The Life of St. Maximillian Kolbe
The Patron Saint of the 20th Century
Also known as the Apostle of Consecration to Mary, St. Maximillian Kolbe has been called the Patron Saint of the 20th Century.
St. Maximillian was born as Rajmund Kolbe in January, 1894 in Zdunka Wola, in Central Poland, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Maximillian was the second of four children, two of whom would die young. When Kolbe was still young, his family moved to Pabianice, where his parents first worked as basket weavers. Later, Kolbe’s mother worked as a midwife, often donating her services. She also ran a shop out of their rented house that sold groceries and other household items. In 1914, Kolbe’s father was hung for treason after he was found to have been a member of Jozef Pilduski’s Polish Legion, which was fighting for an independent Poland.
St. Maximillian’s Vison of Mary
During his childhood, Kolbe experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary, which he spoke of often later in life, and credited this with his decision to become a priest.
“That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.”
St. Maximillian Enters the Priesthood
In 1907, Kolbe and his older brother Francis decided to join the Conventual Franciscans, illegally crossing the border between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires to do so. Kolbe was allowed to enter the novitiate in 1910 and took his first vows a year later. It was at this point that he adopted the name Maximillian. He took his final vows in 1914, in Rome, where he adopted the name Maximillian Maria, out of devotion to the Virgin Mary.
In 1912, Father Kolbe was sent to Krakow and later that year he studied philosophy, theology, math and physics at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He went on to receive a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure in 1919. While he was a student, Father Kolbe witnessed a number of vehement protests against Pope Pius X and Pope Benedict XV. This led him to found the Militia Immaculata, or the Army of Mary, which worked for the conversion of sinners and enemies of the Church through the intervention of the Virgin Mary. Father Kolbe’s Immaculata friars used the most advanced printing and administrative techniques to distribute devotional and catechetical tracts, as well as a newspaper and a magazine.
In 1918, Father Kolbe was ordained a priest and returned to Poland the following year where he was very active in promoting the adoration of the Virgin Mary. He also founded a monastery just outside of Warsaw, along with a seminary and a radio station. In the 1930s, Father Kolbe undertook a number of missions to Japan. He eventually founded a monastery in the mountains overlooking Nagasaki. He chose to build his monastery on the side of the mountain facing away from the city, against local tradition. This decision saved the monastery, following the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in August, 1945.
St. Maximillian in Auschwitz
During World War II, Father Kolbe provided shelter to refugees from Poland fleeing the war, including over 2,000 Jews, who he hid in his monastery. Father Kolbe was also interested in amateur radio and used his broadcasts to spread the truth about Nazi atrocities.
On February 17, 1941, Father Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Pawiak Prison. From there he was transferred to Auschwitz in May, 1941.
In July, 1941, a man from Father Kolbe’s barracks disappeared. He was later found drowned in the camp latrine. The deputy camp commander then selected ten men at random to be starved to death in the camp’s notorious Block 13. When one of the men, began to lament for his family, Father Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
During his time in the cell, Father Kolbe led the other men in prayers and hymns. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, Father Kolbe was one of three people still alive. He was always found sitting or standing in the middle of the cell. He was finally killed with an injection of carbolic acid. His remains were cremated on August 15.
The Canonization of St. Maximillina Kolbe
Father Kolbe was beatified as a confessor by Pope Paul VI in 1971. He was canonized as a saint in 1982 by Pope John Paul II. St. Maximillian was declared by Pope John Paul II to be a martyr rather than a confessor. This caused controversy in the Church, as some scholars and theologians argued that he was not assassinated specifically out of hatred of Christianity.
Following his canonization, St. Maximillian`s feast day was included in the General Roman Rite. St. Maximillian is the patron saint of journalists and amateur radio.
Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, by James Carroll, Published by Mariner Books, 2002
Saints on Earth: A Biographical Companion to Common Worship, By John H. Darch, Stuart K. Burns, Published by Church House Publishing, 2004
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