Throughout the history of the Franciscan movement, there have been Franciscans from every walk of life that have become, for us, role models and “heros” in the Franciscan family. We remember these men and women as a way to inspire us and remind us what being an authentic Christian and Franciscan is all about. Within our approximately 800 years of the Franciscan movement, we have seen Franciscans who are profound examples of holiness, virtue, humility, sacrifice, and service. Our Franciscan family has seen wizened church leaders, innovative scientists and academics, inspiring mystics, courageous advocates for justice and truth, bold missionaries, humble and virtuous contemplatives, and dedicated servants to those on the margins of society. These Franciscan men and women call out to us from history and they supply us with models after which we Franciscans today can follow as we live out our Franciscan vows and our Christian discipleship.
Today we have the unique honor to remember one of those “rockstars” in Franciscan history: Maximilian Kolbe. Maximilian’s life is a testament to heroic self-sacrifice and a steadfast resolution to stand up against evil and injustice in this world. Maximilian Kolbe was a Roman Catholic Conventual Franciscan friar and priest. Born in Poland in 1894, he joined the Franciscans in 1907. During his times in seminary, Maximilian studied philosophy, theology, physics, and mathematics, and he eventually earned doctorates in both philosophy and theology. Before being ordained, Maximilian began the Militia Immaculata which quickly became a popular movement within the Roman Catholic Church, and still is to this day. Along with his work with the Militia Immaculata, Maximilian also oversaw the publication of popular catechetical newsletters and even radio broadcasts. Maximilian, after being ordained, also traveled to Nagasaki, Japan where he established a monastery (amazingly, this monastery would survive the atomic blast that occurred there after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9th 1945).
Maximilian returned to Poland before the outbreak of Nazi Germany’s invasion of his homeland. Maximilian had already published newsletters and broadcasted radio shows that prophetically called out the danger and injustice of the Nazi movement, but, when the Nazis invaded Poland, Maximilian would, out of his courageous care for those who are oppressed, make a bold decision to shelter thousands of Jews in his friary. He was soon arrested by the Nazi Gestapo for being a “political dissident” because of unreservedly speaking out against the Nazi Party. He was soon taken to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670. In July of 1941, three prisoners managed to escape the camp. The SS at Auschwitz then decided that 10 men would be chosen to be starved to death in a bunker as a way to deter other prisoners from attempting to escape or subvert the authority of their Nazi captors. When one of Maximilian’s fellow prisoners was chosen as one of the ten to be killed the man cried out “My wife! My children!” It was in that moment that Maximilian stepped forward and asked that he take the man’s place among the ten. His request was granted by the SS, and Maximilian was led to the bunker where he and nine other prisoners were systematically starved to death. It is said that during those horrific days, Maximilian remained angelically calm and would provide comfort to the other nine and even lead them in songs of praise to God. Even after two weeks of starvation and dehydration, Maximilian remained alive, and he was eventually put to death by lethal injection at the hands of the SS. In 1982, the Roman Catholic Church named Maximilian a saint and martyr. The man whose place Maximilian took at Auschwitz was named Franciszek Gajowinczek, and he survived the concentration camp and was even present at the ceremony in which the Pope declared Maximilian a saint.
Maximilian Kolbe’s life is heroic and courageous to say the least. I often wonder if I would have done the same things he did if I were in his place. When I reflect on the life of my Franciscan ancestor, Maximilian, I call to mind John 15:13 — “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That is exactly what Maximilian did; he showed us the epitome of love. Hopefully most of us will not be asked to make such a great sacrifice for the sake of love like Maximilian made, but his example certainly makes us ask ourselves what love looks like. Love seemingly has absolute nothing to do with me, but it has everything to do with others and my willingness to put “me” aside so I can be attentive to the needs of others. Truly, as Jesus taught, love is measured in our willingness to lay down our lives, our wills, our preferences, our wants, so that we can give to others.
Maximilian’s life reminds me of one other thing as well: Maximilian once said, “No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict.” Maximilian was courageously committed to standing for justice and Truth, even in the face of death and the power of Nazi Germany. The Franciscan tradition has been especially marked by Franciscan men and women who have spoken Truth to Power for the sake of those who are oppressed and marginalized. What Maximilian reminds me of though, is that this courageous prophetic zeal is rooted in an individual’s personal commitment to first heal, nourish, and form his or her own life as a Christian. I simply pray I may root my own life so firmly in prayer, the Scriptures, and the Spirit that I may have the courage to speak of love, justice, and truth in the face of oppression, violence, and power as my ancestor, Maximilian Kolbe did.
Today’s remembrance of Maximilian Kolbe is also timely for us members of the Huntsville, Texas Community of the Order of Lesser Sisters and Brothers. Our community has discerned to take Maximilian Kolbe as the patron Franciscan ancestor of our Huntsville Community. In this way, we will particularly look to Maximilian’s life as a reminder of how we Franciscans of the Huntsville Community are called to selflessly live out the Gospel and our vows as Franciscans.
Therefore, let us pray: O God, we thank you that you have not left us alone in times of trial and tribulation. We lift our hearts to you as we seek to be healed and nourished. May we be ever guided by You, O Holy Spirit, that we may never shy away from being a voice of love even in the face of danger. Make us sensitive to Your gentle nudge, and help us to cultivate lives that are always ready to respond to your call to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly and selflessly. Amen.