Raymund Kolbe was born on January 8th 1894 in Zduńska Wola, Poland. His family were all devout Catholics, and from an early age, Kolbe showed great devotion to his faith. Kolbe and his brother joined the Franciscans, and in 1910 he was given the religious name Maximilian. In 1918, at the age of 24, he became ordained a priest, and from 1919 to 1922 he taught at the Krakow seminary. Kolbe was diagnosed with Tuberculosis at this time and suffered from it for the rest of his life.
After witnessing demonstrations against the Church, he created a group called the Militia Immaculata — Catholics dedicated to converting sinners through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the use of modern technology. He ran a religious publishing press with a newspaper that grew to over one million readers. He went on many missionary trips to Asia, specifically to Japan, and established the Militia Immaculata. Maximilian Kolbe also established a friary in Nagasaki in the 1930s (which interestingly was on the side of a mountain and protected from the atomic blast in 1945). Kolbe was forced to return home to Poland due to his declining health. Here, he continued to work at the friary while continuing to publish and even founded his own radio station.
When World War II began, he converted the friary to a temporary hospital and hid refugees from all around Poland, namely around 2,000 Jews.
The Nazis persecuted the Church in Poland and arrested much of its clergy. Maximilian Kolbe’s friary was closed and he was sent to Auschwitz in 1941 where he was forced into manual labor. Kolbe received many cruel beatings from the guards because, despite being clothed in a prisoner’s uniform and locked in a death camp, he continued his priestly ministries within the walls.
In July 1941, 10 men escaped Auschwitz. As a means of punishment and to deter any future escape attempts, the guards decided that 10 men, chosen at random, would be put to death. One man, after being selected, cried out that he had a wife and kids. Without hesitation, Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward, offering to take his place. The guards were stunned and confused as to why a prisoner would volunteer to endure even more suffering than already forced upon them. When they asked who Kolbe was, his response included, “I am a Catholic priest.”
He was placed in a starvation bunker with nine other men, and, after two weeks, Kolbe was the only one left alive. He was later killed by a lethal injection of carbolic acid on August 14, 1941.
The man he saved, Franciszek Gajowniczek, was a sergeant in the Polish army who dedicated the rest of his life as a lay missionary, spearheading the cause for Maximilian Kolbe’s canonization. Befittingly, the first Polish Pope, John Paul II (now Saint John Paul II) was the one to canonize Kolbe on October 10th, 1982. John Paul II called him “the patron of our difficult century.”
Maximilian Kolbe is the patron saint of prisoners, political prisoners, journalists, radio operators, families, the Pro-Life movement, and addiction recovery.
It is important to note that the life of Maximilian Kolbe is inseparable from his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the age of 12, he had a vision of Mary, who appeared to him and asked if he would take either of two crowns that she was holding, a white crown of purity and a red crown of martyrdom. Kolbe took both. This event foreshadows his life of sacrifice through missionary work, and ultimately of himself. He led the other prisoners in Marian Hymns and prayers throughout their final days in the starvation bunker. Even the day his remains were cremated, August 15, is the feast day of The Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary.
What can we find in the life of Maximilian Kolbe?
We can admire his great dedication to preaching the Gospel through his missionary work and defense of the Church. We can find inspiration in his heroic death, which reflects the death of Christ and of John 15:13, “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
We can also find great comfort in his life, to see that God strengthened him to carry on his priestly duties even in a place that resembled hell more than it did Earth.