On Aug. 14, 1941, the eve of the Solemnity of the Assumption, in Block 11 of the Auschwitz concentration camp, a man who had the number 16670 sewn onto his prison uniform was killed by an injection of carbolic acid.
His name was Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Conventual Franciscan friar and would later be canonized.
The Polish religious was one of the most beautiful figures of holiness of the last century and a visionary in several respects. He spread Marian devotion through the press, including the radio; he carried the Gospel message as far as Japan, a land he loved and lived in; and he was a martyr, who offered his life in that Nazi concentration camp, taking the place of a family man, Franciszek Gajowniczek.
During the canonization process, Gajowniczek shared in his testimony that he saw the Polish saint say to Hans Bock, head of the inmates’ infirmary, who was in charge of carrying out the fatal injection in the arm: “Yocu have not understood anything about life. Hate is useless. Only love creates!”
The last words of St. Maximilian Kolbe, extending his arm to the lethal injection, were: “Ave Maria.”
But let’s take a step back and try to understand where that friar had come from. What were his origins? What kind of child was he? How did he come to be a Franciscan religious?
To answer these questions, ACI Stampa interviewed an exceptional witness: Father Raffaele Di Muro, dean of the San Bonaventura-Seraphicum Theological Faculty in Rome and director of the Kolbe chair. Father Di Muro is also the author of countless essays on St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Father Raffaele, let‘s start right from the early years of Maximilian’s life, or rather Raymond’s — his name before making his vows. Where does this rich spirituality come from?
Raymond Kolbe was born in Zduńska Wola, a small village not far from the Polish capital, Warsaw. It was Jan. 8, 1894. Raymond grew up in a family with a very rich religiosity.
His parents, Julius Kolbe and Maria Dąbrowska, worked as weavers. The house where little Raymond lived was very modest — made of wood, according to Polish tradition. It was a two-story house, and it’s still possible to see it today. On the first floor there is the textile workshop with the looms and all the work tools, and the second floor has a single bedroom.
His parents were Franciscan tertiaries, and it is said that both, at a young age, had thought of joining religious life. Then, however, the two respective families of origin decided to have them marry. This desire [for the religious life], after all, we could say will almost be a spiritual inheritance for their three children (three, at least they are the ones who would survive). Francis, the first; the second, Raymond, and then Joseph. All three would become friars. Francis and Raymond would enter religious life together. Then they were followed by Joseph. All this managed to give us an idea of how holy this family was.
In Raymond’s early years, we find a biographical episode that we could define as a “seed” of what would later be his holiness. In fact, when he was 10 years old, Kolbe had a vision of the Immaculate Conception: Can you tell us about this episode in the life of the Polish saint?
The story comes from his mother, Maria Dąbrowska, in her testimony during the canonization process. St. Maximilian Kolbe left nothing written about this. When the incident occurred, Kolbe was about 10 years old. At the time, the family had moved to another small town in Poland called Pabianice. Here, there was a small church dedicated to St. Matthew. The Kolbe house was not far from the little church. In this parish, there is a beautiful altar dedicated to the Immaculate; a beautiful picture is placed above the altar. We need to start with a fact: Of their three children, little Raymond was the most spirited, the most restless. He was so lively that one day his mother, almost exasperated by his behavior, said to him: “What will become of you, little Raymond?”
Faced with this question, the little boy was a little upset. Obviously, he took it as a harsh rebuke and so he went to cry right in that little church near his home.
And it was precisely here that the vision of the Immaculata bearing two crowns took place. The Virgin offered him the choice between the two crowns that she was holding: one red, for martyrdom; the other white, for purity and chastity. Kolbe accepted both. Obviously, he didn’t know what he was doing, what he had chosen. Through this episode, the mother understood what the life of her son would be like. “She kept all these things in her heart,” just like the Virgin with Christ. Only at the time of the canonization process would she tell everything.
Let us make a jump in time and place: 1917, Rome. Maximilian is in the Eternal City at the San Bonaventura College, near the Imperial Forums. It is at this college that a historic event takes place that will determine the life of Maximilian Kolbe: the founding of the Militia of the Immaculata.
Yes, the Militia was born in Rome. In the city of Sts. Peter and Paul, Kolbe arrived in 1912. He was very young — only 18 years old. This is a singular moment for the Church, as there was the unification of Italy; many people still openly demonstrated against the Church. Kolbe went through this period with great suffering. It is at this point that a question arises in him: What can I, a young friar, do for the Church? Thus, on Oct. 16, 1917, the Militia of the Immaculata was born — trying to spread devotion to Mary by any means to oppose those who are against the faith and the Church. A brilliant idea!
There are, in fact, two other places in Rome that were important for the young St. Maximilian.
The first is the Church of Sant‘Andrea della Valle. Here, on April 28, 1918, the Fourth Sunday after Easter, the hands of the cardinal vicar Basilio Pompilj were extended over the head of friar Maximilian: Kolbe became a priest. But another place, deeply linked to the Virgin, is also present in Maximilian’s life: It’s the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.
Here, the day after his ordination, he celebrated his first Mass. In fact, he had written in a letter: “The conversion of Ratisbonne in that church, thanks to the vision of the Virgin Mary, and the influence that the Miraculous Medal had on him have always fascinated me. All members of the Militia of the Immaculata wear the Miraculous Medal. The conversion of Ratisbonne through this medal and the vision of the Virgin Mary are connected with this church. This is the appropriate place for my first Mass.”
On the back of the keepsake [document] of this Mass, it is written: “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me to this point?” (2 Samuel 7:18). “My God and my all.” Remembrance of the first Mass celebrated by Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe, a Franciscan at the altar where Mary the Immaculate deigned to appear in Ratisbonne. Allow me to praise you, Holy Virgin. Give me strength against your enemies. Rome, April 29, 1918.”
And these two places are followed by a third: St. Peter’s Basilica.
This is the place chosen by St. Maximilian for his second Mass. To the question posed by Father Giuseppe Maria Pal, co-founder of the Militia, “Where will you celebrate your second Mass, Father Maximilian?” Kolbe replied without delay:
“In the basilica, on the tomb of the martyr St. Peter and first vicar of the Lord. The intention of my second Mass will be for the grace of the apostolate of martyrdom.” And on Aug. 14, 1941, he made a gift of his life for his brothers through martyrdom.
This story was first published by ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.