St Maximilian Kolbe’s life is typified by heroic generosity. If anything is commonly known about this Polish priest’s life, it is his heroic death. On August 14th, 1941, he was given an injection of carbolic acid after two weeks of starvation and dehydration in an Auschwitz bunker. Of course, this wasn’t unusual for victims of the Nazi regime, but what was extraordinary about Fr Kolbe’s death is that he had volunteered his own life in exchange for another’s. Ten men had been chosen at random to suffer death by starvation as scapegoats for a single prisoner’s escape from the camp. One of these men broke down at being chosen, crying out that he had a wife and children. In a place that could easily be described as Hell on earth, Fr Kolbe made the supreme act of charity: he stepped forward and requested that he take that man’s place. The Nazis, to the surprise of many, did not shoot him point-blank but acceded to his request. In the bunker, Fr Kolbe prayed and sang hymns to keep up the spirits of his fellow condemned. After two weeks, the Nazis decided he and another man had been hanging around long enough and they executed them by fatal injection.
This final act of heroism didn’t come out of nowhere. All his life, he had been practising the laying down of his life. We read that as a child the Virgin Mary appeared to him and offered him a choice between two crowns: a white crown symbolizing celibacy and a red crown symbolizing martyrdom. He chose both. As a young man, he entered the priesthood and formed a new movement in honour of our Lady, the Company of the Militia of the Immaculata. These priests were set on evangelizing, especially through newsprint, both in Poland and Japan. They lived lives of Franciscan simplicity and sacrifice.
I first learned about Fr Kolbe as a young teenager. His heroism in evangelizing in a foreign country hostile to Christianity, in making daily sacrifices, and of course in offering his life for another impressed me deeply. His love for Our Lady also impressed me. He wanted to be her Knight in Shining Armour, just as St Ignatius of Loyola had committed himself to be a Soldier for Christ. Fr Kolbe’s life and death teaches us that the spiritual life is not a sit-back-and-enjoy roller coaster ride—“Fight to the death for truth and the Lord your God will fight for you” (Sirach 4:28).
“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the catacombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?” – St. Maximilian Kolbe