The Life of Saint Maxmilian Kolbe
"I am a Catholic Priest."
The Life of Saint Maxmilian Kolbe
How does a man give up his life for someone he never met before? This man has been called by many titles: Saint of World War II, Holy Prisoner, Saint of Concentration Camps, Saint of the Press, Saint of Aviation, Saint of Progress, Saint of the Poor. But I think the one he would prefer is "Catholic Priest."
The devil uses any means to kill us. For so many years, in the United States, the Polish people have been the brunt of very poor ethnic jokes. It is true, every new group coming into our free society inherits the suffering, the minority group before them endured. It's like being a freshman in college. The only difference is, growing up out of the persecution is swifter, the freshman only degraded for a year not a lifetime. It gets so bad that the minority, to become one of "the guys," often pokes fun at itself! And then, most tragically, everyone believes it and the world is cheated of an extraordinary people.
But God loves us! God sent us a Pole, a charismatic, powerful, intelligent, talented, loving leader, our Pope. Through him and the interest the world has in him, we have become aware of the history of a brave, faithful, bright, true people of God. We find ourselves getting upset when someone tells an innocent, cutting joke about a Polack. It's like they're attacking us!
I would like to dedicate this chapter to our Pope and a young man whose name is Robert Ziminsky. He happens to be our grandson. We have tried to share with Robert, the centuries of Italians in his life who make up part of the fine man he is becoming. Now, Rob, we pray this will bring you a part of your ancestry we knew nothing about. Through the life of this Polish, Franciscan priest, we bring you hope in what man can be, and the courage to bring that hope to others.
It is with much thanksgiving to our Lord and His Mother, Mary Immaculate, Niepokalanow who play such a great and integral role in this chapter, that we begin our walk alongside our brother Maxmilian Kolbe.
The boy and his family
Maxmilian Kolbe, or Raymond as he was called when baptized, was born into a divided Poland. As had happened before and since, poor Poland, unfortunately located, had been a battleground, and the two powers, Russia and Austria, took what they wanted, leaving nothing for Poland itself. But to a Pole, it was and always would be Poland.
Like with most of their compatriots, life was hard for Father Kolbe's parents. They worked hard and long hours. They never complained; instead, they considered hardships and hard work as a necessary road to eternal life. As a young girl, his mother Maria pleaded with the Lord, she be allowed to become a religious. When she became resigned, she couldn't enter a convent because she didn't have the necessary dowry, she prayed: "O Lord, I do not want to impose my will on you if Your designs are different. Give me, at least, a husband who does not curse, who does not drink, who does not go to the tavern to enjoy himself. This, O Lord, I ask you unconditionally."
God answered Maria's prayers and she married Jules Kolbe, a fervent Catholic, everything she had prayed for. In addition, he was a leader in the Third Order Franciscans!
The young couple started a workshop in their one-room flat. In this all-purpose living, sleeping, working, praying room (with an altar in the middle of the room), a baby destined to become a Saint, Raymond (later, Father Maxmilian) was born on January 8, 1894. His brother Francis was the first to be born, on July 25, 1892, then Raymond, and then a third son Joseph, and yet another child Valentine, who died in infancy.
The living quarters became too small for the growing family, and so they moved to a nearby town where they not only got a larger home, they opened a store! You can see the hard-working, progressive foundation upon which God would build the man Father Maxmilian.
Even as a boy, Father Kolbe was known as gentle and kind; so much so, they nicknamed him "Marmalade." His mother later said of her son, he was always quick in obeying, the most obedient of all her sons. He kept their home spotlessly clean while his parents worked, never complaining. He was the first to bring a switch, to be punished with, when he had been involved in some harmless prank. His parents not only stressed the spiritual, praying and going to Mass together, but the physical. Their father toughened the boys by bringing them into the snow covered yard to play barefoot. Sounds a little extreme? This would help and prepare Father Maxmilian for his later years, and what he would have to face.
Two Crowns - one White and one Red
"I knew right from the beginning...he would die a martyr." These were his mother's words to his fellow Franciscans after he died.
She said, one day, when he was about ten years old, she had become displeased with him, and as we all foolishly do, said, "Raymond, who knows what will become of you?" He didn't answer, but she began to notice a change coming about in him. He spent more and more time praying in front of a small hidden altar. She noticed tears in his eyes as he raised them toward the Crucifix.
His mother became worried. He was so quiet, always going off to be by himself. She approached him; worried, she appealed to him to tell her everything! Trying to keep the tears from spilling from his eyes, he told her that when she had scolded him, he went to the Madonna and asked Her what was to become of him. She appeared to him, holding two crowns in Her hands. She told him, one meant he would remain pure, and the other he would be a martyr. His Madonna asked him which one he chose. He told his mother, he had chosen both!
Raymond finished his elementary education, but could not go on to high school. Under Russian domination, the cost was too prohibitive for a family like the Kolbes, so they decided the eldest son would go for the higher education. It was determined Maxmilian would remain at home and take care of things there. And this, he did, with an abundance of joy, even to the point of surprising his mother with one of her favorite dishes, when she wearily arrived home from work.
Although he was a normal boy, loving to play with other youngsters, joining in with their loud boisterous laughter, when he was in church he was always respectful and reverent, aware of where he was and Who was there. He knew that God, and loved Him, serving Mass willingly whenever he could.
The Making of the Franciscan
His father, a Franciscan Tertiary had given his son the life of St. Francis to read. As young Raymond began to know the little "Poor One," he became attracted not only to him but to the Franciscan friars in a nearby village.
The Franciscan church of that village was dedicated to St. Anthony. After pilgrims venerated Saint Anthony, they would go into the crypt of Venerable Father Raphael Chylinski.
The venerable Father Raphael's life was a glowing example of what happens when the Virgin captures a man's heart. He had formerly been an officer in the Polish Army. The ravages of war and epidemics had eaten away at the people of Poland. This soldier showed such tireless compassion and charity to the helpless victims, the faithful continued coming to him, long after his death, only now in veneration. His deeds lived after him, and now would touch the young boy Raymond. He was fascinated by the life of this soldier who had given up the sword for the sacred habit of a priest.
Like Saint Anthony before him, Raymond was quite humbly hidden in the kitchen. One day, this was to change! His mother sent him to the pharmacy to fetch some medicine for a sick woman she was tending. When Raymond asked for the medicine by its Latin name, the pharmacist asked him how he knew the powder's Latin name. Raymond explained, he was learning Latin from the local parish priest.
The pharmacist asked the boy to tell him more about himself. Raymond told him about the situation at home, that his brother was the only one the family could afford to send to high school. When Raymond finished with, "My brother will be a priest. I can do my part by staying at home," the pharmacist made a decision, "Come to me and I will give you lessons. By the end of the year, you will have caught up with your brother, and then you can both continue." At the end of the year, Raymond and his brother were promoted together and went on to business school.
His parents did not share the pharmacist's confidence or enthusiasm. Raymond becoming a businessman, ridiculous! His mother's vote, "When you are a merchant, I will be a queen," was seconded by his father's, "And I will be a bishop." Of course, time will prove his parents and the pharmacist right, but in God's way and timetable.
In Northern Poland, under Russian domination, the Franciscan Orders were suppressed. All friaries were closed down, but two; they were left open so the old Franciscans, there, could die off. But in the south of Poland, under the Austro-Hungarian Empire the Franciscans were flourishing. There was a revival of the Spirit and the superiors in the southern part of Poland believed it was the time to reopen the friaries.
It was Easter, Day of our Lord's Resurrection, 1907, two Franciscan missionaries announced the opening of the new Seminary. The thorn planted in Raymond's heart, the day our Lady had offered him two crowns, was blooming. He saw, in the missionaries' words and in the life that Francis had passed down, the two crowns of his Lady. He and his brother Francis went right up to the Franciscans and asked how they could enter the Order.
They were on fire! But they were told they would have to wait and finish out their school year in Business. In October of 1907, the two brothers arm in arm, said good-by to their parents and left for the Friary in Lwów.
Raymond proved to be intelligent; he was diligent in his studies of the humanities; he excelled in Mathematics; he progressed rapidly but never at the cost of his prayer life. All was going better than well, when on the night before his investiture, he was attacked by doubts and indecision. Was he supposed to enter the religious life? Was this what the Lady meant by the two crowns? Prostrating himself before Her, he promised to fight for Her. Would his "Mamina," as he called her, please tell him if this is what She wanted for him.
We read that at this time in his life, Raymond was suffering from scruples. Believing he was unfit for religious life, he would not accept his religious habit. He even tried to convince his brother Francis not to take this step.
This time, his earthly mother came to the rescue of her son. She had been living with the Benedictine Sisters in Lwów and had just happened to visit him. We do not know what his mother said; but with all doubts gone, on the 4th of September, 1910, Raymond became Friar Maxmilian. All his life, he remembered this pivotal part of his life with gratitude to his mother.
His brother Francis left the Order! Friar Maxmilian grieved! All the memories they shared came rushing to the surface of his head and heart. He was remembering: how they had gone to school together; the day they had received First Holy Communion together; the days and nights, their hopes and fears, they'd lived through together in the novitiate; and the day they made simple vows, together. He cried, remembering: how Francis had not weakened when Maxmilian tried to convince him to leave the novitiate, the night before their investiture, how he had been strong when he (Maxmilian) had been weak.
