14th 1941 by lethal injection, since he was still alive after two weeks with no food or water.
St. Maximilian is the Patron Saint of jounalists (and of this blog) because of his commitment to using modern means of communication to spread the message of Jesus Christ. The most effective modern means of communication available in St. Maximilian Kolbe’s day was a printing press. If he were with us today, he would not only be publishing in print, but would also be a presence online, publishing, blogging, and taking full advantage of social media. In addition to journalists, he is also the Patron Saint of drug addicts, families, political prisoners, and the pro-life movement.
We need to follow St. Mamilian’s example of speaking out boldly on behalf of Catholic Truth, today more than ever, especially as tech and communications giants (who are no great friends of the Gospel or the Church) tighten their totalitarian grip on the flow of information. I began this blog in January of this year as my own small part in that effort of evangelization (see here). St. Maximilian Kolbe serves as a most appropriate intercessor, and gives us a model to follow with his courage and eloquence.
Even more than his eloquence, however, or his ability to communicate the beauty of the Catholic Faith, St. Maximilian witnessed with his own life. He lived up to both the Crowns offered by the Blessed Mother, and like Our Lord, showed us that “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Featured image top of page: main gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp