THE LIFE’S GOAL, ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND LEGACY OF MAXIMILIAN KOLBE
“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Anytime I open the Scriptures including this sentence, my thought turns to the Saint Maximilian Kolbe who spontaneously welcomed these words of the Redeemer in an unconditionally exact manner. His Franciscan life has inspired me in this reflection on his life and accomplishments and legacies as some specific gifts to our humanity. St. Maximilian did not die but laid down his life for his brother.
Raymund Kolbe was born in the home of Juliusz and Marianna (Dabrowska) Kolbe, January 8, 1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland. Kolbe’s Catholic education is attributed to his parents who were honest and hard-working people. Marianna, a housekeeper and mother to Kolbe’s other brothers, Franciszek, Jozef and Walenty, was especially devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she daily prayed the rosary on her knees. Before Raymund entered the Franciscan Order at age sixteen, he was given a message from the Virgin Mary of which he related, “One day when I was praying in church before the picture of Mary Immaculate, she suddenly became alive and showed me two crowns. One was white, the other red. The first was a symbol of purity, the second, the martyrdom. She asked me if I would like to have them.” “I chose both.” It was this message that Kolbe meditated on throughout his life. His parents were poor and not able to provide for him education so he entered Franciscans. While in the Novitiate of the Franciscans in Lwow, he assumed the name Maximilian and added Maria following ordination to priesthood. He completed his higher education in Rome: Philosophical studies at Gregorianum and theological studies at Collegium Seraphicum, where he twice attained a doctorate. While leading an impoverished life, he totally devoted himself to apostolic work and to the fiat of the Immaculate Mary. I can see many qualities of his heart that are similar to St. Francis of Assisi. For example, Kolbe once reminded his brother, that they were the Order of Penance, and their purpose in life was to be great saints. St. Francis of Assisi expressed it in the following words: Hold nothing of yourself for yourself so that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally. These words found complete confirmation in Fr. Maximilian’s life. On one occasion, he gave a conference telling his brothers: Our goal is sanctification . . . It would be difficult without the Immaculate. She was the first one to bridge the distance between our will and the will of God, for by her fiat she merited for us the grace of sanctity. . . . St. Bernard says that always in all our difficulties we should call her name. There is not one heroic act that we cannot accomplish with the help of the Immaculata. These things are learned only on one’s knees. I guess that prayers on the knees led him to participation of a religious society created on October 16, 1917 called Militia Immaculatae. In other words, Crusade for the Immaculata to Maximilian Maria was a union with blessed Virgin Mary based upon perfect sacrifice and devotion to God. The founder saw in the Immaculata assistance for his own sanctification and for the longing of human souls for God. It was through service and his fiat to the Immaculata that he could draw closer to God. He often recalled the red crown promised him by the Immaculata. On April 28, 1918, Kolbe was ordained to the priesthood which he described in a letter to his mother, saying. What a beautiful sight! All were joined, by the tie of the Catholic Religion and Christian Brotherhood in Christ Jesus . . . I view this whole affair with gratitude as a gift received through the Intercession of the Immaculate Conception who is the intermediary in the merciful hand of God to distribute graces. I place into her hands my entire confidence for the future. Upon returning to Poland Fr. Maximilian began to carry out his service to the Immaculata, by publishing in 1922 in Krakow a monthly review under the title Rycerz Niepokalanej (Knight of the Immaculate). Fr. Maximilian developed this small writing review with emphasis on Marian devotions quite steadily despite financial difficulties. However, tuberculosis interrupted Maximilian’s activity. It was a consequence of cold dormitories and stone floors required to “test” his calling to priesthood earlier in Rome. Fr. Maximilian taught that too much mortification is fanatical and ego-serving; too little mortification is indulgent and undisciplined. Toward the end of 1927 the monastery publishing house was established in Teresin, and Fr. Kolbe called it Niepokalanów, city of the Immaculata. The provincial general at this time was Fr. Kornel Czupryk. Thanks to Fr. Maximilian’s actions, soon the number of vocations grew quickly. Within twelve years, up to the outbreak of the war in 1939, the publishing house grew enormously. Fr. Maximilian published three monthly reviews of the Knight of the Immaculata already mentioned. The Small Newspaper and the Small Knight of the Immaculata had a total circulation of 1.2 million