Friday, November 2, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Yesterday was the Feast of All Saints, and today is the Feast of All Souls. Remembering the exalted and the humble alike, the two feasts combine nicely in the person of Maximilian Maria Kolbe. The priest who is now a saint in the Catholic Church walked through the underworld as surely as Agnes the miller's daughter. But his suffering has a completely different feeling about it. Perhaps it is the immediacy of modernity; or perhaps it is the way that the martyr took the mantel of darkness willingly and came out shining.

Kolbe was born on January 8,1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland. By all accounts he was a sickly child and contracted tuberculosis at a young age. Long months in sanitariums allowed him time for contemplation and he was just out of boyhood when he joined the Franciscan order at the age of 16. Kolbe, whose middle name may give a hint at his predilection, had a passionate devotion to the Virgin Mary. In his book Maximilian Kolbe: No Greater Love, the saint's biographer and fellow prelate Boniface Hanley called him "animated by pious zeal" so that, despite his infirmities, Kolbe was always able to serve.

To this religious end, Kolbe formed the Knights of Mary Immaculate through which he hoped to revive the Medieval Marian devotion that had always been a feature of Catholicism in his native county. He then began an order of friars known as the City of the Immaculate which quickly grew in size to the larges religious community of men at the time. He took his love of the Virgin on a mission to Japan where he organized a branch of his order called the Garden of the Immaculate.

Kolbe was not one to rest on his laurels, despite growing bouts of tubercular incapacity. He returned to Poland in 1936 with the intent of expanding the City of the Immaculate and the journal that he had started before leaving for Japan. These goals were never to be fulfilled; the Nazis took over Poland in 1939.

History is rarely what we are taught. Unlike the belief of most modern school children, the Nazi's systematic genocide did not fall only upon the Jews. Homosexuals, Gypsies and Catholics - particularly those who had taken vows of any kind - were also on Hitler's list for eradication. Kolbe knew what awaited him under the Nazi boot and quietly prepared himself. He wrote:

I would like to suffer and die in a knightly manner, even to the shedding of the last drop of my blood, to hasten the day of gaining the whole world for the Immaculate Mother of God.

Kolbe was arrested and shipped off to Auschwitz in February of 1941. He was not allowed camp issued garments, but left in his thin cassock to shiver in the winter cold. Put to hard labor, he suffered brutal beatings due to his inability to keep up with the work. His condition worsened; every cough wracked his bruised, skeletal body and brought up clots of blood.

Through it all, Kolbe remained a light of cheerfulness to his fellow prisoners. He helped who he could and encouraged all of them, regardless of background or religion. Those who survived would remember him praying with them, joking and reminding them not to despair.

Yet more misery awaited when a prisoner from Kolbe's cell block managed to escape in July. As a punishment, the commandant picked 10 men who would be immured in a bunker and starved to death. One, Francis Gajowniczek, broke down in tears pleading that he could not die as he had a wife and child. It was then that Father Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to take Gajowniczek's place. The commandant obliged; the ten men were marched into the underground room and sealed up behind a metal door.

The prisoners managed to get along for a time, drinking their own urine as long as they could. Kolbe became the group's defacto leader, praying, offering what succor he could and sitting with them as they faded away. The group was walled up on July 30 and by August 14, only four men - including Father Kolbe - were still clinging bitterly to life. The commandant, who had been monitoring the torture via cameras, became enraged at this refusal to simply die. He also wanted the bunker emptied for the holding of yet more prisoners. He ordered it opened and the four miserable, immobile stick-figures were injected with carbolic acid. This was administered intravenously, causing death by embolism. All ten bodies were incinerated in the camp's ovens.

In 1982, Maximilian Maria Kolbe was canonized by the Catholic Church. The man whose life he had literally saved, Francis Gajowniczek, was present at the ceremony. Pope John Paul II read from the Gospel of John: "Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends."

Rest in peace, Father Kolbe. Like Agnes, you've earned it.

Header: 1939 photograph of Maximilian Kolbe via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Wow. Talk about brutal truth. That was a might harsher than I care to be, Pauline...

Pauline said...

I have a great respect for Father Kolbe. His story and his writings don't carry that "religious nut-ball" vibe that I personally tend to stand away from. He just seems like a good person who did the best he could in the midst of evil. Pretty admirable, I think. I also think many of us hope we would be like him should we face a similar misery.