SAINT MAXIMILIAN KOLBE
by Father Stefano Manelli, O.F.M., Conv., S.T.D.
On October 10, 1982 at St. Peter’s, Blessed Maximilian Mary Kolbe, O.F.M., Conventual, was canonized for his most outstanding heroic virtues. It is just forty-one years ago that Father Maximilian Kolbe was martyred in the Nazi prison camp of Auschwitz, after Father Maximilian freely offered to die in the place of an unjustly condemned fellow prisoner whom he hardly knew. Pope John Paul II has declared him “the patron of our difficult century”. We are happy to publish this article to enable more people to know St. Maximilian whom God has raised up in our times as a model of deep faith, heroic charity and especially of immense love for Our Lady. The key to this Saint’s holiness is his ever-increasing love towards Mary Our Mother. Saint Maximilian set no limits to his love for God’s Mother and in practice he showed his magnificent devotion towards Her by an intense prayer life which bore fruit in a marvelous Marian apostolate during his lifetime, and he continues to guide from Heaven his Marian apostolate which uses the mass media to bring people to a greater knowledge and love of Jesus and Mary.
Father Stefano Manelli, O.F.M., Conv., who has been recently elected Provincial of the Naples Province of the Conventual Franciscans, is particularly qualified to write about Saint Maximilian as Father Stefano today follows the example set by our new saint. Both Father Stefano and Saint Maximilian attracted many religious vocations to their respective houses where each of them was Superior. Both have started Marian apostolates and worked in publishing and other areas of the mass media. Both have founded religious communities to promote devotion to the Mother of God in Asia from far away Europe. Both hold doctorates in Sacred Theology and both are Conventual Franciscan Fathers. Father Stefano, like Saint Maximilian, is a writer of interesting and very readable articles, as our readers know from the article Jesus, Our Eucharistic Love, printed in this issue. This brief biography of Saint Maximilian was published a few years ago in Italian and it is the first time that it is published in English in North America.
Pope Paul VI, speaking on the occasion of the beatification of Father Maximilian Mary Kolbe on October 17, 1971, declared that Blessed Maximilian “made devotion to Christ’s Mother, seen as clothed with the sun (cf. Apoc. 12:1), the focal point of his spirituality, of his apostolate, and of his theology.”
This important statement of the Holy Father finds clear expression in the whole life of Blessed Maximilian. And there is a leaflet that Blessed Maximilian printed in different languages under the title “Mary Immaculate — Our Ideal”, with which we would like to introduce the pages of this little book; for it is a wonderful synthesis of the life and work of this holy man.
Mary Immaculate — Our Ideal
“Our aim, our ideal, is to draw close to Mary Immaculate, to grow like Her, to let Her rule our hearts and our whole being, to let Her live and work in us and by means of us, to let Her love God with our hearts so that we belong to Her entirely, without holding back. This is our ideal and our aim.
“Yes, our ideal and our aim is to radiate Mary Immaculate in our environment, to draw souls to Her, so that the hearts of our acquaintances may become open to Her influence and that She may rule in the hearts of all, everywhere, regardless of race, nationality, or tongue, even in the hearts of all men of every generation until the end of the world.
“Our aim is that Mary Immaculate’s life become always more deeply rooted in us from day to day, from hour to hour, from moment to moment, and that there be no limit in this.
It is our ideal and aim that Her life develop in the souls of all men alike who live now and who will live in every future age.”
As one reads the following pages he will see in the life of this holy man the fulfillment of this ideal. Human speech is quite handicapped in telling of this wonder, of this love so exceptional. May Blessed Maximilian nevertheless see fit to draw our readers close to Mary Immaculate. May he make them know something of that limitless beauty and grandeur of the Immaculate Virgin which made “his head spin”. May he make them love the Immaculate Virgin as he did, with the same great love which led him to such heroic charity.
Chapter One — Childhood and Youth
His Native Country
Blessed Maximilian M. Kolbe was a true son of Poland. He was born in that chilly, snowy land that lies between Russia and Germany. It is the homeland of hard-working and strong men.
Zdunska-Wola was one of those little quiet villages where humble station and hard work keep all families united.
Skilled workers, farmers, laborers, and some professional men shared the chores of village life. Most of the men as well as the women did weaving at home, being so employed by the textile industry that was beginning to flourish in the area around Lodz.
There were many hours of toil. “From stars to stars” was the beautiful expression, which meant from before daybreak to late evening. Wages were low and daily needs pressing for a great portion of the families.
However, all the inhabitants of that town had that precious heritage that constituted a vital, animating wealth for the Poles: the Christian faith. A faith which was as simple and pure as it was strong and ardent. They seemed to carry it in their blood — this faith that had passed through the sufferings of war and persecution during a glorious thousand years of Christianity. The Queen of Heaven and Patroness of Poland has always been the Madonna of Czestochowa, who, from her famous shrine watches tenderly over her children.