copies. Additionally, since 1935 Franciscans had printed the Small Diary. This publication achieved Sunday editions up to 250000 copies . However, the Franciscan Fathers looked at the development of Niepokalanow with mixed feelings. One day Father Maximilian gathered his brothers in the woods because he enjoyed chatting with them about nature. He asked them, Dear children what should we do now in Niepokalanow? After many responses one said; Above all we should sanctify ourselves. Hearing this, Father Maximilian beamed forth, “Bravo, loving children! I have been waiting for that. It is true that we should care for the technical development, but that is not the most significant thing. If we have quality, quantity will follow.” True development means every soul increasing in love for our Lady, Commander-in -chief and Queen, breathing her life like air in our lungs and immersing ourselves in her like fish in the sea. True progress is spiritual or there is none at all. In these words Fr. Maximilian summarized the goals of his life. Simultaneously with the Polish Niepokalanów, Franciscans there developed a similar missionary monastery in the Japanese Nagasaki Mugenzai No Son. Fr. Maximilian created this Garden of the Immaculate there in 1930 to win the world with the help of the Immaculate for Christ. It was not an easy task but Fr. Maximilian placed his whole confidence in Immaculate. On the 17th of March 1933 he wrote a letter to the clerics in Lwow: Obedience to the Immaculata is only being an instrument of Her will. If it costs us more this is better because it is a proof of the stronger love. For this purpose a Japanese newspaper was published with the title Seibo No Kishi. Anxiety and pain touched Maximilian’s life, even harassment, when he first entered Nagasaki mission territory without proper ecclesiastical permission. This served only to render him stronger in this adversity. Up today the center in Nagasaki is growing. Presently there are approximately 80 Japanese in 18 houses. The founder remained there up to the year 1936 and then turned back to his homeland.
Simultaneously the inhabitants and the functions in the old Niepokalanow increased. To improve the work they established a radio station, and Fr. Maximilian Maria Kolbe intended to build an airfield to be able to deliver the outputs faster. Everything for the Immaculata. “In this friary our dedication must be whole and entire. Community life must bloom fully; above all, we will practice obedience. We need to remain poor according to the Poverello. There will be a great deal of work, much suffering, and many inconveniences. We will observe our holy Constitutions and all community regulations with austerity because Niepokalanow should and must be a model of religious community living. At this time Fr. Maximilian was already director of the largest publishing house in Poland. Nevertheless, to expand the devotion to the Immaculate, he developed the apostolate of the press and radio. It won a larger reputation among the Catholics, challenging even more the competitive magazines. What characterizes Fr. Maximilian’s success in this accomplishment was his commitment to poverty prescribed by St. Francis. This quality of Franciscan life was “ not a value in itself but as a sign that the Order’s resources were not being squandered on comfort or convenience.” However when we analyze both Rules of St. Francis, we can find that he forbade his friars to take money for their work. Fr. Maximilian considered it legitimate to ask for alms since donations were gifts to be used for their apostolate. Nevertheless, through the Immaculata he remained like an instrument in her hands begging her to direct everything as she pleased.
Many civilians in Niepokalanow, PL. were arrested toward the beginning of the Second World War. The Nazis arrested Franciscans as well. Fr. Maximilian dispersed most of the community in Niepokalanów during German Nazi occupation. Under changed conditions and many efforts of the brothers he undertook protective actions, providing many Jews with a hideaway. Secretly, he set up a school for young people on the territory of the Niepokalanow city. The Guardian kept contact with many brothers, who lived throughout the country, but scattered all over. From his earlier life we know that he wanted to be a soldier and fight for Poland. Still, he was chosen to be a Knight of the Immaculata. In 1941, Maximilian, along with four coworkers, was arrested. The Nazis sent them to the prison, Pawiak, and then to the German concentration camp, Auschwitz. This shook Niepokalanów very much. The monastery continued its mission but without its father. Despite many hardships the greatest loss came on August 14, 1941, when its founder died after two weeks without food or water. At once, Father Maximilian dreamed that his remains would be placed as a foundation under the Japanese Niepokalnow. The Immaculata wanted his remains to be laid in the place of utmost human bestiality, and in the place of the greatest human heroism. He sacrificed his life for the life of a fellow prisoner Francis Gajowniczek. After his liberation Francis Gajowniczek quickly spoke about Fr. Maximilian.
