A young boy named Raymond Kolbe had a vision of the Mother God, beckoning towards him, her arms extended, in each hand a crown, one white and the other red. Which would he choose? What kind of life would such a decision create?
Raymond dedicated his life to Christ, a commitment that expressed itself in taking vows as a Franciscan, accepting as a new identity in religious life that was externalized in a new name- Maximilian. Maximilian Kolbe would be ordained a priest.
He founded an association of the Christian faithful called the Militia of Mary Immaculate, whose efforts were directed on promoting devotion to the Mother of God. In bringing people to know Christ’s mother, they trusted that she would introduce people to Christ.
The movement grew and Maximilian became a rather formidable and outspoken figure. In another time, his charisma might have brought him fame and ecclesiastical advancement, but the time in which Maximilian Kolbe lived was the era of the Second World War and he lived in Poland.
The Nazis arrested Maximilian Kolbe during a purge of Poland’s clergy and intellectuals. He was sent to the death camp Auschwitz.
In that horrifying place, Maximilian was stripped of all vestiges of his former life. His Franciscan habit was exchanged for the striped uniform of a prisoner. To reinforce his the indignity of his situation he was made to wear a badge, an image of pink, inverted triangle, which the Nazis used to identify prisoners who were homosexuals.
The darkness that enveloped Maximilian Kolbe deepened when in retaliation for the escape of a prisoner from the death camp, ten prisoners from his cell block were chosen at random to be executed.
Maximilian, aware that one of those chosen was a man with a wife and children, volunteered to take that man’s place.
Maximilian Kolbe and the other 9 men were stripped naked, locked in a basement cell and left to starve to death. Impatient that the prisoners were not dying fast enough, Maximilian and the other remaining prisoners were killed by a lethal injection on August 14th, 1941.
In 1982, Pope Saint John Paul II declared Maximilian a saint, acclaiming him as a “martyr for charity”.
The 20th century was perhaps one of the most bloody and inhumane in all the many years of human civilization. Genocide was perfected with technical precision and the human person became not only a commodity, but also a disposable commodity. Acclaimed at its beginning as a century of progress, the 20th century revealed itself to be a century of death and destruction.
It was in the heart of civilized Europe, among the fading embers of a once Christian civilization that an elitist culture waged war against those whom they perceived to be inferiors in the name of progress and built factories not only to manufacture weapons, but also to produce death on a scale that defies comprehension. The darkness fell heavy and deep.
In the midst of a world gone dark, Christ calls forth disciples, baptized in his name and consecrated to his mission. The saints are exemplars of what it means to be a disciple and they bear into the darkness of every age the radiant light of Jesus Christ. Saint Maximilian Kolbe is such a saint.
Christian faith is not meant as an esoteric philosophy, method of self-improvement, or a comforting and comfortable routine. Christian faith is a light to the nations meant to lead people from the darkness imposed by sin and death. The disciples of the Lord Jesus risk going into dark places, so that inserted into the shadows they can be a beacon leading to people to Christ.
May the witness of St. Maximilian Kolbe remind us of the light we Christians must cast into the shadows and darkness of the world.