|Christ on the Cross, Eugene Delacroix, 1853|
Today the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Maximilian Mary Kolbe, who was canonized by Saint John Paul II in 1982.
A Polish Franciscan with a deep devotion to Mary, Kolbe gave his own life for a fellow prisoner at the Auschwitz extermination camp, taking on the man's punishment of death by starvation because he had a wife and children. Not only this, but the saint also gave life to others in the camp, reminding them of their dignity as persons and that hope was not yet lost. Kolbe is particularly remembered for leading the nine others condemned to starvation in Marian hymns and the Rosary as they awaited their death.
St. John Paul II had a deep devotion to Maximilian Kolbe, and his sacrifice in the heart of darkness gave the late Holy Father much hope as he discerned his own vocation in war torn Poland. Kolbe’s Christ-like gift of self stood as a model of priesthood for him, and the Franciscan's hope in the midst of hatred inspired a renewed respect for the dignity of the human person in a place and a time in which it seemed to have been forgotten.
During his first pilgrimage to Poland as Pope, John Paul II visited Auschwitz and venerated the cell where Kolbe laid starving. He later canonized St. Maximilian Kolbe, saying:
Maximilian did not die but “gave his life...for his brother.” In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love.
And in this human death of his there was the clear witness borne to Christ: the witness borne in Christ to the dignity of man, to the sanctity of his life, and to the saving power of death in which the power of love is made manifest.
Precisely for this reason the death of Maximilian Kolbe became a sign of victory. This was victory won over all systematic contempt and hate for man and for what is divine in man-a victory like that won by our Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary.
“You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). The Church accepts this sign of victory-won through the power of Christ's redemption-with reverence and gratitude.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, on this day of your feast, please pray for the victory of the culture of life over the culture of death in our world today!