But then he became consoled; his Heavenly Mamina, had sent his earthly Mama to him, to prevent him from leaving when he wanted to run. She had taken over in his life. She loved him! She was preparing him for his two crowns. Francis had been a part of Her plan. He would pray for this special brother all his life, here and beyond.
On September 5, 1911, Maxmilian made his simple profession, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, according to the Rule of St. Francis and the Constitution of the Friars Conventual.
Friar Maxmilian sets out for the Eternal City
Maxmilian waited in Lwów for another year before going to the "professed house," where the newly professed go to complete their studies in philosophical and theological studies. When he finally arrived, he was surprised and a little overwhelmed. Instead of completing his studies there, he had been chosen, one of seven candidates, to go to the International Seraphic College, in Rome, to pursue his studies there! His health always having been poor, he at first was able to convince his superiors to take his name off the list. Later that day, fearing he might be blocking the Will of the Lord, he went before his superior, "Father, do with me as you wish."
What the superior wished was, "Well son, go to Rome," and Maxmilian was off to the Eternal City, where he remained for seven years. He said, he saw nothing in Rome, but the Pope, "all the rest was foreign to me." It was not that he did not see the splendid ancient ruins of Rome's grand history, and appreciate it. It was, he was so repulsed by all the decadence he saw. It was like ancient Rome revisited, the anything goes Rome. All the years of hate against Mother Church and her priests, had left its mark on poor Rome. It was as if the Tiber that flows through Rome had polluted its inhabitants and they had died. They were back into the Rome before Christ, before Peter and Paul.
Maxmilian looked around. Where was Christ? Jesus' words, "Who do you say that I am?" reverberated through his head. Who do they say You are, my Lord? And so, Maxmilian kept his eyes on Vatican Hill. That, and the protection of his Immaculata, would bring him through to his Apostolate and to his two crowns.
On November 1st, 1914, Friar Maxmilian made his final vows. On that day, he asked that the name of Mary be added to his religious name. This day when he consecrated himself totally to God and His Provident care, this was his way of going to Him in the arms of Mary.
On April the 28th, 1918, he was ordained in the Church of S. Andrea delle Valle. He celebrated his first Mass at the altar of the miracle recalling the apparition of the Virgin Mary, which brought about the conversion of the Christian-hater Alphonse Ratisbonne.
When he wrote to his mother, after his ordination, he said, "For the future, therefore, I place all my trust in her (Mother Mary). If God wills it, if I live, I will tell it by word of mouth. I only repeat that in everything I recognize a particular benevolence of the Immaculate Mother."
Love that has no limits - the knight and his Queen
Father Maxmilian wrote to his younger brother Joseph, only now Father Alphonse,
"May God be thanked and the Immaculata glorified for all the graces that they shower upon us despite our unworthiness. I am most happy to learn that you feel enthused to procure the glory of God. In our days, the worst poison is indifference, which finds victims not only among the people, but even among religious..."
He told his brother, the only important ideal was the salvation of souls, beginning with one's own. He advised that only through God can we learn what we have to do. And how can this come about? Through His representatives on earth. He said,
"The superiors can make mistakes, but we in obeying can never make a mistake. There is only one exception: if a superior should ever command a thing clearly evident to be a sin, even the smallest sin...In such a case, the superior would not be the representative of God, and we would not be obliged to obey him...we cannot trust our reason, which can make a mistake. Only God, only He, infallible, most holy, most loving, He is our Lord, Father Creator, End, Reason, Strength, Love...our Everything!"
Father Maxmilian stressed, obedience was the only way, adding, "If there was a different way, Jesus would have pointed it out to us. Sacred Scripture says it clearly: for thirty years of his life, `He was obedient to them.'"
He spoke of loving "without limits, as our Heavenly Father loves." He advised, like so many of the Saints did, to learn from the Cross. "How much do you love me?" they asked Jesus. He opened His Arms on the Cross and answered, `This much!' Maybe we cannot love, as Jesus did on the Cross. But maybe, our Cross is obeying someone we do not respect or even like.
You can see by his letter to his brother, how far along the path he was, to the day he would glorify the Lord and His Mother. He was only twenty-five years old, yet he was already a well-balanced priest, pointing everything to man's final triumph: God! This flowed through all his writings. But when he wrote of the Blessed Mother, he wrote with the sincere love of a son for his Mother, "of a knight for his Queen!"
He had a very special teaching about making the Sign of the Holy Cross:
"Remind yourself of obedience, each time that you make the Sign of the Holy Cross.
"In pronouncing the words, `in the name of the Father,' remember that you intend to consecrate your judgment to the Heavenly Father.
"At the words, `of the Son,' you will consecrate your will and heart to Jesus.
"At the words, `of the Holy Spirit, you will consecrate your shoulders to bear the burden for the glory of God for the good of the order and of the Church and for the salvation of souls.
"In joining your hands and pronouncing the word, `Amen,' you will remember to love your neighbor supernaturally in thought, word and actions.
"If you have worked in this way, you will find Heaven; otherwise, hell will be reserved for you.
"Life is short. Even sufferings are brief.
"Heaven, Heaven, Heaven!
"Take up your cross and follow Jesus."
Father Ignudi, his spiritual director, said, "Never in my life have I met anyone who loved the Madonna more than Father Maxmilian. He was a true son of Mary." The night before the Feast of the Immaculata, Maxmilian and Father Ignudi were returning from the Basilica, when they met four young rowdies. They still had on their work clothes, probably had stopped at the local bar for some socializing; they were blaspheming against the Mother of God, Mary most Holy. All of a sudden Father Ignudi missed Father Maxmilian; he was beside the young men, asking them why they were using such foul and disrespectful language against His and their Mother. He could not contain himself and at the end, he wept so passionately and pitifully, they apologized, saying at first, it was just a bad habit; but seeing how deeply they had hurt him, begged his forgiveness.
A Militia under the Banner of the Immaculata!
He came away from Rome with Three Loves. His seven years there, had nurtured and rekindled his love in: the Eucharist, the Body of Christ; the Madonna, the Mother of Christ; and the Pope, the Vicar of Christ.
In defense of the Pope, he founded a movement of prayer and evangelism under the Mantle of Mary the Immaculata. At first, it appeared he was called to form a Militia in Poland to fight the oppression of the Russians. But he quickly saw the need to include the whole world!
In Rome, he became aware of anti-Catholic propaganda that was spreading like a plague, with the Masons at the forefront. With their power and unlimited resources, they were a real threat. Here, in Rome, the heart of Christianity and the seat of the Vicar of Christ, our own backyard!
The onslaught was directed by the government, itself. It began with an attack against the Marian Sanctuary of our Lady of Pompei and then it went, full steam ahead, after our Popes, beginning with Pius IX and on to Benedict XV. Father Maxmilian did not ignore these as: merely rumblings, as a result of political and economic crisis, history repeating itself, but sure to pass over. To him, and rightly so, it was a clear indicator of a conspiracy against Christ and His Church.
He inherited his love of Mary Immaculate from the Order of Francis, itself. Unlike other Franciscans committed to reform, he did not desire to modify or improve, but to renew the Treasures we already had in the Catholic Church. Like St. Francis before him, he felt his calling was not within the Friary walls, but that he was called to bring Christ to all people, of all kinds, to all parts of the world. Was this Militia, he was talking of, possibly starting a gentle revolution?
For seven centuries, the Church was fighting for the world to accept that which already was: Mother Mary's Immaculate Conception. Pope Pius IX had declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, on December the 8th, 1854. No wonder the government's attack on him, he had defended Mary; get him! So, the target was really Mary, the Virgin who would crush his head. Well, if the devil had an army, we, the faithful, could afford to do no less.
As the seed, planted inside Maxmilian, started to grow and crowd out all his other thoughts, he began to share with some of his closest companions, his ideal, an Army to defend the Immaculata, Her Son and His Church! The organization of the enemy's army appalled him. He complained, while we are limiting ourselves to passively praying, the enemy's forces are so active they are gaining the upper hand. He said, the Madonna does not need us, but she wants to use us to make the victories that much more powerful coming from those the world despises, the little people!
"If She finds faithful servants, docile to her command, She will win new victories, greater than those we can ever imagine." With this in mind, the friars placed themselves into the hands of Mary, as docile instruments, armed by the Miraculous Medal. Acting within the law, following the Gospel, speaking through a Marian Press, combining prayer with action and by being a living example of all, they would defend and evangelize. When Father Kolbe spoke of his vision, he spoke as if it had already begun.
But, when the Friars sang, "I will go to see Her one day," Father Kolbe's face glowed with the sweetness and innocence of a trusting, loving, child for his Mother. For awhile, he could be a child again; he would ask his companions to sing it over and over again. But this was not the time for children. Dreamer of dreams, Apostle and Zealot, it was Catholic Camelot, and he was to be Her Knight of the Immaculata!
No longer a dream -Knights of the Immaculata, a reality!
When Father Maxmilian had an idea, he put everything behind it, his mind, his heart, every ounce of his strength, and he was off and running with everyone trying to keep up with him. This man, who was seriously sick most of his life, had the might of an army and the determination of a General.
The more we read, it becomes more and more obvious, Mary was not only the inspiration of his work, she was the Authoress! Like the great Mother she is, she prepared his work for him and helped him to begin. She never left his side; with Her he would move mountains and men's hearts.
One day, at daybreak, all the student friars were gathered in the Chapel for common prayer. Father Maxmilian was there, too. From his appearance, one would never have suspected, this was to be one of the most important days of his life.
Father Rector read some meditations. It was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the famous victory of the Immaculata: the Blessed Mother had appeared to the Hebrew Alphonse Ratisbonne, in the church of S. Andrea delle Frate in Rome, and he was converted to Her Son and His Church through Her. As Ratisbonne was wearing the Miraculous Medal when this conversion came about, it brought about increased devotion to Mary through the wearing of Her Medal.
It was only fitting then, that on this very day, Father Maxmilian would not only be inspired to found the Militia Immaculata, but would choose the Miraculous Medal as the shield and insignia of its knights. The same Immaculate Mary who had appeared to St. Catherine Labouré and to Ratisbonne, was now you can be sure, here with Father Maxmilian leading the way.
A Foundation, which would grow to hundreds of friars under one roof, was started by one man and six friars from the college. They shared a dream, and the Mother of God made it a reality. Nine months after that earth-shaking day in January of 1917, seven friars, Father Maxmilian Kolbe and his six knights knelt before the Immaculata's Altar and consecrated themselves to Mary. The Militia Immaculata was officially founded!
It was the night before the Feast Day of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Here, we see the Hand of Her Son. Was this His way of saying: "Through My Mother's Immaculate Heart, you will be able to sooth this Wounded Heart of Mine?" Was this our Lord saying: His Heart and His mother's Heart are one; when you hurt One, you hurt the Other; when you know One, you know the Other? There are no coincidences only Holy Design! Never overly impressed with himself, Father Maxmilian humbly used a scrap, an eighth of a piece of paper, to set up this Apostolate that would touch millions of lives, some day.
Aims and Commitments of the Militia Immaculata
What was Father Maxmilian's dream? He said:
"It is a movement that must draw the masses, snatch them away from Satan. Only among these souls, already conquered for the Immaculata, can some be formed to the highest, even heroic abandonment for the cause of spreading the Kingdom of God through the Immaculata."
There were three degrees of commitment to the Militia, based on the talents and zeal of the knight:
First degree: "Anyone may consecrate himself individually to the Immaculata and strive to carry out privately the end of the Militia according to his own possibilities and prudence."
Second Degree: adhering to "particular bylaws and programs binding together in a union of strength the members who want to carry out the end more speedily."
Third Degree: "Consecration to the Immaculata made without limits. Thus She can do with us everything She wants and as She wants. We are entirely Hers and She is ours. We do everything with Her help; we live and work under Her protection. When it concerns Her cause, there does not exist any `but!'...We always obey, even if She orders us to go to Moscow, to Spain, or to Mexico."
"Our victory will be the salvation of souls."
Problems face the little Apostolate
They're official! They're so excited! Now, they can begin! Wrong! Father Maxmilian and the little band had to wait for permission from their superiors! There was what seemed an endless delay! It was not caused by problems resulting from World War I and its call to arms of many of the students, but by the superiors' decision to postpone, rather than outright forbid them to begin the work and the Apostolate. And Father said, "Yes!"
It wasn't until two of the original seven died that they received the blessing and sanction of the Pope and their superiors. Father Maxmilian always gave credit to these two friars who had preceded them to Heaven. From the moment they received permission, the number of knights began to multiply.
Three years passed. January 2, 1922, the Apostolate was given formal approval by the Pope. On April the 23rd, 1927, His Holiness Pius XI elevated the Militia Immaculata to the dignity of "primary pius union." With this they could not only admit recruits under their own constitution, but they would be able to open other houses or centers.
Their magazine, The Knight of the Immaculata was a part of the seven knights, right from the very beginning. They knew, the way, Mary was calling them to make Her name known, was through communication, and what better media, of its time, than a magazine. The printed word (propaganda) had spread such hate and destruction; they would use it for the Good News of Jesus through Immaculate Mary.
When one battle was won, another began. Father Maxmilian always looked upon them as part of winning the war for Mary! Tuberculosis was the form, the enemy would use to knock Father Maxmilian on his back. He was in and out of hospitals and sanitariums for most of the years of his Apostolate. But when a work is of the Lord's, especially through His Mother, it goes on. Some of the greatest strides were made when Father Maxmilian obediently rested.
It's not that he didn't try to keep going on! One time, the index finger of his right hand became gangrenous and the decision was made to amputate! He would not be able to fulfill his duties and privileges as a priest (except by special dispensation), if this were to happen. Father Maxmilian went to his Mother, Our Lady of Lourdes; he poured some drops of water taken from Her grotto, on his finger. He believed. She answered that belief. Within days, there was no need of an operation.
He was only twenty-six years of age when he made himself as close to Christ on the Cross as he could, totally abandoning himself to the Father, dying to his own will, offering all he desired to his Lord through the Hands of his Mother Mary! He said,
"In regard to the Militia, we are in the Hands of the Immaculata." The Immaculata can do with us what She wants and as She pleases, because I am Her property and completely at Her disposal." Yes!
He never really stopped working for his Lady. Even in the hospital, he would walk through the wards, teaching Catholics and non-Catholics, alike. He would engage them first in challenging conversations. Slowly his words, the seeds he had been persistently planting would start to bloom, and conversions came about. No one was safe from him, including many of the intellectuals who were patients. They all fell under the spell of this knight and his Queen.
He baptized a Jewish student who was at the point of death. His mother and brothers didn't appreciate that, when they arrived later, furious with him for what he had done; but it was too late! His Jewish Mother, the Immaculata, had intervened as She had done at the wedding feast at Cana, and Her son, Maxmilian had given this Jewish boy, new life.
One of the encounters he had in the sanitarium, was with an intellectual; every time he met him in the hall, Father would ask him to go confession. Always it was the same, "Not now, maybe later. I have no time. I beg your pardon, Father, I have to rush to the station." And always, Father, like the persistent woman in the Bible, would come back with: "Would you like to go to confession?" One day, before the intellectual could rush away, Father said, "Then at least, accept this Miraculous Medal." The man politely conceded, and accepted the Medal, not wanting to hurt Father's feelings. As the man rushed off to the station, Father Maxmilian went down on his knees and implored his Immaculata for the conversion of this obstinate, but precious son of Hers. To quote from his Beatification:
"A moment later, a knock was heard. Still standing on the threshold, the same gentleman who had been in such a hurry exclaimed: `Father, please hear my confession!'"
I find myself smiling a great deal writing about Father Kolbe. He reminds me of the many men, I have met, with my husband in front, who blind you with the love they have, unashamedly, for the Immaculate Mother of Jesus.
The first issue of The Knight of the Immaculata magazine
Toward the end of April, 1921, Father Maxmilian was released from the sanitarium. By November, he had recovered sufficiently to return to Krakow and the knights. He began working immediately toward the work Mary had laid out for them. Maybe it was because of his ill health and frequent interments in the hospital; in any event, Father Maxmilian worked always, with an urgency, as if his life here on earth would be short, and he had to make the most of what little time he had.
January of 1922, our priest started up his first publication of The Knights of the Immaculata. With this magazine, he felt he could get the message of Mary into the homes, into the place where the enemy had been striking, with radio, newspapers, books, magazines and other means. As the home is the primary source of teaching, he knew he had to strike a blow for Jesus and Mary there.
The little Apostolate immediately had money problems, too much to do with too little finances. The Superiors had given permission, at first. It was a worthwhile cause and they could see the wide-spread good that could be accomplished. But when they became aware of the financial problems that threatened Father Kolbe, they immediately flashed the stop sign. If he got in trouble, they would be on the line with him. Father Maxmilian got on his knees and begged, "Father Provincial, just give me the permission; I'll find the money." What could they do! They said "Yes."
Father Kolbe was committed to publish this magazine and to do whatever it took to do it. It appeared the only way would be to beg! He later shared how difficult this was for him. (Author's note: It's funny, Bob was saying, the other day, we never had a problem begging for any other charities, but when it comes to our Ministry, it's so difficult.)
He went to a stationery store, one day, with the express purpose of begging for the Apostolate. He ended up buying, instead of begging, just picking up some small item to avoid humiliation. Feeling remorse at having let his Lady down, he went into a second store. There, without uttering a sound, disoriented, he landed on the street, completely unaware of how he got there.
The debts still owed on his very first publication were way beyond his capability to pay. He made an appeal for donations to continue his work; they were not fast coming in. Just when it looked as if his first publication was to be his last, a priest made a generous donation. That was followed by other priests responding with contributions. With their affirming generosity, Father Maxmilian was able to cover half the cost. Now where was he to get the rest? Back he went on his knees! His Lady would not let him down! After all, it was Her idea, Her Militia, Her magazine; he was only Her poor instrument. (Author's Note: Upon investigating St. Anthony's bones, by the size of his knee bones they could tell he had spent a lot of time kneeling. As we journey through this great Saint's life, we know someday in Heaven, we will discover how large St. Maxmilian's knees are.)
After he finished praying, he was about to leave when he spotted an envelope on the Altar. Since it was not something that belonged on the Altar, he ascended to remove it. What did he see? Written on the envelope was: "For You, Immaculate Mother." He opened it; out spilled, the exact money he needed to cover the outstanding bill for the first publication. His Lady had come through! Dropping back down on his knees, he burst into tears. We know they were tears of gratitude, but I wonder, if not like with us, they were not also of sorrow for doubting, even for a moment, She would come through.
Impressed and frankly a little overcome by what he told them, his Superiors matched the amount that was in the envelope and gave it to Father Maxmilian. It covered exactly what was due on his debt; not a penny more; not a penny less. Our Lady is very prudent, asking Her Son only for what we need.
Criticism is deadly, but Father Maxmilian refused to die
Father Maxmilian had no training in publishing a magazine. His noble efforts, what with little money and less resources, were brutally criticized. Without his Boss in charge, his problems would have been unsurmountable. One priest, who just happened to be censor of Krakow, when he read their first issue, said the future of The Knights of the Immaculata was at best hopeless. This same priest would retract this statement, twelve years later.
During the first year, they had to change printers five times. Everything was against them. When there were not strikes holding up delivery, there was some other calamity. The price kept going up, but not the quality. Father Maxmilian turned to the Army for help. The delivery, the quality, everything was going smoothly when they had to change again; Father would not compromise; how could a moral publication come out of an immoral atmosphere.
As we like to say, Father Maxmilian had a thought! He would open their own print shop, right there in the Friary! No money and now, he wants to open his own printing facility? Sounds like a powerful woman we love, Mother Angelica, doesn't it.
But Jesus and His Mother have their ways. Naturally, it starts with a negative. Father Maxmilian and his Fathers were entertaining a certain priest, one night. Their guest lit into them, cutting their efforts to pieces. He even went so far as to sarcastically poke fun, calling their chance at winning and keeping any souls for the Immaculata feeble and inept. Father Maxmilian, like Jesus before him, said nothing in his defense. He just hung his head. How hurt he must have been! Was he, at last, discouraged? After all, this was a fellow priest, someone he respected, someone who would someday become Minister Provincial of the American Province of St. Anthony!
As if the Holy Spirit suddenly had gotten a hold of his tongue, this same priest, who had been attacking, began to defend them and their publication. He said, people, like himself, should help instead of looking for areas in their publication to find fault and error. He went on to pledging not only his support, but to reaching out to others to do likewise. He backed that vote of confidence with a check for one hundred dollars. In those days, that was a small fortune.
The publication flourished, always because of an eleventh hour God responding to His Mother. The amount of copies grew, and somehow the resources always came in, just in time.
The Knight of the Immaculate goes on without Father Kolbe
Hell will not prevail against His Church, nor against the Militia our Lady had chosen for Her Son to fulfill His Promise. Satan must have been very frustrated. He didn't have any new ideas. Strike down Father Maxmilian with Tuberculosis, again! Only now, the enemy worked on a body terribly weakened by subsequent attacks; the damage would be more serious and the recuperation longer, if at all.
And so, now with everything on the move, with greater acceptance requiring greater involvement and headship, Father Maxmilian is faced with abandoning all they had built up. All the suffering and labor had been for nothing. There was no other course; he had to obey his doctors; he had to leave. No General at the head of this Militia, it would collapse. Not only did it not buckle under, their circulation doubled and with it, the work of the Militia Immaculata.
When we looked for a word, which gave Father Maxmilian the strength to carry on His Lady's plan, it has to be obedience. He was always obedient, even when I am sure he wanted to say "no." Because of this, our Lord and Lady were able to step in and make not only what Father Maxmilian had envisioned come true, but the impossible!
He considered acts of obedience and abandonment the most powerful means to defeat Satan. Father Maxmilian knew: no man, not even the most talented, strongest leader could bring about victory against the merciless bombarding of the Enemy. Accepting this, he turned it over to the Lady, the Virgin Who would crush the serpent's head. Our Lady did so well, that within five years, the circulation would grow to 100,000 copies every month.
Father Maxmilian never sacrificed his commitment to Jesus, His Immaculate Mother and to Father Francis. They now had their own machines! The friars had a plan. They could make money taking in outside work, other than their own publication. Father Maxmilian came down hard:
"In such a way, the means becomes the end, and the end the means; while reasoning in this way, no thought is given to future development.
"The souls go to ruin, the diabolical press works feverishly to sow disbelief and immorality, and we reap profit from machines.
"It is then evident that the curse of St. Francis should fall on this work which would secure a quiet livelihood for the religious. It would then be a blessing from Heaven that everything would be destroyed..."
The Militia Immaculata never took on any other work.
City of the Immaculate - Niepokalanow
Circulation of The Knight of the Immaculata zoomed to 60,000. Father Maxmilian needed new and larger printing facilities. Through a priest, with whom he had shared his needs and vision, he made the acquaintance of a Mr. Srzednicki. This man arranged a meeting with a prince, who owned some land near Warsaw. Its location and generous acreage were perfect! When the prince heard Father Maxmilian speak of the Apostolate, he agreed verbally to the Militia's use of his land.
Father Maxmilian immediately placed a statue of the Immaculata on the land, believing She would take care of everything. She would intercede with his Superiors, convince them and the other friars to allow this to come to pass.
Although not all the Superiors were in agreement, it was approved. There were only two items they had to vote on: first-the Militia Immaculata's need of this center, and second: the possibility of strings attached to the giving of this donation. They agreed on the first item; there was most definitely a need. But they were equally adamant, as well, on the second: there was to be no special considerations shown the prince for this property. No strings or no deal.
This didn't seem like a problem...except, at the last minute, the prince asked that Masses be said for him in exchange for the gift. The Superiors refused! The prince stormed, if they could not do this for him, in light of his generosity, well they could keep their Masses and he would keep his land!
He demanded Father Maxmilian remove the Statue of Mother Mary from his land, at once. Father insisted the statue remain as a sign, the Madonna had made a promise and had not kept it. When Father spoke, suddenly, the prince did not see a founder, a priest who had made great strides with his work, he saw a child with faith in his Mother, and this Mother, he loved and trusted, had let him down. But Father Maxmilian was careful to defend Her, emphasizing it was the first time.
This love and trust, this child-knight had for his Queen-Mother, so touched the prince; he gave in and the land was theirs. In his testimony, the prince said: "His humility and childlike simplicity attracted me. If ever there was a man who was not proud, it was Father Maxmilian."
Father Maxmilian's superiors accepted the land and ordered the transfer of the printing facility to what was to be: their City of the Immaculata Niepokalanow. Father and his friars, together with their publishing Apostolate, left for their City, October of 1927. When they began, they'd made it with one small suitcase; now, five short years later, they needed eight railroad cars to carry all the equipment.
The new Friary, which became known as the Factory of the Immaculata, opened with twenty friars: two priests and eighteen brothers. They chopped their way through the dense forest, using the wood it yielded, to build: a House for their Lord-their Chapel, dormitories for them to sleep in, huts for their equipment, workrooms, and offices. The days were long and the work endless. The Polish winter came too soon. The days were not only colder, but shorter, and so they worked harder. Because they were of one mind, one heart and one vision, the struggling and the suffering only made them stronger and more determined. They sweat together, they cried and laughed together, they were brothers, they became community!
It had to be a difficult walk, seeing Father Maxmilian so ill, working beside them until hemorrhaging so badly, he was forced to stop. A betting man would not have given them a chance. Everything was against them. But believing in that God Who can do the impossible; knowing through Him, it only takes longer, they went on. You see, they had the same Lady, the same Mother, Jesus had left to the Apostles, knowing they would need Her.
Build a Seminary
When their Provincial came to visit them, it was obvious, to him, they could not handle all the work. Teasing, he told Father Maxmilian he'd have to build a seminary so he would have more priests and brothers to serve in the Militia. Did he not know Father would consider this, a signal from his Lady? Well, if his Queen wants it, Her knight will do it. Father Maxmilian and his band of friars began building a seminary. They had taken him seriously! The Provincial was upset! His anger soon turned into resignation. He loved the City of the Immaculata and its knights; it was difficult to stay upset with them, but he would worry!
They announced, they had permission from their Provincial and they would be opening a Seminary. Then, the Provincial changed his mind! Too late! They had made the announcement in The Knight of the Immaculata, and it had no only been printed but distributed! "If it is of God..." Letters poured in; young and old, men from all walks of life, wanted to come and give their lives. The response was enormous! They continued building the seminary.
Through faith, and the work behind that faith, building after building was added. The prince gave them more and more land. The friars grew from the original 20 who had first come to the forest to almost 800! The two priests had grown to thirteen! Each brother specialized in some part of the Apostolate. Niepokalanow, as City of the Immaculata was called, had the largest religious community in the world.
Father Maxmilian never wanted any personal reward or wealth for himself and his friars; like Father Francis, he knew it would destroy them. Therefore, Father Maxmilian made sure there were always new places to build and new places to spend money, even before it came in.
During the first five years, they added a college, a novitiate, a friary for professed Franciscans, a hospital with 100 beds, a plant which furnished them all their electricity and even, a fire department. Communication was on the move; they added a radio station! The work was to go world-wide; they needed and built an airport!
But with all this building of the Church with bricks, stone and cement, Father and his knights never forgot Who the Church was! As Father Maxmilian loved his Mother Mary, he adored his Brother Jesus, especially in the Holy Eucharist. At Niepokalanow, the Eucharist was the Center of their life and Apostolate. Father and the friars would interrupt their work and sleep, to take turns adoring the Lord in the Holy Eucharist. The more they adored Her Son, the more the Lord's Mother fought for them, and they grew!
The circulation of The Knights of the Immaculata swelled to a million copies per issue. Added to this, were nine different publications, all serving Mother Church in a different area, filling the needs of all the parts of the Mystical Body of Christ. It was exciting!
Down the roller coaster we plunge. With success, comes envy! The City of the Immaculata became a battlefield. Their magazine, The Knights of the Immaculata came under attack. It became the life-work of good people finding fault for the sake of finding fault; anything to discredit them! One day, a canon visited them. With more than a little sarcasm, he questioned Father Maxmilian, "What would St. Francis say if he were still living, seeing these expensive machines?" Father Maxmilian replied,
"He would roll up his sleeves and, speeding up the machines as much as possible, he would work like these good brothers to diffuse the glory of God and Immaculata with the most modern means."
No matter what he said, he would no sooner convince one, than he would become the target of another. They questioned his motives! They sharply condemned what they called, the rigorous spirituality of his friars. Father and his knights were subjected to assaults of every kind. Nothing could satisfy the jealousy brought about by the City's success. But as our Lord allows us these crosses, the Immaculata always comes to the rescue. And so, She did. With Her mantle over them and with the loving patience of their founder, the faithful knights not only survived, they won the war!
Go out to all the World
"The knights of the Immaculata must have missions! In spite of all the differences, we must have faith in the Immaculata. For this purpose, She will send us many vocations." Prophecy?
Father Maxmilian set his sites on the Far-East. God, Father Maxmilian and some Japanese students were on a train, one day. This is when the Lord decided to plant a desire in his heart to go to Japan! Although the students were friendly and polite, Father Maxmilian was sad; they didn't know Jesus and his Gospel. He saw the need and answered that need: establish a City of the Immaculata, in Japan!
By this time, his superiors were surprised at little, Father Maxmilian said or did. But when he sought their approval to open a second City, in the Far-East, this had to top all the other unorthodox propositions he'd ever made. Needless to say, he received permission to go to China and Japan.
In February of 1930, Father Maxmilian, with four brother friars, left their City of the Immaculata in Poland. He said good-by to no one, not to the priests and brothers in the Friary, not to his own brother, nor even his mother. He later wrote, asking for her forgiveness and understanding. He said, he loved her so, he could not bear to say good-by.
The little group travelled through Europe to France and the port of Marseille. They stopped to pray to the Saint of the Missions, St. Therese of Lisieux. They also pilgrimaged to Lourdes, to say thank you to their Mama Mary for past favors, and I am sure, to ask Her to guide and protect them as they set out to bring Her and Her Son to a pagan people.
As they stopped at different ports, Father Maxmilian looked around, every one of them, a prospect for another City of the Immaculata, where Jesus and Mary would become known and triumph.
They arrived in Nagasaki, Japan, toward the end of April in 1930, wearied and a little disappointed. Things had not gone as they had hoped in Shanghai. Although enthusiastically received, it was obvious God was not opening the door, at this time. They hadn't given up, though; they left two friars there with the hope of setting up a center, in the future.
The threesome went to the Cathedral of Nagasaki. There in the center of the square, was a statue of Immaculate Mary. She was on a pedestal with hundreds of the most beautiful, exotic flowers they had ever seen, surrounding her. Her arms were outstretched. It was as if Mary was greeting them: "I've been waiting. I thought you'd never get here." Taking this as a sign She was behind them and this mission, Father prophesied:
"If we have found her, it is a sign that all will go well."
Father Maxmilian went to the bishop. The bishop, pleased with Father's plans to set up a Japanese City of the Immaculata, pledged his support, immediately. There was only one provision; in exchange, Father would teach philosophy and theology in the Nagasaki seminary. Although this meant an extra physical burden on Father Maxmilian, he quickly agreed, on condition he could publish his magazine here in Nagasaki. If the bishop had ever thought his proposal through, I'm sure he would have suggested some psychiatric care for Father Maxmilian.
But the bishop hadn't, and the knights took their first giant step toward their Japanese City of the Immaculata! (Author's note: We say, in the Ministry, if this is not for our Lord, take us away; we're hopelessly mad.) It's kind of fun to look at these three friars. Without knowing a word of Japanese, not to read or write, to speak or even to understand, they proposed to publish an issue of the Immaculata in Japanese!
Father Maxmilian and his two friars began working on their publication within a few days! Leaving nothing untried, depending solely on his Immaculata, the impossible was published and distributed in one month!
His job, teaching at the seminary, had not drained him, rather it became a help. The big problem had been: how would he produce articles in Japanese. Through his job at the seminary, he found the solution. He wrote in Latin, and some of his students translated it into Japanese. The Language problem was no more!
He took the finished product to a printer to be typeset and printed. One month in Nagasaki, his first magazine in a Japanese print shop, he has not seen the finished issue, yet, and Father went out to buy his first printing press and 145,000 characters of Japanese type.
He had arrived the end of April. His first issue had just come out, and Father Maxmilian had to leave to go back to Poland. He had promised, before leaving Europe, he would return for this important Provincial Chapter.
August 13, 1930, Father was on his way back to Japan. He had received the unanimous approval, of his building the Japanese City of God, from the Chapter. It was official. He had the proper paperwork. Full steam ahead! His joy was short-lived.
He had received disconcerting news; their mission in Nagasaki was on the verge of closing; the publication of The Knight of the Immaculata had been suspended for a month. When he had left hurriedly, they judged Father Maxmilian had given up on the project. All the support he'd had from the Japanese priests and seminarians, had been withdrawn.
As he came down the gang plank, he was greeted by two very relieved friars who were not trying to hide how happy they were to see their founder. He would re-establish order to the Apostolate. And, he did! He brought two more friars, who would help out, while they learned Japanese.
No sooner, had he resolved matters, new problems came to the surface. The typesetters did everything possible to make life impossible. The Nagasaki Printers were determined this magazine would fail and the typesetters were in collusion. All right, the knights would typeset the issue themselves! This was not a simple task. The thousands of characters were confusing. But, in November, the first publication ever done completely by members of the white race, was on the streets.
Another hurt for Father Maxmilian to suffer: just as things started to go well, two of his friars left. He was back to two, like when he had begun! But, not for long! Their courage and true Franciscan living of the Gospel, attracted recruits. They came, Christian and non-Christian Japanese, alike. Vocations started to flourish as the Japanese became more and more aware of their Apostolate. Their community grew from five to twenty-four, in a period of four short years. In another two years, twenty were studying for the Franciscan priesthood!
They called their second City, "The Garden of Mary Immaculate," and garden, it was. It bloomed; it produced rich fruit; vocations grew; devotion to Jesus through the Immaculata spread throughout Nagasaki. (Was it Jesus or Mary Who stepped in the way of the atomic bomb, in 1945, sparing the Garden and the Franciscans, there? These Franciscans accepted many of the countless orphaned children, who were running through the streets, into their Garden. They turned it into an orphanage, and they were soon able to care for close to a thousand children.)
Father Maxmilian must return to Poland
Father Maxmilian was called back to Europe to attend a Provincial Chapter. He boarded an Italian ship and left Japan on May the 26th, 1936. He landed in Italy; his short stay there included a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Nazareth in Loreto.
What had the Mother of God said to him, in the Holy House? No one knows; but what we do know is, when he arrived in Poland, Father Maxmilian proposed to the Provincial Chapter, the consecration of the entire Order to the Immaculata. It was not only received wholeheartedly, they decreed it be renewed each year on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
It was 1936. Most people were calling Hitler a Maniac, who no one would or should take seriously. Could it be, Mother Mary had called Her son Maxmilian to Italy to the House where She had said "Yes," to strengthen Maxmilian and the Franciscans for the horror and holocaust that was to come?
He was so happy! Their magazine in Japan was doing well. Their Japanese City, "The Garden of Mary Immaculate," was bearing fruit. He had come home with hope of opening a third City, in India! He knew he would get their approval; the success in Japan was testimony it could and would work.
It was good to be back. His Niepokalanow was beautiful. The knights were doing well without him. Everything was going well...and then, the Provincial Chapter elected him Guardian of The City of the Immaculata, here in Poland! The hot, humid climate of Japan had played havoc with his health. His tuberculosis had returned. He was hemorrhaging so badly the loss of blood had dangerously weakened him. He was ordered confined to his bed, until he regained his strength.
Was he disappointed? Not that anyone would notice. He accepted and obeyed, with a full heart and will. The friars at The City, in Poland, were overjoyed. They said, it was not that their other superiors had not been outstanding religious, they were; but they were not Father Maxmilian! They'd missed him!
The Golden Age of Niepokalanow
During this time, Niepokalanow received a crown of distinction in recognition of its accomplishments. He was content, but he never forgot his Garden of Mary Immaculate, in Japan. As he shared with the friars at Niepokalanow, the custom of greeting one another with "Maria," that had begun at their sister City in Japan, it was to him, like being there, too. He never forgot one of his sons. Miles could not separate them from him.
Father Maxmilian personally directed each of the friars.
There was love that passed from Father Maxmilian to his sons; they said: "Everywhere he passed, he sowed peace, harmony, reciprocal love; he dispelled doubts, infused courage."
They loved calling him, "Father." He loved hearing them call him Father. And, although he was only forty-two years old, he was their father. He would always tell them:
"I am your father, even more so than your earthly father from whom you have received your physical life. Through me, you have received a spiritual life, and this is a divine life; through me, you have received your religious vocation, which is more than physical life.
To this day, those who knew him, speak of the incredible capacity he had to love and parent. One night, after dinner, he spoke to his friars:
"My dear sons, if only you knew how happy I am. My heart is overflowing with happiness and peace...My dear sons, love the Immaculata. Love Her and She will make you happy. Trust Her without limits."
He looked at each one of them, as if to imprint them on his mind and heart. He paused and went on:
"I have something to tell you...The reason I am very happy and filled with joy is that I have been given an assurance of Heaven."
They tried to get more out of him. He hesitated. It was Mount Tabor, again. Jesus was speaking to Peter, James and John. Father was preparing them for what he already knew was ahead, his death. His voice shook, as he spoke:
"I have revealed this secret to you to strengthen your courage and spiritual energies for the difficulties ahead. There will be trials, temptations and discouragement. The memory of tonight will strengthen you and help you to persevere in your religious life. It will strengthen you for the sacrifice Mary will ask of you."
He begged them to tell no one of this, until after he died. He said he would never have told them of Mary's promise to him, except the time was growing near, when they would all go through a terrible trial.
Was it that his Mary had shown him the whole picture, that there would be rebirth of a people that would rise from his ashes? At another time, when he had been speaking to a large audience he declared, no, he prophesied:
"We do not believe the day to be far off, or a mere dream, when the statue of the Immaculata will be enthroned by her Knights in the very heart of Moscow."
The Lady's Knight from Heaven, you can be sure, was there when the church bells began to peel in Moscow, in December of 1989. He was there carrying a statue of Immaculate Mary. And you can bet on it; he sang, "Immaculate Mary" with them, as Her children welcomed Mama home, and with Her, Jesus!
Hitler invades Poland
On September the 1st, in the year of infamy, 1939, without even a declaration of war, Hitler's ruthless Army invaded Poland. The Poles didn't have a chance. England had not come to their aid. No one had. They stood alone. The Poles were brave, but these Davids could not kill the giant Goliaths that came rumbling through, mowing down everything and everyone who still dared to be on the once quiet streets.
Their Provincial had briefed the friars on what to do in the event of invasion. On September 5th, Father Maxmilian passed on these orders to his Knights: they were to evacuate and flee to Friaries where they would not be in danger of being captured by the Germans; or if it were safer, to return to their families. Father Maxmilian embraced the friars who were leaving. Tearfully, they held on to their dear Father, not wanting to let go. And he, with his father's love, blessed each of his sons as he said his final farewell to them:
"Good-by, my dear sons, I will not survive this war!"
Most of his sons, safely gone, Father Maxmilian rushed to Warsaw to ask his Provincial what he was personally to do. Although Father did not seemed alarmed or anxious, those present later testified, it was apparent he would have preferred to go to a safer place. He didn't want to die! He loved his Niepokalanow. He loved life! The Provincial, with the prodding of the superior of the Warsaw Priory, ordered Father Maxmilian to stay at The City of the Immaculata.
It was a death sentence! The City was right in the path of the advancing German Army. They were sure to take over the Niepokalanow. He said "Yes!" And with him, fifty brothers and five priests, stayed. If he was to remain, then they would remain with him, no matter the danger. As each hour made its slow journey into night, the commitment they had made became more and more difficult. They spent every day from September 8th through the 19th, terrorized and crippled by fear! All that is, but Father Maxmilian. Each day, during their meditations, he'd try to strengthen them, gentling reminding them: that day could be the last day of their lives and they were to be prepared to die a holy death.
Father Maxmilian would go out to console his countryman, outside of the City, those who were returning from the front as well as those that had been left behind. When Polish soldiers were too exhausted or wounded to go on, he took them into the Niepokalanow. He even gave refuge to the Jews who had been against the City being in their midst, only a few months before. Here was truly Christ in their midst, with his charity and unconditional love.
German soldiers reach Niepokalanow!
It was the middle of September, and it was Father Maxmilian's turn. The soldiers rushed from building to building, destroying everything they could get their hands on, furniture, tools, nothing was spared, that is nothing but the machinery. They had plans for it; they would send it intact to Germany!
Did they remember something from their mother's knee, they needed to forget? They ripped the crucifixes off the walls and flung them on the floor. They stomped on them with their heavy boots, as if to crush the Christ on them..."Come down from the Cross!" They took extra pains smashing into dust, statues of the Immaculata, as if She were there, reminding them of the new Calvary they were creating.
Father stood helplessly by, and saw them mercilessly tear down everything they had built. In a matter of days they had shattered a dream that twelve years of sacrificing had made a reality. He held on, repeating over and over again:
"The Immaculata has given all. She has taken all away. She knows how things are."
A few days before the Nazis invaded Poland, Father Maxmilian had gathered his Knights, together. He knew what his end would be. He had no illusions how he would be treated by the Nazis. In his press and on his radio station, he had condemned both Nazism and Communism. He had tried to warn the dangerously complacent: these two philosophies were godless and as such, represented an evil which would spread inhuman and diabolical suffering, unlike anything the world had ever known.
Trying to prepare them, he spoke of the three stages of his life:
In the First Stage: his life had been preparing for his apostolate;
In the Second Stage: his life became his apostolate;
In the Third Stage: what was about to happen, his life was to be one of suffering.
"I would like to suffer and die in a knightly manner, even to the shedding of the last drop of my blood, to hasten the day of gaining the whole world for the Immaculate Mother of God."
The Nazis would soon accommodate him. On September the 19th the soldiers came and ordered all the religious into the town square. They crammed all but two of them into trucks. They would be allowed to stay behind to care for the wounded soldiers. Father Maxmilian had the choice of staying behind with one of the brothers, but he joined his brother knights, instead.
They were transported, jammed in with livestock, to a concentration camp in Germany. It was not one of the camps known for extreme cruelty, but it ranked up there. The cold and hunger would have gotten them, but, as they reported: there was always Father Maxmilian there to encourage them. He was living the words he'd said to the friars when they departed from the City:
"Niepokalanow is not only this place, these premises, these machines. Niepokalanow is wherever one of its members dwells. Niepokalanow must be in your souls, in your hearts."
And so, they made a statue of the Immaculata out of clay and they had their City of the Immaculata, their Niepokalanow!
Father Maxmilian never lost trust the Immaculata would free them. One of the brothers, later confessed, he would become upset and angry every time Father would say,
"The Immaculata will drive us out of camp."
But she did! In November, they were transferred to a camp in Poland, thanks to a Catholic officer who'd replaced the one they'd had.
Conditions were better at the new camp in Poland, better than they'd been in the camp in Germany. It seemed the Germans were going to let up, a little. They even allowed the religious to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. After three months, without the Holy Eucharist, Father and his fellow Franciscans received Holy Communion! The camp commander had given permission to a priest from a nearby town to bring the Eucharist to them. That afternoon, without explanation, an order was given: they were to be released from the camp and were to return to their homes.
We are back, Niepokalanow!
Germany had swept Poland in less than one month. That momentarily satisfying her, she generously split with her ally Russia, what wasn't hers in the first place. Germany took the western and central parts, and Russia took the rest. To the foolish, it looked as if this greedy monster had had its fill.
The band of Franciscans, with Father Maxmilian in front, trudged lightheartedly toward home, to their Niepokalanow. They used whatever means of transportation that presented itself. Nothing discouraged them; nothing mattered except that they were on their way to their Immaculata.
At the entrance of the City, there was no Immaculata to greet them. They found a small statue of the Immaculata on a pile of debris and making a make-shift pillar, they raised Her high. But, before doing this or anything else, they repaired the Chapel and returned the Blessed Sacrament to His home. This they did on their first day home.
All in place, that was really important, they began to repair and rebuild their Niepokalanow. Their beautiful City had been ransacked, almost flattened. What the Germans hadn't destroyed, they carried away, and what they couldn't carry, they destroyed. The sons of the Immaculata looked around, retrieved what scraps they could and began to mold them into: a garage, a repair shop for watches, a carpentry shop, machine shops and even a cheese factory. These were the immediate needs of the people of the area, so first things first, these were those they met.
The brothers kept returning, until they numbered 300. Those who didn't, couldn't, as there was a price on their heads. They had been, for the most part, editors of the magazines and because of this a prime target of the dreaded Gestapo. The Nazi philosophy was, control the mind and you control the people. They got rid of all the professors, writers, editors, everyone who could remind the Poles of who they really were - a proud and free people.
