We’re all called to holiness, to strive for a full Christian life, to imitate Christ. How many times have I heard this? Saints have certainly nailed this holiness thing, so in effect we all should aspire to sainthood. Granted, this statement might be unpalatable and absurd for many, but that’s the way of the world.
For a former skirt chasing, excessive drinking, profanity spouting, selfish living, marginally good guy, it seems like more than a stretch for the likes of me. It would be tantamount to my dog sculpting a masterpiece equivalent to or even surpassing Michelangelo’s Pieta.
And for a man who’s worried about the election, despises abortion, cherishes religious freedom, laments secularism and self-flagellates (figuratively) over his roller-coaster faith, I need saints to guide me.
I enjoy reading about the extraordinary contributions of saints who have inspired legions in the two thousand years of Christendom since Jesus walked the earth. In particular, the martyrs blow me away. Why? Unbelievable faith.
It’s easier for me to identify with modern martyrs in that I might have shared common experiences. However, in regard to Saint Maximilian Kolbe, our shared modernity is as far as the comparisons go. Father Kolbe, a man who displayed unbelievable courage and holiness, is recognized for his unwavering fidelity to Christ. This iconic saint’s story is remarkable. If I imagine that fate could somehow inject me into the circumstances of Father Kolbe’s life, my actions would never mirror his; they’d fall well short. The reason? Saints know how to love. I don’t. I still use training wheels.
Prior to World War II, Father Kolbe had already achieved great stature as a Polish holy man and shepherd to others. Unfortunately, his work and influence would threaten the Nazi leadership. During World War II, Father Kolbe provided shelter to refugees but was eventually arrested by the Gestapo. He ended up in Auschwitz.
During his internment, a prisoner supposedly escaped from his barracks so the deputy camp commander decided to starve ten other prisoners as a reprisal. To death. When one of the ten selected cried out about his family, Fr. Kolbe volunteered to take his place, to go to the airless underground cell and live out his remaining days without food and water. Fr. Kolbe did not know the man for whom he would soon die.
An actual eyewitness account is heart numbing. “In the cell of the poor wretches there were daily loud prayers, the rosary and singing, in which prisoners from neighboring cells also joined. When no SS men were in the block, I went to the bunker to talk to the men and comfort them. Fervent prayers and songs to the Holy Mother resounded in all the corridors of the bunker. I had the impression I was in a church. Fr. Kolbe was leading and the prisoners responded in unison. They were often so deep in prayer that they didn’t even hear that inspecting SS men had descended to the bunker; the voices fell silent only at the loud yelling of their visitors.
“When the cells were opened the poor wretches cried loudly and begged for a piece of bread and for water, which they didn’t receive, however. If any of the stronger ones approached the door he was immediately kicked in the stomach by the SS men, so that falling backwards on the cement floor he was instantly killed; or he was shot to death. Fr. Kolbe bore up bravely; he did not beg and did not complain but raised the spirits of the others. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered.
“At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Fr. Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the center as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men. Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile, one after another they died, until only Fr. Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long; the cell was needed for new victims.
“So one day they brought in the head of the sickquarters, a German, a common criminal named Bock, who gave Fr. Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Fr. Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men with the executioner had left I returned to the cell, where I found Fr. Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head dropping sideways. His face was calm and radiant.”
The fact that Fr. Kolbe exhibited such extraordinary faith in such a hellish environment brings me to my knees in awe. I’m speechless.
To have known such a man. I would want to know the source of his strength. Was it simply and magnificently Jesus? Was there a particular prayer or meditation? What were the circumstances in his life that cemented his faith? I’d be insatiable in my hunger for answers.
Last thought. I’ve always imagined martyrs such as Saint Kolbe to be graced by a singularity of wisdom––the infinite God revealed to them in a moment––and they meet their fate protected (somehow) by God’s tender mercy. Or perhaps that’s the poet in me.
To read about the strength of Saint Kolbe, please read Fr. Longenecker’s post here.