Within a few years after his death, Maximilian gained great popularity throughout the world. Franciscans published his personal works in many languages: Polish, English, Japanese, Italian, French, German, Hungarian, Norwegian, Croatian, Maltese, among others. Each year, new biographies in various languages appear. They publish thousands of articles honoring Franciscan spirituality in the world press. Fr. Maximilian loved the church and the Franciscan’s spirituality. He was open to new ideas and the needs of a human person. In one of his letters he addressed the Franciscan seminarians with a spirit of maternal love and endearment. “I felt myself as near to him as a child near to the heart of his mother.” It is the way St. Clare was offering her sisters, calling them dearest children. In the history of Niepokalanow, the first 14 years were closely connected to the life of its founder in the same maternal spirit. He maintained contact with the Polish center, visited it and was much interested in its factories.
The monastery in Niepokalnow which started with 20 brothers achieved the number of 772 inhabitants in 1939 including the seminarians. They increased number of volumes. Before the Second World War three rotary machines, seven intertypes and linotypes, some flat machines and other various machines were in use. Production still fell short of demand. The publishing house used approximately 1600 tons of papers for almost 60 million newspaper copies annually.
The Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate and St. Maximilian’s accomplishments give us an opportunity to reflect on the existence of the Franciscan Order as a very special grace obtained for St. Francis by the Immaculate. For example, in a letter to the clerics of the Order, St. Maximilian writes: From the very cradle of our Order seven centuries ago, a golden thread of the cause of the Immaculate has, without interruption, been developed. It fought for the knowledge of the truth of the Immaculate of the Blessed Virgin Mary . . . We must introduce the Immaculate into the hearts of man that there she may build the throne of her Son and lead all to knowledge of Him and inflame them to a love of His Most Sacred Heart. It is interesting how St. Maximilian developed this notion of being an instrument of Immaculate.
Toward the beginning of the Second World War, Kolbe with his brothers, published most of the Knights of the Immaculate. After the martyrdom of the founder, the Immaculate strove to hold together a muster of all forces. Approximately 50 brothers had died, the others remained united in prayer and continued to work for the well-being of the Church and Poland. Franciscans organized assistance for prisoners, the needy and refugees. They secretly taught at schools, and operated a department of the Red Cross in the monastery.
After World War II, the Franciscans regained more strengths. They published the Knight of the Immaculate again, in 1945. Its edition quickly achieved 700.000 copies. The Franciscan High School developed, and the Small Seminar was also revived. In the following years (1948-1954) a basilica was built after the total design of the architect Zygmunt Gawlik (outside structure and internal organization). This church was partly developed on the sketch, which they had drafted in 1939. The amateur theater troupes from the Niepokalanej High School plays were singled out, and the brothers played in the chambering time Golgotha, portraying sufferings of Christ.
Although printing presses had been seized in 1949 by communists, the publishing house still operated three years longer. The first half of the 1950′s was particularly difficult for the brothers. Nevertheless, they tried to serve the people in the new church. Bishop Majewski consecrated the basilica in place of the arrested Primate of Poland, Wyszynski, on October 3, 1954. Beforehand, four bells Knights of the Immaculata, Maximilian, Franciszek and Antonius had been dedicated. They were located in the tower of the church.
Specialists among the brothers operated with eagerness on the adornment of the inside the church. Much work had to be done by carpenters, stone-cutters and sculptors. A golden tabernacle, cups, the monstrance and later the altars were manufactured. Most sculptor work Brother Maurycy Kowalewski has made to the Immaculate in the church.
During this time the visitors could enjoy the Jaselki. Brothers of Niepokalanow were staging one of the traditional mystery plays of the Nativity, the famous Jaselki. Their popularity contributed to the fact that Franciscans wanted to expose great historical figures of the Church in the Polish Millennium (1966). Soon the plan reached its goal and was called Panorama in Polish. Religious singing, interesting texts and carefully selected shapes, from the dynasty of Piast to Fr. Maximilian and Pope John Paul II caused an unforgettable effect, and the overview as a whole was strongly felt. The Panorama brought many people, to various religious celebrations. The Panorama was sponsored through the common efforts of the brothers and Friars under the line of the first creator, Brother Feliks Sztyk. Approximately 130 shapes – with acoustic and light effects in the background – moved before the eyes of the spectators. They presented the history of the Madonna of Czestochowa. One estimates that until today approximately for 50000 times this Panorama was presented and visited by some millions of viewers in several languages; Polish, Italian, French, German and English.