Maximilian’s mother and father were Julius Kolbe and Mary Dabroska, both from Zdunska-Wola. They came from good, humble families.
From the time of her girlhood, Mary had hoped to become a religious sister “to enjoy paradise with the virgins,” as she said; but she had to give that thought up when the rough poverty of the family made it impossible.
However, Our Lord provided that she live out her last years in a convent and die in the company of Felician Sisters, who remember her as an example of heroic virtue. They recall, for example, how she used to rise at four in the morning to pray; how she had the practice of taking the discipline; how she used a bench covered with bed linens, for her bed; and as soon as she had any money, she would have a Mass said at once.
Maximilian’s father, an enterprising, hard-working young man, was a very fervent practicing Catholic, faithfully receiving the Sacraments every Sunday, and he was an officer in the Franciscan Third Order, of which his wife also was a member.
This young couple were married on October 5, 1891, and made their home in a modest apartment, consisting of a single large room divided by curtains into a kitchen, a workshop with weaving equipment, a bedroom, and between two chests of drawers there was a small space for a little altar honoring the Madonna, the place where all the family would have their prayers and devotions.
In these humble quarters Blessed Maximilian Mary Kolbe was born on January 8, 1894. He was the second of five brothers, the last two of whom were snatched away by Heaven soon after birth.
He was baptized without delay as a child of God and of Mary. His mother did not want to kiss her baby until he was first freed from original sin. Something all parents should learn is to have their babies baptized as soon as possible in order to deliver them from the stain of original sin and make them children of God and of Mary at once.
With children coming into the world, the poor one-room apartment at Zdunska-Wola proved inadequate and unsuitable for the family. Julius and Mary discussed the matter and decided to move to larger quarters in Pabianice, a village almost adjoining Zdunska-Wola. They also rented a bit of land and grew vegetables for the family table.
After some years of many sacrifices, the family’s economic condition improved Julius managed to start a small business and was able to rent a little farm. Mary did work in town as a midwife, assisted in the business, and managed the home.
Meantime the boys had lessons to study as they attended the local elementary schools; but they also assisted in the housework. Their father felt an obligation to see that they grew up healthy and strong. He therefore accustomed them to rising early and in the winter he would have them go out at once to run in the snow barefooted.
Above all, their parents took care especially to confide them to their own confessor and spiritual director, Father Vladimir Jakowski, so that they might receive accurate religious formation and instruction. It is something Christian parents need to give attention to, namely, to providing not only for children’s physical growth, but also — and more importantly — for their spiritual development.
At baptism, Blessed Maximilian received the name of Raymond. From early childhood he showed an earnest, ardent disposition. He did not lack the restless spirit of the liveliest children. He could assert himself so as to become bold and obstinate. He was full of a pep that gradually changed into sugar and honey, so that one day people would dub him “Jam”, on account of his sweetness and meekness.
Much of the successful formation of little Raymond was due both to the strict upbringing received from his observant parents and due to the poverty of the family, which exacted from all, sacrifices of every kind.
Something very beautiful about this boy was his generous will to give himself over to serving others, to being useful. When his mother was away at work with his father, little Raymond did all the housework — the sweeping, the laundry, the scrubbing, tending the fire, the cooking. Being generous and enterprising, the boy found in the sacrifices of housework chores, an outlet for the store of energy that made his little body seem to vibrate from his growing-up process.
His mother left us this pleasant record: “He was a very lively, fast-moving boy, and a little bit contrary. But his father and I found that, among our three sons, he was the most obedient. I had a real helper in him when my husband went off to work. Raymond used to take care of the kitchen, and to make the house spotlessly clean, and would finish all his chores quickly.”
Mischief and the Paddle
Is there a high-spirited boy who never gets into a little mischief? Or never gets a little out of order? He does not exist.
Little Raymond, who was an exceptional boy and outstanding for his qualities of kindness and generosity, nevertheless also had faults that he had to struggle against. Yes, he used to get a little mischievous. But he realized that he must amend, and he wanted to be corrected. And this realization and desire is a good sign. It is something common to many boys, especially those that prove good and upright. But in little Raymond there was something more, something quite uncommon. This child, brought face to face with a misdeed of his, was not only ready to take his punishment, but went so far as to ask for it!
Hard as it may seem to imagine that any child, after a misdeed, would go to get the paddle, take it to his father, ask him to punish him, then take the punishment, and then thank his father, yet this was just the way little Raymond acted. Here is what his mother tells us about it: “Raymond stood out above his brothers even in the way he took punishment for some bit of mischief. He would always bring the paddle to us of his own accord, bend over the stool, take his punishment, thank his mother or father, and he would then tranquilly carry the paddle back to its place.”
Who would not have something to learn from a child with that spirit?
