Love and Focus: The Life of St. Maximilian Kolbe

Guest post by Meredith Kelly, Baylor Class of 2023

For Jesus Christ I am prepared to suffer still more. 

No one can change Truth. What we can do is to seek the truth and to serve it when we have found it 

—St. Maximilian Kolbe

    St. Maximilian Kolbe’s life is a testament to the lengths one will go for love. In his short life on this earth, he accomplished more than most could imagine, only and all for the love of Our Lord and Our Lady. His eventual martyrdom in Auschwitz brought his life’s song of love and focus to a holy crescendo. 

As we begin this new school year in unprecedented times, may St. Maximilian Kolbe’s life guide us. 

Makings of a Soldier: Early Life and Childhood

St. Maximilian Kolbe was born Raymond Kolbe on January 8, 1894 in Poland into a devout Catholic family. Growing up, Raymond was like most boys: rambunctious, vivacious, and fun-loving. In fact, he was so normal his mother cried out in exasperation one day, “What will become of you?” Who among us hasn’t heard those words? 

His mother’s simple words impressed themselves on young Raymond’s heart. He prayed to Our Lady and asked her the same question: “What will become of me?” In response, Our Lady appeared to the young boy in a vision, holding two crowns in her hands. One of the crowns was white, representing purity, and the other was red, for martyrdom. She asked Raymond which crown he would like. In childlike innocence, he chose both.

His mother held great devotion to Our Lady and led her children in praying the Angelus, Rosary, and other litanies. Raymond dreamed of entering the military and accomplishing great things for his beloved country. 

Already, his soul was coming into its full magnanimity. His childhood was training for his later life when he would wear both the crowns that Our Lady offered. 

Training for Battle: Life in Seminary 

As Raymond grew older and entered adolescence, he realized that he would accomplish the heroic deeds he dreamt of on spiritual battlefields, not physical ones. After Franciscan priests visited his home parish, Raymond felt a stirring towards their apostolate. Shortly afterwards, Raymond and his brother enrolled in seminary together in Lwow, Poland. 

Seminary formed young Raymond even further in his love of the Church and Christ. He dove completely into his studies and never rejected an opportunity for prayer or penance. In his few spare moments, he prayed before the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Lady, a spiritual workout that formed his soul for service and love.

On September 4, 1910, Raymond officially became a novitiate and took the name Maximilian. 

The Battle Begins: Kolbe’s Life Work

Fr. Kolbe wasted no time in beginning his mission to spread love of Our Lady and Our Lord. He recognized the opportunity for evangelization that newspapers and magazines offered.

In order to take full advantage of the most prominent form of mass media in his day, Fr. Kolbe started the Militia of the Immaculate. This group of Franciscan friars and priests consecrated themselves and their publishing work to the Immaculate Virgin Mary. The Militia waged spiritual warfare through writing and publishing pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers about Catholic teaching and devotion. 

With the help of Our Lady’s intercessions, the humble Militia expanded its numbers and influence at an incredible rate. With this rapid expansion came the need for more space and, when land in Warsaw was donated to their mission, Fr. Kolbe jumped at the opportunity to found a new home for the Militia: The City of the Immaculate. Opened in 1927,  this “city” was a massive publishing conglomerate with several buildings and printing presses. It was operated by over 800 friars. 

The City of the Immaculate’s vision extended far beyond Poland. Fr. Kolbe saw Japan as a fertile ground for missionary work and set up a similar City of the Immaculate there. He published Catholic magazines and pamphlets in Japanese. Fr. Kolbe’s zeal for souls knew no borders. 

The friars published a monthly magazine called “Knights of the Immaculate,” dedicated to Our Lady and promoting Catholic doctrines. This magazine was so successful that Fr. Kolbe and his fellow Knights decided to transform it into a daily newspaper. As if this weren’t already taxing, Kolbe also published numerous pamphlets, books, and papers on theology. His focus and work ethic had divine origins; he wasn’t motivated by ambition, but by love for Our Lady and Christ. 

The Battle is Won: Kolbe’s Martyrdom

When the young Raymond Kolbe chose both of the crowns offered by Our Lady, he began down a path laid out by the Lord, even before he became a priest. 

Because Fr. Kolbe was an effective evangelist―and thus a threat to the singular devotion the fascist state demanded―the Nazi party put a target on his back. After several arrests and threats, Fr. Kolbe was arrested for the last time on February 17,1941 and sent to Auschwitz, which  was as good as a death sentence. In that veritable hell on earth, prisoners would literally work themselves to death or eventually face execution, whichever came first. 

Despite the crushing circumstances, Fr. Kolbe evangelical mission continued. In fact, he was a ray of light for the other prisoners. He seized every opportunity to counsel and console his fellow prisoners and quickly gained friends among them. 

Half a year into his imprisonment, a prisoner from Fr. Kolbe’s barracks escaped. As punishment, the guards would choose another member of the barracks for execution by dehydration and starvation. At first, they chose a father and husband for execution. Fr. Koble was moved with compassion when he heard the prisoner cry out, “My poor wife! My poor children!” He stepped forward to take the other prisoner’s place, saying “I am a Catholic priest.” 

Thus, Fr. Kolbe was sent to the starvation and dehydration chamber. Amidst the terrible groans and darkness of that place, Fr. Kolbe never gave in to despair. Even there, he counseled the prisoners and spoke about Our Lady with love and devotion. 

Two weeks later, Fr. Kolbe was still alive, and the guards decided he had lived long enough. They injected a cocktail of poison into his skin-and-bone arm. Fr. Kolbe died a martyr, taking Our Lord’s example of self-sacrifice to heart. He truly earned both the crowns he had chosen in youth and would wear for eternity: white for purity and red for martyrdom. 

He was canonized on October 10, 1982. 

Legacy 

St. Pope John Paul II called St. Maximilian Kolbe the saint for our troubled age. He was a martyr and casualty of the Second World War and is a modern saint who proves that holiness is possible today. 

St. Kolbe’s courageous martyrdom shows how he had completely severed ties with the cares and ambitions of the world. Yet, even with this separation, he was tireless in utilizing the latest media technology—then newspapers and magazines—to make Christ known and loved throughout Europe and Japan. The love he had for Our Lady and the Church ensured that he never published or wrote anything for his own pride or esteem; it was all for the Church.  

Today, more than ever before, we need saints like Kolbe, who will remain steadfast amidst crises, both personal and worldwide.

St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!

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