Fr Kevin Hegarty
“Truth. What is that?”
Maximilian Kolbe found the answer and vindicated it by his life. It is appropriate that that ‘Catholic Church’ has chosen him as the patron saint of journalists.
He was born near Lodz in Poland in 1894. His father Julius was a weaver and his mother Marianne was a midwife. Committed Catholics, they managed, despite their relative poverty, to educate their five sons to a high standard. Maximilian joined the Franciscans after seminary education in Rome, he was ordained a priest in 1918. He returned to Poland where he first ministered as a lecturer in church history and philosophy in Krakow.
Fascinated by the rapid developments in mass media, he decided, with meagre resources to establish a national magazine, ‘Knight of the Immaculate’ to highlight Catholic theology and spirituality.
The venture was a success. Within a few years the magazine had a circulation of almost a million. His monastery at Niepokalanów became the leading Catholic publishing house in Poland.
One day he met young Japanese students on tour in Poland. Charmed by their courtesy, he was dismayed to discover they had no knowledge of Christianity. He asked his superiors for permission to go to Japan to found a monastery there.
They agreed, and by 1930 he had started a Japanese version of ‘Knight of the Immaculate’. Under his guidance several students prepared for the priesthood.
When he returned to Poland for a ‘Franciscan General Council’ meeting in 1936 he was ordered to remain at home because of the precarious health that dogged his life. He suffered from tuberculosis, which was then often a fatal disease.
He found himself in a country on the verge of war.
His achievements, up to then, had a footnote in Polish church history. His response to the events of the next few years has earned him a prominent place in the annals of the Catholic Church.
By the late 1930s Poles lived in fear of an invasion by Germany. Hitler desired an extension of his country’s borders.
In September 1939, the German army invaded Poland, thus precipitating the second world war. By the end of the month Poland had surrendered. Kolbe’s final editorial in ‘Knight of the Immaculate’, which was then suppressed, proved prophetic:
“No one in the world can change truth. What we can and should do is to seek truth and serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is within. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of the extermination camps, two irreconcilable enemies lie in the depths of every soul. And of what use are victories on the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost personal selves.”
He was soon called to witness to his words. He could have evaded arrest and interment if he acknowledged that through his father he had some German blood. He refused to acquiesce in this subterfuge. In February 1941 the Gestapo arrested him and sent him to the concentration camp in Auschwitz.
William Styron in ‘Sophie’s Choice’ summed up the horror of Auschwitz when he described it as the place of ‘a new society based on the absolute expendability of life’. Prisoners were deprived of their names, forced to wear a number, endured harsh labour and lived on a diet of watery soup and three slices of sawdust bread each day.
In the camp Kolbe stood out by his calm demeanour. He gave hope and consolation to his fellow prisoners. One survivor later recalled that through his words, ‘desperate and doomed men were suddenly set free from fear and hatred and transported into a world where love triumphs eternally’.
The ultimate challenge for Kolbe came in August 1941 when three men escaped from the camp. The authorities retaliated by choosing ten prisoners at random for confinement in an underground chamber where they would be left to die slowly of starvation.
All the prisoners were lined up for his ghoulish lottery. When a Franciszek Gajowniczek was chosen as the ninth victim he cried out in despair, “My wife, my children. I shall never see them again.” Kolbe’s offer to take his place was accepted.
After they were starved of food and water for two weeks, he was the sole survivor. To hasten his death he was injected with a lethal dose of carbolic acid.
In 1982, Pope John Paul II canonised him. Among the attendance was the man whose life he saved 41 years earlier.