Through the intervention of the Polish Red Cross, Niepokalanow was turned into a hospital. Father Maxmilian insisted that no one be turned away, that all be received, that all be treated equally. Niepokalanow would be available, not only to the wounded, but to those who were considered undesirables: dissidents, people expelled from parts of Poland, Jews.
It was 1940; the number, they were caring for, grew to as many as 2000 of the expelled, and close to 1500 Jews. The Gestapo was not very happy with their tenants; consequently they kept a close eye on the Franciscans. Brothers were working in the infirmary caring for the physical wounds, and the priests for their spiritual, acting as chaplains to the Catholics and brothers to the Jews. Because of their true Franciscan spirit, many conversions came about.
A former rabbi from the Synagogue of Rome, told it best: "If I knew how to write a book on Father Kolbe - I am not worthy of so much, otherwise Providence would have given me the capability of doing so - I would entitle it: `Father Maxmilian Mary Kolbe who died for love.'"
Their charity was universal, even including German soldiers. When Father Maxmilian heard one of the non-commissioned officers was ill, he went to visit him and gave him and other soldiers the Miraculous Medal. His love and concern for them, really touched them! How could he care for them, after they had been responsible for so much pain!
With the steady flow of religious, returning, the number grew to 349! Whereas perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament had begun immediately, other religious practices were slowly returning, but return they did. Formation had started up again, and new applicants were becoming new friars. Father was able to resume communication with his friars in Japan.
Life was getting back to before all hell had broken loose. It looked like it was time to resume publishing The Knights of the Immaculata, not only in Polish but in German, for the soldiers stationed in Poland. Father Maxmilian made many trips to Warsaw, seeking permission to start up again. By some miracle, he was able to convince an official of the German Propaganda office, there. He sent his approval to Krakow, and the wheels of that office were put into motion, and the magazine was on its way!
They were allowed to start up again! They worked night and day. On December the 8th, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, their Lady gave the world Father Maxmilian Mary Kolbe's last will and testament- their last issue of The Knights of the Immaculata was printed!
"December 8, is drawing near, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
"Let those who can, go to confession. For those to whom this is impossible, because circumstances do not permit it, let them wash their souls with perfect contrition-the sorrow of the loving child who thinks not so much of the punishment and the reward, as of asking forgiveness of the father and mother whom he has displeased."
The Journey to Life, Death and Resurrection
It was the year 1940. Father Maxmilian had been preparing them for the time when he would leave for his final walk to Calvary. When he wrote and published his Knight he knew his arrest would be any day. Loyal Poles who were working inside the Gestapo offices, kept warning him to leave Niepokalanow, but he wouldn't!
The Gestapo had noticed his many gifts. Why not use them for the Third Reich! He could influence the stubborn Poles to cooperate, especially through his press. How to go about this? They told Father Maxmilian that the High Command had heard of him and were pleased with him. They would be even more appreciative (with all the privileges that would bring), if he would apply for German citizenship. It was obvious, with his name, he had German blood.
No one knows of the temptations Satan might have put into Father's mind and heart. He could continue his work. His sons needed him. He certainly could do more alive than dead! If he had accepted their offer, how different things might have been. What a price to pay for life on earth, even doing good things, if the end result is the loss of your soul and the souls of others. His love for his Mother in Heaven was sacred. He could not see himself betraying Her, and doing less than Her Son Jesus, saving his own life at the cost of his Poland. And so, he said: "No!" Father Maxmilian had lived, a son of Poland, and he would die a son of Poland.
February 17th, 1941, at 9:45 in the morning, they came to arrest him. Two cars pulled up and entered the Niepokalanow. Five Gestapo officials got out, four with uniforms and one in plainclothes. As they approached the house of the religious, a brother phoned Father Maxmilian, who was in his room. Father had been expecting this moment, but when he answered the phone, the brother said, his voice trembled with his "yes." But only for a moment; regaining his composure, he said:
"All right, my son." Then he gave him their greeting, "Mary," for the last time.
The night before, he had said:
"What indescribable happiness! What a great grace it is to be able to seal one's ideal with one's life."
Was brother thinking of this, as the Gestapo called out Maxmilian's name and that of five other priests. Satan was not finished tormenting him. Isn't that a German name, the Gestapo asked? Once again, Father Maxmilian proclaimed:
"Perhaps some of my grandparents may have come from Germany, but I was born in Poland and therefore I am Polish."
Father and the other five priests were taken to Warsaw and kept in prison. Now, the Gestapo had a problem. Father Maxmilian was not one of the thousands of unknown priests who would be arrested and killed. He was known worldwide and highly acclaimed. They would have the whole church down on them, unless they could provide some kind of justification for their action.
And the Church came; his Provincial as well as a nun, who worked for the Gestapo, came, putting their necks on the block. Nothing would dissuade the authorities. They used a trumped-up charge signed by a former brother, who had been expelled by Father Maxmilian because of some wrongdoing, while at Niepokalanow. In highly legalistic terminology, it alluded to a plot supposedly hatched by Father Maxmilian against the Germans occupying Poland. Anyone, who knew Father, would call this impossible! But the Gestapo said, since the papers were signed, nothing could be done.
The brother later testified, he didn't understand what was in the papers. Not knowing the German language, trusting it said what they said it did, he signed. So, they condemned an innocent man with a forgery.
As the days passed into weeks, in prison, Father Maxmilian spoke repeatedly of dying a martyr's death for the Faith. One of the brothers in the prison objected, complaining, "You, Father, speak of martyrdom for the Faith, while there are many people who are in concentration camps perishing; this is not for the Faith but for the country."
Father's answer, wisely and prophetically was:
"Son, I tell you that if it is thus, the martyrdom is certainly for the Faith".
All wars are religious wars. The war is always, not between countries or people, but between God and Satan. And certainly, this war, with its inhumanity against God's children was not political to Him. Ask parents whose sons or daughters died, if it was political. They'll tell you, it was personal. So, when anyone of us is hurt, God is hurt and so is His Faith.
Auschwitz - Role Call of Hell
On May the 28th, 1941, Father Maxmilian, although suffering seriously from tuberculosis, was transported along with 320 other prisoners, to Auschwitz. He was treated no better because he was a religious. Rather, they were harsher on the religious, taking some kind of delight, determining how much torture they could take before cracking.
Father Maxmilian was given a number, 16670; he was assigned to block 17. The guards pushed, kicked and beat Father when he was too ill to walk. He struggled, as he tried to haul the wheel barrels full of gravel, they needed to build the crematorium walls. Oh, they were not past using prisoners to build their own means of torture or death.
No matter how they brutalized him, how they tried to humiliate him, they could not force Father into hating them. He had so much love in his eyes, they made him lower his eyes so they wouldn't have to look into them.
Auschwitz or the Death Camp, as it was more commonly called, was originally to be for the extermination of Jews. Then, the Third Reich added to their martyred number: the Danish, French, Greek, Spanish, Flemish, Yugoslavian, German, Norwegian, Russian, Rumanian, Hungarian and Italian undesirables, whose only crime was they were leaders or intellectuals.
Although its horror was not singularly its own, it had the reputation of being the most efficient of all the concentration camps, building up to a record of exterminating 3500 enemies of the state in 24 hours. They became so good at their job, the sign above the entrance gate reading "Work makes one free," they were capable of killing prisoners on arrival. Many they did; others they saved for slave labor; others they had fun with: their action-to degrade, to see how low they could make a human stoop with enough torture.
I think, the saddest testimony I ever heard was from a survivor of the concentration camps. He told-how parents would have their children go before them, into the showers (the Nazis jokingly called the gas chambers), so they would not be frightened, the parents reassuring them, it was all right, they would be following.
A fellow prisoner testified that nothing they did to Father Maxmilian could break his spirit. He would lift up the other victims, repeating:
"No, No, these Nazis will not kill our souls, since we prisoners distinguish ourselves quite definitely from our tormentors; they will not be able to deprive us of the dignity of our Catholic belief. We will not give up. And when we die, then we die pure and peaceful, resigned to God in our hearts."
He infuriated the Nazis as he worked to keep the Poles and the European Jews from being reduced into groveling animals, turning on each other. To punish him, the guards would save the most demeaning work for him. At one time, they even set their vicious dogs on him.
They used Father to carry corpses to the crematorium. A former prisoner testified: one time, when he (the prisoner) was asked to carry a young man's horribly ravaged body, his ripped open stomach, evidence of just part of the torture he'd suffered before dying, he was so repulsed by the sight, he did not have the strength or the stomach to lift him. Then he heard a gentle voice, hardly above a whisper: "Let us take him." As they carried the young man to the crematorium, he could hear the prisoner helping him, "Holy Mary, pray for us." Father Maxmilian was calling to his Mother, and as She did with Her Son Jesus as He carried His Cross, Her eyes sustained him.
One day, Father fell under the weight of the wood he was carrying. Face down, in the mud, unable to get up, the picture I see before me is, again, the one of Jesus on the way of the Cross, when He fell the third time. Was that the picture before Father Maxmilian? Was that how he was able to get up? With his last ounce of strength, each day, he carried his sufferings, taking on the sins of his jailers upon his wounded body, as his Jesus before him. He said over and over again:
"For Jesus Christ, I am prepared to suffer still more."