A Chick for a Pet
Could little Raymond’s mischief ever be mild? Consider this instance.
He often used to go in the company of schoolmates, and saw some of them keeping pets that they enjoyed. One had a puppy, another a kitten, another had a little bird. Raymond, too, would have been happy to have a pet to play with. He gave vent to his feelings when he exclaimed to his friends, “How I wish I could talk to the birds like St. Francis did!”
But how would he manage to get a pet? To buy one, people need money, and he could not have money. But somehow he managed one day to secretly buy an egg. To hatch it he took it to the hen-house of a friend’s family. In this way, with small expense, he could have a pretty chick to pet. He had thought it out, just like a little boy with an affectionate nature.
When his mother learned of it the reckoning came. To spend even a few coins needlessly was hard on the family. “Raymond, don’t you know that it costs hard work to earn every penny?” The little boy suffered; but he realized that his mother had a right to be concerned. He promised not to do such things again. He knew how to be generous in sacrificing even these innocent wishes.
The Two Crowns
During Raymond’s childhood years something very extraordinary happened. We emphasize it here as unique and exceptional, something from which the boy’s whole future would receive a special meaning and value. No one but his mother ever learned anything from Blessed Maximilian about this episode; and we thank God that she played her role of revealing it. She did so after her holy son’s death. In a letter to the friars dated October 12, 1941, she describes the episode as follows: “I knew from the start after something remarkable had happened to Father Maximilian during his childhood, that he would die a martyr. Only I do not remember if it happened after or before his first confession. One time he was acting in a way that displeased me, and I said to him, ‘My little Raymond, who knows what will become of you?’ After that I did not think of it any more, but I observed that the child was acting in such a manner that he seemed like a different person.
“We had a little altar set in a place out of sight where he went often unobtrusively and there he prayed in tears. His general behavior appeared to be something beyond his tender years — continually recollected and serious, and when he prayed he was in tears.
“I became worried that he might be sick, and so I asked him, ‘You ought to tell your mother everything.’
“Trembling with emotion and with tears in his eyes, he said, ‘Mother, when you scolded me, I prayed very much to Our Lady to tell me what would become of me. Later when I was in church, I prayed to Her again. Then the Madonna appeared to me, holding two crowns in Her hands. One was white and the other was red. She looked at me with affection and asked me if I wanted the two crowns. The white one meant that I would remain pure and the red one meant that I would be a martyr. I answered that I would accept them. Then the Madonna looked kindly at me and disappeared.’
“The extraordinary change that happened in the boy made me sure of the truth of this experience. He always had an understanding of it, and, when he thought of dying a martyr, his face would beam with joy.
“And so I was prepared, like the Madonna was after the prophecy of Simeon…”
Human Versus Divine Planning
At times we adults are hard to understand — I mean even if we are good, devout, and are enlightened about things. Raymond’s good parents, knowing about the apparition of the Madonna to their son and sensing that a special destiny was to consecrate him to God (the white crown) and make him a martyr (the red crown), nevertheless did not know how to govern themselves in the way that would favor God’s designs.
When Francis and Raymond finished elementary school, Julius and Mary had to decide about their future, and they decided that only the eldest, Francis, should continue his studies, with the hope of going on to the priesthood, while they wanted Raymond to stay home so that he could assist his mother in the chores and continue in his father’s business activities.
Raymond, therefore, was earmarked to become a merchant. But deep in their hearts neither his mother nor his father believed such a future was in store for this remarkable boy. Once, some remarks they made to Raymond bore this out. “When you are a merchant, I will have become Queen,” his mother said; “And I will be Bishop,” his father quickly added.
But meantime the family could not do otherwise than had been decided, as they did not have enough money to provide for the studies of more than one son; and between the two, Francis, the firstborn, held the preferred position.
But one day Raymond had to go to the drug store to buy some powder called Vencon greca.
“Can you give me some Vencon greca?” he asked the druggist.
The druggist was surprised to hear Vencon greca from the lips of this child, and asked him, “Where did you learn to pronounce Vencon greca?”
“I know it is a Latin noun because I studied Latin with my brother Francis.”
“What school do you go to?”
“I don’t go to school any more. I can’t go. We are poor, and mother and dad decided to send just my older brother Francis to school, who will go on for the priesthood.”
“I am helping my parents with the work at home.”
“What a pity for you not to go on with your studies!” the druggist exclaimed. And after a thoughtful pause he said, “Listen, lad. You come to me every day and I will give you your schooling free of charge. I will prepare you and you will pass the examinations with your brother at the end of the school year.”
Imagine Raymond’s joy at this unexpected opportunity! It opened that pathway of his dreams that seemed to have been closed. At home he happily broke the news. At once he started classes with the providential druggist.
He put all he had into his studies and was promoted with his brother in the State examinations.