On July 30, 1941, in the yard of the Auschwitz death camp near Krakow, hundreds of prisoners have been standing at attention for hours. The night before a prisoner made his escape. In retaliation, Commandant Fritz had to designate ten prisoners who would pay with their lives for this getaway, by dying of hunger. These poor prisoners fear not so much death, which they witness daily, but they do fear above all a horrible ordeal of slow painful death, as their insides are devoured by hunger and thirst. One of the unfortunate ten cries out: “I will never see my wife and children again!” Suddenly something unheard of and totally unexpected happens. One of the prisoners left in the ranks dares come out and stand before the commandant. He could be shot on sight for this simple move. Commandant Fritz, completely astounded by this boldness, yells in his face: “What do you want, Polish pig?” “I would like to die in the place of one of these condemned men” answers Father Maximilian Kolbe. “In the place of the one who has a wife and children.” The butcher cannot believe what he hears. He is so astounded that to everyone’s amazement, he condescends to speak with a prisoner: “Who are you?”, he asks Kolbe. “I am a Catholic priest”, the Franciscan answers simply.
A Catholic priest! Minister of the Lord’s Body and Blood, dispenser of His Mercy, herald of his commandment of love! Kolbe has seen the distress of this father and the despair of those who go to this most cruel of deaths. They need the help of a priest for their final struggle. Dumbfounded, bloody Fritz grants the request, without insult or curse, as if overwhelmed a moment by the power of love which blinds his eyes.
The hell lasts fifteen days. Witnesses note that, unlike other such experiences, around the bunker of condemned prisoners they would hear hymns and prayers instead of wailing and despairing cries. The good shepherd, who, for love, had freely gone down into the depths of this hell, was watching over his wretched flock. Kolbe prayed without ceasing. His executioners could not bear his intense and compassionate look. They would say among themselves: “Never have we seen a man such as this!” He died the last at all, August 14, on the vigil of the Assumption, keeping till the very end his consciousness and serenity. A fatal injection ended his life. His guard Borgowiec, accustomed to collecting dirty bodies, was amazed to find that “his body was clean and seemed radiant with light.”7 7 Winoska, Maria, Massimiliano Kolbe, Ed. Paoline, Roma, 1981.
The Letter to the Hebrews says: “Endure your trials as ‘discipline’ and that while “at the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it…” On October 10, 1982 in St. Peter’s Square, in presence of Franciszek Gajowniczek, whom Father Kolbe had replaced, John Paul II proceeded to canonize this Polish Franciscan. I was there – along with a group of pilgrims from South Florida as the Holy Father proclaimed the glory of this witness of the Risen Lord, whose freedom to love went to its very end, to the crown of martyrdom. About a year later, I had the privilege of visiting Niepokalanow, near Warsaw, the first City of the Immaculate, founded by this apostle and martyr Of modern times. There you can easily understand why Poland resisted Nazism and Communism and why Poland gave the church a Pope. Kolbe, known also as the jester of Our Lady, had spread by the most modern means the printed word of God and the love to the Virgin Mary, into the humblest homes of the nation. His preaching, life and martyrdom have given to an entire nation the Light of Hope and the courage of its mission. Wyszynski, Wojtyla, Walesa, Popieluszko and thousands of missionaries throughout the world bear witness to it.
Back in Miami, I and another priest friend of mine – also Polish American – would whenever we heard a new parish was to be established we would petition the then Archbishop Edward McCarthy to name a parish for Maximilian Kolbe. Although he first declined – he said the people would end up calling it St. Max and we countered: so what, you have a parish everybody calls St. Pat’s, he finally accepted. As Bishop of Orlando, I didn’t have to petition anybody. I am convinced that his example and his prayers will help us to value human life and family life. Saint
Maximilian Kolbe shed his blood for these values. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate” Jesus tells us. When I first visited Poland in 1980, I had the occasion to visit Auschwitz and even then in the bunkers where hundreds of thousands died the stench of death still hung in the air. I was with another priest friend who felt a little claustrophobic and he didn’t want to go into the narrow passage ways down into the basement where Kolbe and his companions had died. But I prevailed on him and we went in into bunker house 11 – a narrow gate indeed – and visited the cell block when Kolbe had died. And there –because the communist authorities would permit no formal memorial – propped up against the wall, surrounded by fresh flowers, was a paschal candle left there by Pope John Paul II the previous year.
The paschal candle! A symbol of the victory of life over death, of love over hate, of God’s mercy over man’s cruelty and iniquity. Had we not gone through the narrow gate of the bunker, we would have just been left with the depressing images of the piles of shoes, glasses of death camp victims; we would have only been left with the stark images of the ovens and the stench of death. We would have missed God’s answer to human hate and sin.
And of course the paschal candle symbolizes what we are about as a Catholic community. Each Sunday we gather to celebrate the Mystery of Faith – the Paschal Mystery. Each Sunday we unite our own offerings – our own trials and struggles to those of Jesus. We come even with our defeats and failures – so that they can be taken up and assumed into the victory of the Lamb. We gather to celebrate and assimilate God’s answer to sin, to evil, to our daily trails and defeats. Someone asked Jesus: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” In Scripture, we do find an answer: God does not will the death of a sinner but that he be converted and live. This is the Church’s answer – and remember the Church has canonized thousands of saints – and a canonization is one of the very few times that the Pope makes any infallible statements.
The Church prays for the death helping the holy souls out of purgatory. But the Church has never said – even in the case of Judas Iscariot – that someone is in hell. A few centuries ago there was a heresy in France called Jansenism – which basically held that most people go to hell. They were not a joyful lot and some artists tainted with this heresy fashioned crucifixes with Jesus’ arms nails closely together – as it to say only this many would e saved. The Paschal Mystery – actualized for us sacramentally in every Mass – remains us that Jesus died for all. He opens his arms wide on the cross – and in doing so he embraced Maximilian Kolbe and the men who died with him; he embraces the man he saved Fransiczek Gajowniczek, and this same Jesus Christ embraces each one of us.