But soon, they beat his weary, broken body to such a point of breaking, he landed, more dead than alive, in a hospital. His tuberculosis got so bad, he was, again, like Jesus before him, dying of asphyxiation, unable to breath. They determined he had pneumonia.
His face had begun to show the scars of his mistreatment, and his voice, betrayed by the dryness from too much heat and too little water, was robbing him of his speech. But yet, a fellow priest testified, he was an inspiration to everyone. He was never too weary, too tired, too broken, too sick to hear confessions.
He was happy to be in the hospital because so many there needed a priest. One of the prisoners had somehow gained the trust of the guards and they would let him out. He would return, hiding food under his clothes, which he shared with the other prisoners.
One day, he sneaked in some hosts. Now, it was immediate execution, if a priest was caught celebrating Holy Mass. Even those men, who had become monsters, knew the Power of Jesus. Father took the hosts, said the words of consecration and he brought Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, the Bread of Life, to his fellow patients. He celebrated Holy Mass not once but twice. At times, he took what little bread he had and consecrated it, distributing the Lord to all. But, he never would accept any of the other prisoners rations, saying "You need them. You must live." Father Maxmilian, priest!
A prisoner escaped! The shrill sound of the alarm pierced the still, dark night. The prisoners lay frozen, praying they would not be part of those chosen to be executed. According to the barbaric law of the camp, when an inmate escaped, ten men from his cell were chosen to starve to death, in the underground bunker. They rounded up all the prisoners and had them stand at attention, for three hours, in the prison yard. Then, they marched them in to have their meager supper, all that is but the men of block 14! Instead, they were forced to helplessly look by, as their rations were dumped into the canal.
The next day, they were lined up in the scorching sun, as the rest of the prisoners went off to work. They were given nothing to drink or eat. Their condition became so unbearable, many of them collapsed and not even the guards' brutal beatings could arouse them. They just dumped them, one on top of another, in a heap.
As night approached, the rest of the prisoners came back. They, too, were lined up, facing those of block 14, so they could witness what happens when someone escapes. They stood there, helpless to ease the fear they saw in their fellow inmates eyes, as they stared across at them...And then, the dreaded announcement: "Since the fugitive has not been found, ten of you are condemned to death." The commander Fritsch took delight as he passed back and forth, before the prisoners of block 14. He could read their minds, Oh God, don't let it be me.
"Good-by, friends; we will meet again where there is justice," was joined by another sobbing, "Long live Poland!" "Good-by! Good-by, my dear wife; good-by, my dear children, already orphans of your father," cried out Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek.
A prisoner from block 14 stepped out of the lineup. It was Father Maxmilian! He had been assigned to block 14, had endured all the torture and was still standing. He walked slowly and calmly toward the commandant. He stopped in front of Fritsch. The sight was blinding! There was a hush that went through the men lined up. No one, in the history of the camp, had ever done anything like this before.
They stared; they tried to take their eyes away, but they couldn't or wouldn't. Suddenly they were not afraid of this man who reduced men to animals; he no longer posed a threat. The man before him, chest caved in, little more than hanging flesh on thin bones, had the upper hand. The commander was stunned, frozen. Was he afraid at what or who it was, he saw? Did he remember from a thousand lifetimes ago, his mother telling him about the Savior who gave His life for him?
Here was a man who had traded his God in for a lie and he looked frightened. Facing him, was one who death could have no victory over, one who dared to love Him with all his heart, mind and soul, totally abandoning himself to Him. He had loved others through Him, in Him, with Him, even this monster in front of him. This one who so exemplified the Sacrificial Lamb who died, forgiving them, saying "They know not what they do," frightened him!
The commander found his voice; regaining his composure, he barked, "What does this Polish pig want?"
Father Maxmilian, pointing toward Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek, answered:
"I am a Polish Catholic priest; I am old; I want to take his place because he has a wife and children..."
Father Maxmilian was 47 years old!
The underground bunker, block 13, was a chamber of horror. It was closed in by a wall twenty-one feet high; prisoners were to have no communication from the outside. Upon entering, inmates knew they would only leave as corpses, on their way to the crematorium. Only a few Poles came in any kind of contact with the bunker, those who the Nazis needed, to carry out bodies and etc. This is how we have any idea of what went on.
They led Father and the other nine to bunker 13. They stripped them of all their clothing and left them, sneering, "We will dry you up like tulips!" A Pole later testified: when they went down to the bunkers, it sounded as if the angels were accompanying the prisoners singing hymns to Jesus and Mary; instead of curses, the Rosary and Litanies of prayers resounded through the dungeons, petitioning God for mercy in what He would give them and thanking Him for what He had given them. The other bunkers, having joined the little priest in bunker 13 were heard echoing his love song to Mary and Her Son Jesus. They were so immersed in their praise and worship, they often did not hear the guards until they shouted at them to be quiet!
When the door opened, the prisoners pitifully begged for some water and bread. Those who were strong enough to make it over to the door were kicked in the stomach, and when they fell, if they did not die, they were shot right there. Conditions got so bad, the prisoners drank their own urine (as was evidenced by the empty and dry pails that had been left for them to relieve themselves).
Father encouraged the other innocent prisoners not to give up hope, to pray that the escaped prisoner would be found and they would be freed. For himself, he asked nothing. He even got to the guards, who came in each day to check up on the prisoners. They had never experienced such love and compassion. For some, it was more than they could handle; was he showing them what man could be like, according to God's plan? They called him a real gentleman.
Father Maxmilian lived longer than the rest, consoling them and praying with them until they mercifully gave up their last breath. Two weeks passed; prisoners died one after the other. At the end of the third week, there were four left; Father Maxmilian was one of them! So, needing the bunker for more prisoners, they called in the director of the hall of the sick, the infamous and wicked Boch. He lifted the arms of the prisoners left. As they looked up at him, helplessly, he injected them with poisonous acid.
One of the Poles testified he had been with the Nazi officers in the block. He saw Father Maxmilian, a prayer on his lips, love and forgiveness in his eyes, hold out his left arm to the killers. He said he couldn't stand it anymore and he (the Pole) left, with the pretense he had work to do. When he returned, he found Father Maxmilian sitting, his body leaning against the wall, his beautiful eyes open, and his head bent to the left side. He did not look as if he had died a horrible death. He was radiant, he looked serene as if he had fallen asleep or was just dreaming with his eyes open. He was beautiful! When You died, Jesus, You died that all man could live, once and for all. Now, another son was called to give up his life that a man could live and that son, Your brother Father Maxmilian Mary Kolbe said "yes!"
Father Maxmilian died on the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption of our and his Lady into Heaven. What the world, with the world's eyes, saw was an emaciated body brutally tortured, wasted away, desecrated by his forced nakedness-more bones than flesh. But witnesses testified when they saw him, he was shrouded in a flood of light, almost transfigured. He looked as if he were in ecstasy. Had Jesus and Mary come to accompany him home?
It was Friday, August the 15th, men came for his body and placed it in a box. It was taken to the ovens. They had been burning for him, day and night, as they had for others. There was a silence that screamed through the camp. Love had been there. Compassion had lived in their midst. Hope had battled fear. God had been present among the godless. He, through His priest, had entered this holocaust, had brought the dead to new life, and it would never be the same!
Survivors of Auschwitz testified that the camp became a better place; its hell had lost its sting. Was it because perhaps, through this priest they were no longer prisoners of godless men, but willing slaves of Jesus and Mary?
"I would like my ashes to be scattered to the four winds," a prayer he had often said, was on this day, the day celebrating the Feast of Her Assumption into Heaven, answered by the Lady he had always loved, his Mama, his Queen, his Niepokalanow.
But his desire "to decrease while Christ increase" was not to be granted by his Father in Heaven. He would not disappear "without a trace." On the vigil Feast of the Assumption, 1941, a man died, a Pole, a Catholic priest and a son of Mary.
His story needed to be told. In this world, where man sometimes sinks to a level beneath the animals, he was given dominion over, we need a Father Maxmilian Mary Kolbe, true son of Francis. We are in the time of Francis. We are in the time of Maxmilian Mary Kolbe. We are in the time of Mary. We are in the time of Pope John Paul II.
We may be in the time of new martyrs. A modern day dry martyr, Pope John Paul II, another Pole, on October 10th, 1982, raised a knight of Mary to sainthood, and in Heaven, Mary said "This day, son, you have lived your motto `Totus Tuus' (all yours, Mary)" Thank you!
Not long after all her sons left home to join the Franciscans, she asked permission of her husband to follow her childhood desire to enter the religious life. This done, she entered the Benedictine Sisters temporarily, in Lwów, so she could be near her sons.
This is connected with the Miraculous Medal. You can read more about this in The Many Faces of Mary, a love story, by Bob and Penny Lord.
benevolence-contribution, donation, favor, gift, grant, present.
In Lourdes, our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette, in 1858, and declared Herself, the Immaculate Conception.
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque - Our Lord appeared to her, and showed her His Heart. He said, "My enemies placed a crown around My Head, My friends around My Heart."
At this time, priests were being tortured and killed in Mexico. Read chapter on Bl. Miguel Pro.
written by one of his Polish biographers, Morcinek.
meaning many who were not Catholic.
see chapter on Bishop Sheen