Pope John Paul II canonized Conventual Franciscan Father Maximilian Kolbe in Rome on October 10, 1982. Millions of Catholics around the world and people of other faiths are aware of this saint’s selfless sacrifice.
In late July 1941, at the Auschwitz concentration camp, Maximilian, in a great act of love, offered his life for the life of a Polish Jew, Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek, who was married, with a family. He died on August 14.
It wouldn’t be the first time Maximilian showed bravery and love in the face of danger.
By the Grace of God
Raymond Kolbe was born in Zdun´ska Wola, Poland. He went to the Conventual Franciscan seminary in Lviv, taking the name Maximilian. While studying at the Gregorian University in Rome, Maximilian established the Knights of Mary Immaculate, a group dedicated to recognizing Mary as the queen and mother of human society and God’s instrument for the conversion of the world.
Maximilian was ordained in 1918. What many do not realize is that before his early death, Maximilian built a Franciscan friary in 1931 on the outskirts of Nagasaki, Japan. On August 9, 1945, this building escaped the atomic blast that severely damaged much of the city.
The friary survived because Maximilian had built it on the other side of Mount Kikosan, and it was thus shielded from the blast. The grace of God transcends all human tragedies.
On August 22, 2010, I had the opportunity to visit the place where Saint Maximilian Kolbe died heroically at the Auschwitz camp in Poland. And on December 8, 2010, I also visited the Franciscan friary in Nagasaki.
The importance of this building is measureless, and it continues to exist today as a center of Franciscan ministry and spirituality in Nagasaki. The same is true of a large Franciscan friary near Krakow, Poland.
Love for Our Lady
Maximilian was influenced by his parents to have a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. When he was 12 years old, Maximilian made a twofold promise to Mary to be both prayerful and willing to become a martyr. In August 2010, I visited the first monastery he built on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland, in 1927.
Maximilian named this monastery Niepokalanow, which means “City of the Immaculate,” in honor of Mary. During my visit, a Polish Franciscan told me about a vision young Maximilian had of the Virgin Mary that changed his life. Maximilian wrote the following description of this pivotal experience:
“I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns: one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity and the red that I should become a martyr. I said I would accept them both.”
The Polish Franciscans in Warsaw also explained that Maximilian, as a seminarian and as a priest, founded several publications and spiritual movements to promote the intercession of Mary. These publications and movements still remain active today in Poland, Japan, and around the world.
Maximilian’s death coincided with key Marian dates. He was martyred on August 14, the vigil of the feast of the Assumption of Mary. And he was cremated on August 15, the actual feast of her Assumption.
A Missionary Spirit
True to his authentic Franciscan spirit, Maximilian did not want to serve the people of God only in Europe. He wanted as well to be an instrument of peace and to bring Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary to other nations. In 1930, with missionary zeal and with four other Conventual Franciscans, he set out for the Far East. They visited such places as Saigon, Vietnam; and Shanghai, China.
Franciscan sources both in Poland and in Japan do not indicate exactly why Maximilian and his fellow friars settled on Nagasaki on April 24, 1930. Yes, they wanted to be missionaries, but why Japan, a country that was overwhelmingly Buddhist and Shintoist?
The Japanese Franciscans whom I met in Tokyo and Nagasaki in early December 2010, though, explained that Nagasaki has been the cradle of Christianity because of European Catholic missionary efforts in the early 16th century. Franciscans and Jesuits introduced many Japanese people to the Christian faith. And this led to mass conversions and the building of many new churches.
In the late 1590s, however, a severe backlash occurred against the European missionaries and the newly baptized Catholics by members of the Japanese aristocracy and military. This led to numerous persecutions and killings of religious and laity.
The crucifixion of the Japanese Jesuit Saint Paul Miki, along with two other Jesuits, is very well known. This is likewise true of several crucified Franciscans, especially the Spanish-born priest Saint Peter Baptist and four other Franciscans. Among the Franciscans, moreover, were 17 Japanese lay members of the Secular Franciscan Order.
