Saint Maksymilian Maria Kolbe: The Martyr of Charity

Saint Maksymilian Maria Kolbe, born Rajmund Kolbe on January 8, 1894, in Zduńska Wola, near Lodz in the Russian Empire (now in Poland), was a Franciscan priest and martyr whose life and death during World War II exemplify extraordinary faith and selflessness.

Early Life and Spiritual Calling

Kolbe’s journey to sainthood began early in his life. In 1906, he experienced a pivotal vision of the Virgin Mary, who offered him two crowns, one white, symbolizing purity, and one red, symbolizing martyrdom. Choosing both, Kolbe’s life was thereafter marked by a deep devotion to Mary and the Catholic faith. He joined the Franciscan Conventuals in 1910, and in 1912, he went to Rome to study theology and philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University. During his time in Rome, Kolbe founded the Militia of Mary Immaculate, contributing significantly to the Marian movement.

Despite suffering from tuberculosis, which often disrupted his studies and later life, Kolbe was ordained a priest in 1918 and returned to Poland. He established a popular Catholic periodical, „Rycerz Niepokalanej” („The Knight of Mary Immaculate”), and founded the religious center City of Mary Immaculate (Niepokalanów) in 1927.

Missionary Work and World War II

Kolbe’s missionary work took him to Japan in 1930, where he founded a monastery near Nagasaki. Interestingly, the monastery’s location on the side of a mountain played a crucial role in its survival from the atomic bombing during World War II. Kolbe returned to Poland in 1936 due to deteriorating health.

With the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Kolbe’s monastery became a sanctuary for refugees, including around 1,500 Jews. He was arrested by the Nazis in 1941 for his actions and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

In Auschwitz, Kolbe endured brutal treatment yet remained a source of hope and spiritual strength for fellow prisoners. His martyrdom came in July 1941, when he volunteered to take the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, a fellow prisoner who was selected for execution. Kolbe’s selfless act is remembered as one of the most poignant examples of Christian love and sacrifice during the Holocaust. He was starved and eventually given a lethal injection on August 14, 1941.

Canonization and Legacy

Kolbe was beatified in 1971 and canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1982. His life, especially his final act of self-sacrifice in Auschwitz, stands as a powerful testament to the strength of faith and the capacity for human beings to give themselves wholly for the sake of others. His story continues to inspire and evoke admiration for his unshakeable commitment to his faith and humanity.

Saint Maksymilian Maria Kolbe’s story, once relatively unknown, has become a symbol of courage and selfless love, his legacy enduring as a beacon of light in one of history’s darkest periods.