Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Maximilian Kolbe: A Shaft of Light in the Darkness of the Camps

Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:13

Without sacrifice there is no love.
From a letter of Fr. Kolbe

As a child I was fascinated by the details of martyrs’ deaths: decapitation, torture, hungry lions, imprisonment, eyes plucked out.  Descriptions of the implements of torture were interesting too: swords, sand pits, spears, guillotine. This was how it’s done when someone dies for Christ, I thought in my innocence.  

As a grown-up I know there are other ways to die for Christ.
Father Maximilian Kolbe

Consider Auschwitz Prisoner 16770. Also known as Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, arrested in May 1941for hiding Jews, publishing pamphlets and radio broadcasts critical of the Nazi regime.

Father Kolbe died in Auschwitz along with 1.1 million Jews of the over 6 million that died in the gas chambers during World War II. Others died too at the hand of the Nazis: Christians, Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally or physically handicapped persons.

His life there was later recalled by survivors at his canonization hearings. At night, they said, he would walk through the barracks asking if any needed prayer or confession. He shared his food with others even though the starvation rations were intended to literally starve a man to death. He urged the others to forgive their tormentors even while he receiving beatings and lashings.

July 1941, three men escaped from the concentration camp. As a reprisal, ten men were chosen to die by starvation to prevent further escapes. Franciszek Gajowniczek, was one of those chosen. When called, Gajowniczek cried out in anguish: “My wife! My children! I will never see them again! “

According to survivors, Father Kolbe stepped silently forward, took off his cap, stood before the commandant and said, 'I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.'

Furious, the Nazi commandant, SS-Hauptsturmf├╝hrer Karl Fritzsch, asked, “What does this Polish pig want?”

Father Kolbe pointed with his hand to the condemned Franciszek Gajowniczek and repeated “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”

Those present thought that the commandant would order the death of both men for Kolbe’s insolence. Instead, he considered for a moment, then nodded. The deed was done.

The ten men were thrown into the underground cellblock to die of dehydration and starvation. In the weeks that followed some of them drank their own urine; others licked the walls of the cells for moisture, hastening their own death.

Father Kolbe prayed with the men and led them in singing hymns. The guards reported that when they came to check, Father Kolbe was standing or kneeling and would greet them. After a few weeks in the cell with no light, no food, no water, nine died leaving only Father Kolbe. Finally, because he had endured too long and the cell was needed for others, he was given a lethal injection of carbolic acid and died soon after in agony. The Nazi’s, ever precise, noted his death: August 14, 1941, 12:30 pm. He was 49 years old.

We must bow our heads before such a life as Father Kolbe’s. No doubt you question, as I do, what you would do where you in his place? A deeper question nags at me: What leads a man like he was to make the ultimate sacrifice seemingly without deliberation?  Why was this moment of self-abnegation the next logical step in his life?

As a child Maximilian was often mischievous. One time he was playing roughly and. his mother corrected him. This event had a profound effect on him. Later, Kolbe wrote:

That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.' 

So he knew. He knew that one day it would end this way, that he would die a martyr’s death. But, was it just a question of co-operating with God until he came to the point of choosing to die for another? That’s too simple. In his life he had thousands of turning points, decisions, and personal trials, as we all do. He was a human being after all.

We don’t know the struggles, the painful decisions, and the failures that are the crucible in which a soul is refined.  We don’t know what it cost him to die with grace. But we know enough from his writings that he saw real battle wasn’t with the Nazis but within his own soul.

“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

If we read between the lines we can see that his life prepared him for death. Even though he was a crusader for justice, a preacher of truth, a peacemaker; he battled with his own inner thoughts and desires—and overcame them. His actions were the natural consequence of an inner state. He lived his life fully in the knowledge of his own humanity yet he gave himself again and again to love and for love sake.

His act of self-sacrifice was just one in a long series of such acts shaped by a soul that had become incandescent with the love of God.

A survivor Jerzy Bielecki declared that Father Kolbe's death was…
…”a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength ... It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.”

In 1982 Father Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II who gave him the title “Martyr for Charity.”