“Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” - John 15:13
These were the opening words of the papal decree introducing his beatification. St. Maximilian Kolbe was arrested in Poland in February of 1941, and in May sent to the Auschwitz death camp. As prisoner #16670, he eventually laid down his life for another prisoner on August 14, 1941, at the young age of 47.
When a prisoner escaped late in July of that year, ten men from his barracks were picked to suffer death by starvation as both punishment and deterrent. Fr. Maximilian offered to take the place of one of the men; Franciszek Gajowniczek had let out a cry of pain for his family and this holy priest volunteered to take his place.
What followed were weeks of unimaginable horror, as the men suffered the pains of dehydration and starvation. But this holy man not only offered to be one of the suffering, he ministered to them as well. After three weeks there were only four prisoners left alive. It was on this day in 1941, the day before the Church celebrates the Assumption of St. Maximilian’s beloved Mary, the Immaculata, that Fr. Kolbe and three fellow prisoners were killed with injections of carbolic acid.
By the late 1940’s the cause for Fr. Kolbe's beatification had begun. He was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and canonized by his fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II in 1982.
There was one extraordinary man in attendance at St. Maximilian’s canonization: Franciszek Gajowniczek. Though spared the torture of the starvation bunker, Gajowniczek had still suffered greatly. He was in Auschwitz for over five years and his sons did not live to see the day of his release. Those prisoners who had grown so fond of Fr. Kolbe were particularly cruel to Gajowniczek, as they blamed him for the loss of their beloved friend and priest. But he received consolation in 1982, in St. Peter’s Square, when the man who offered his life for Franciszek's was declared a saint.
One of the lessons we might learn from all this is that what we call civilization is a rather thin veneer, and what lies beneath this surface is a terrifying heart of darkness. Christians, who are called to live in the truth, must be realists about this and cannot afford to be naive.
It was in the heart of civilized Europe, among the fading remains of Christian culture, that the death camps were built and millions of innocent men, women and children were put to death for no other reason than that their very existence challenged the ideological conceits of their oppressors.
In the midst of the world's darkness, we are called by our Baptism to be a light in the shadows of this fallen world. Saint Maximilian is one such light, his life and death stands as a testimony to Christ, the eternal light, whom the darkness cannot overcome.
For too many Christians, the faith is a safe routine, a kind of philosophy of self-improvement, something meant to be comfortable and comforting.
The witness of St. Maximilian stands against this illusion. Christian faith is not so much about safety as it is about risk. It is meant to take us out into the world, into the shadows, to be a light to show the way home to those who live in darkness.
May St. Maximilian intercede for us. May we imitate his selfless courage. May the fire of his holy light enkindle the embers of faith that may have grown cold in our own hearts.