They were condemned to death in December 1596, while they were held as prisoners at Miyako, Japan. Then they were led on a painful, four-week death march to Nagasaki. In the end they were crucified and run through with spears on February 5, 1597. they were canonized in 1862.
Maximilian Comes to Nagasaki
In 1930, when Maximilian and his fellow friars arrived in Nagasaki, they were given permission by the local archbishop to stay and minister. Maximilian taught philosophy in the local seminary and, in return, was allowed to publish a review in Japanese devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Within a month—and without knowing the language— Maximilian was also printing in Japanese the Polish Marian publication Knights of the Immaculate.
In the meantime, Maximilian and his fellow friars became friendly with local Shinto priests and often visited Buddhist temples nearby. They took part in interfaith dialogue, showing mutual respect and admiration for one another’s faith.
By the same token, Buddhist and Shinto priests became acquainted with Saint Francis of Assisi’s teachings on the harmony and beauty of creation. Maximilian and his followers recognized the goodness of similar imagery in both Buddhism and Shintoism.
According to the Japanese friars, Maximilian believed he would spend the rest of his life in Japan. The zealous friar began ambitious plans for another monastery in Nagasaki.
Martyrdom Finds Maximilian
Maximilian’s vision for his mountainside friary in Nagasaki was a combination of a retreat house, a printing press for Marian publications, and a seminary for prospective members of the Franciscan Order. Maximilian named it “Garden of the Immaculate” (in Japanese, Mugensai no Sono).
Poor health, however, forced Maximilian to return to Poland and his beloved friary there. Although his desire for martyrdom was not realized in Japan, Maximilian, as we already know so well, experienced the pain and glory of being martyred for Christ on August 14, 1941, in Auschwitz, near Krakow.
It’s interesting to note that nearly four years to the day of his death, on August 9, 1945, the United States armed forces dropped the second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, which killed 72,000 people, including an estimated 9,000 Catholics. Among these were priests, nuns, seminarians, and other religious.
The bomb exploded almost directly above Nagasaki’s Urakami Catholic Cathedral. Because Maximilian’s friary near Nagasaki was spared by the atomic blast, it continues today as a truly successful center of Franciscan ministry and spirituality.
When Pope John Paul II visited Nagasaki in 1981, he drew a similar conclusion: although the body of Maximilian Kolbe may have died in Auschwitz, his spirit still lives and shines in the friary overlooking Nagasaki.
Throughout his life, Saint Maximilian demonstrated beautifully that love is stronger than hatred and violence—and in the end will overcome these evils.
Marian Kolodziej: Holocaust Survivor, Artist, Catholic
Maximilian Kolbe might have been the most notable Catholic to suffer the Holocaust, but he was one among millions.
The Labyrinth is a documentary that tells the remarkable story of Marian Kolodziej, a Polish resistance fighter who spent over five years in Auschwitz during World War II. After suffering a stroke in 1993, Kolodziej began drawing to aid in his rehabilitation. Silent about Auschwitz for 50 years, he sought to show the world those experiences through his drawings. The result is some of the most visually arresting depictions of life in the camp.
Produced by documentary filmmaker Ron Schmidt, SJ, The Labyrinth is a scant 37 minutes, but every one of them is powerful. Kolodziej’s drawings, featured throughout the awardwinning film, are unforgettable: the skeletal figures with hollowed-out eyes reflect the nightmare of the death camp. The camera methodically pans over the drawings as voice-over narration tells Kolodziej’s story. The drawings have a tale of their own: one of horror and hope—two extremes that the artist knew well.
“It’s true that for almost 50 years I did not speak about Auschwitz,” Kolodziej, who died in 2009, once said. “But nevertheless throughout that whole time Auschwitz was present in everything I did.”
Brian Jordan, OFM, is the chaplain for labor unions in Washington, DC. This Silver Spring, Maryland, resident is also a labor priest and an immigrant advocate. This article first appeared in the November 2012 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.