Many Pilgrimages have gone to see the stations of the Cross represented by figures. Franciscans stopped these ideas, until a new version was prepared in another space. Niepokalanow became the well-known holy center, not only within Poland, but also for people from abroad. Services and religious meetings took place. There the shape of the martyr from the German concentration camp in Auschwitz ( in Polish Oswiecim) strengthens human hearts and awakens new hope and new faith in the desperate ones. St. Maximilian Kolbe, the martyr from Auschwitz parallels in many ways to the image of St. Francis who treated death as another sister. St. Maximilian could see in the death of St. Francis a helper to eternal life with the loving God. Francis and Maximilian were alike in life and death. Francis, too, maintained his joy and productivity, despite the sufferings that led to his premature death. No wonder Francis wrote the following conclusion to his Canticle of the Creatures, which echoes in the life of Maximilian: Be praised, my Lord, for those who endure . . . Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Death, from whose embrace no one can escape. This way he completed fully the words of St. Francis: Praise be You my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death. (…) Woe to those who die in mortal sin. (…)Blessed are those who death will find in Your holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.
Only a few Friars could come to the canonization of Bl. Maximilian Kolbe in Rome, but all could take part indirectly in this event through the media to which they dedicated to the Immaculata. Many important personalities came from Poland and other foreign countries to Niepokalanów (the city of Immaculate). Many Cardinals and archbishops, dignitaries and pilgrims have come to the place of St. Maximilian, to pray in this new church and in the simple cell of the blessed one. It is there that one is reminded of the life of St. Francis with its total simplicity.
After a 29 year break the Knight of the Immaculate was again published in October 1991. Through this renewal publication, Niepokalanow recovered its connection with many friends. Francis Gajowniczek did not loose his hope that some day Fr. Maximilian will be canonized. Such long process achieved its peak and Fr. Maximilian was beatified on October17, 1971. On October 10, 1982 he became a saint. During the Polish Pilgrimage on October 18, 1982 in Rome the Polish Primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, said in the audience hall of Pope Paul II that Fr. Kolbe was a bloom of the Polish Catholicism that led through God’s maid Mary to Christ, who assumed the shape of the servant. He pointed out that a complete catholic life must draw its forces from Mary, who is present in the Misterium Christi and its Church.
The founder of Niepokalanow appeared in a full gloss photo when Pope John Paul II said: Greater love has no man, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). From today on the Church desires to address as Saint, a man who was granted the grace of carrying out the words of the Redeemer in absolutely literal manner. At the end of July 1941, when the camp commander ordered the prisoners destined to die of starvation to fall in line, this man – Maximilian Maria Kolbe – spontaneously came forward and declared himself ready to go to death in the place of one of them. This readiness was accepted and, after more than two weeks of torment caused by starvation, Father Maximilian’s life was ended with a lethal injection on August 14, 1941.
That moment of witness on the vigil of the Assumption, August 14, 1941, when St. Maximilian Mary gave his soul to God as he gave his life for his neighbor, is more than sufficient confirmation in our day of the abiding and unchanging validity of the principal of the Franciscan way of life and of the reason there of Mary Immaculate. St. Maximilian was named a patron of catholic families and the social mass media and particularly a patron of this hard century as Pope John Paul II declared in one of his homilies related to the canonization of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe.
On June 18, 1983, the most worthy Pilgrim John Paul II visited Niepokalanow. At the free altar he spoke in his lecture about the victory of the good one about the bad. Fruits of the pope’s teaching such closely related to St. Maximilian praxis ignited a movement called Solidarity. This peaceful, social and religious movement in several years brought Poland independence from communism. This could not possibly have happened without the martyr preaching on how to overcome evil by good actions and love. St. Maximilian’s message of love was close to Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, the chaplain of Solidarity movement in Poland. He often quoted St. Maximilian’s thoughts and was inspiring Solidarity workers that only love can create while hatred is destructive force.
The Niepokalanow sanctuary is dedicated to the Immaculata. The sanctity of this sanctuary is not so much in the traditional framework, because it possesses neither miracle nor famous paintings as in the other famous Sanctuary. Here we find the idea and the spirit of its founder. Examples of the great admiration for the Immaculate, Mother of God, are the highest models. They bring admiration to St. Maximilian here, for whom, love was stronger than death. Once Maximilian wrote, Love along creates; hatred is destructive. In fact, love cannot be killed. Perfect love remains constant and always excited over the beloved, also in relationship with God. Such was Maximilian’s love for Jesus and Mary and through them for his fellow men. In him people of our times have given chance to discover wonderful “synthesis” of the suffering and the hopes of our age.
Similarly, as my country has changed, also the exterior of Niepokalanow has changed in the past few years. Franciscans have developed new buildings from concrete and bricks according to the today’s regulations. Only a few old barracks are visible today. The chapel in which St. Maximilian celebrated services is present for all. In its original state still remains the old administration building, in which the cell of the holy one is, the “square ” at the pond and the radio station. Franciscans have converted the other buildings into publishing houses.
Niepokalanow aroused much interest among representatives of the church, pilgrims and journalist. There are some people, who are very critical of the monastery and its achievements. They cannot believe it was operated entirely on divine providence and the Immaculate paid the bills for printing millions of newspapers, magazines, books, etc. to evangelize the faithful. However, many tourists and pilgrims react with admiration at what they see in the monastery and what they experience within.
In summarizing St. Maximilian’s life we need to turn to St. Francis and his beloved church St. Mary of the Angels where the Franciscan friary is characterized by heroic simplicity, poverty and family spirit. His power and influence were in what the friars were already bound to obey. His accomplishments he believed were only the practical applications of Bonaventure and Scotus. He is a patron of this difficult century. His heroic life directed by Immaculata, brought new hopes for all people especially, to Polish people. St. Maximilian perfected himself and his brothers according to Franciscan spirit. We can say he lived up to his potential. In the simplicity of his life similar to St. Francis, he could accomplish great things in the Polish and Japanese Niepokalanow (cities of Immaculata). St. Maximilian responded generously to his call by perfect obedience and perfect love through sacrificial union with the Immaculata. This inspiration led him to repair the Church in the time of the horrible terror of war that dehumanized people. He was the sign of the times. In many ways he relates to the spirituality of St. Clare and her maternal love. The message of love helped spreading out through several continents, his modern technology and mass media helped to proclaim values of life and love on another level. Conquering evil and hatred by his Franciscan love, St. Maximilian dedicated it throughout the Immaculata to God. Everything for Immaculata, her press and radio and city, nothing for himself. Such high goals were just simple way of sanctification in his life and of his Franciscan brothers. His martyrdom in a concentration camp to spare the life of another man and his family, beautifully proclaim the respect for life in a literal manner. His message of love brought victory of good over the bad, and helped greatly to remember how to make this world a better place to live. The figure of St. Maximilian remains for us a testimony. Love has shown itself more powerfully than death, more powerful than any dehumanizing systems. Love for all humanity achieved its victory. There is a beautiful synthesis of the sufferings and hopes of our age. On the path of his Franciscan and priestly vocation, he simply followed Christ by spontaneously offering himself up to death out of love. He gave the gift of his life for a brother. Greater love for hath no man than to lay down his life for a friend. This is the Franciscan life, the way of the Gospel.
Armstrong, R J. St. Francis of Assisi: Writings for a Gospel Life. New York: Crossroad, 1998.
Armstrong, R J. ed. Clare of Assisi: Early Documents New York: Paulist Press, 1988.
Bara, Roman et all. O. Maksymilian Kolbe: Srodowisko Zycia i Dzialalnosc. Warszawa: Akademia Teologii Katolickiej, 1971.
Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. Virgo Facta a Ecclesia. St. Francis of Assisi and His Gift of Mary to the Church. New Bedford: Park Press Quality, Inc. 1997
Kluz, Ladislaus. Kolbe and the Kommandant: Two Worlds in Collision. DeSmet Foundation, 1983.
Romb, Anselm, W. The Kolbe Reader: The Writings of St. Maximilian M. Kolbe OFM Conv. Libertyville, Illinois, Franciscan Marytown Press, 1987.