by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
On the solemnity of All Saints, the Little Sisters and Little Brothers of the Lamb participate in a saints’ lottery.
From a basket filled with small slips of paper with the names of various saints, each Little Sister and Brother draws the name of their special saint for that year. Over the next 12 months, the Sisters and Brothers become more acquainted with their particular saint through reading and prayer.
For the past 10 years, the Community of the Lamb has included me in their lottery. This year, I drew St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, a 20th-century Polish Franciscan priest who died in the infamous Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp.
As a means to deter escapes, if an escapee was not captured within 24 hours, the Nazis executed 10 arbitrarily chosen prisoners. In the summer of 1941, after a successful escape, one of the men chosen for execution pleaded for mercy because his wife would be a widow and his children orphans. Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take the condemned man’s place.
To the astonishment of his fellow prisoners, the Nazi vice commandant accepted Kolbe’s offer. The previously condemned man was spared and Kolbe, with nine others, was taken to the execution bunker where they were literally starved to death.
Maximilian Kolbe, whose health was frail throughout his adult life, prayed and led hymns with his fellow prisoners in the bunker.
Finally, on the eve of the solemnity of the Assumption — Aug. 14 — Maximilian Kolbe, along with a couple others who had not yet died, were executed by lethal injection.
Some of the survivors of Auschwitz, among them the man whose life Kolbe saved, testified during the canonization process — not only to the details of his execution, but also about Kolbe’s heroism throughout his imprisonment at Auschwitz.
I was familiar with Maximilian Kolbe’s heroic death but had not previously studied his prior life. In recent weeks, I have been reading biographies about my saint for the year.
At the age of 12, the future saint experienced a mystical encounter while praying in his home before an image of Mary. He told his mother that Mary had offered him two crowns: a white one for chastity and a red one for martyrdom. Our Blessed Mother asked him which one he wanted. He told Mary that he desired both.
At a young age, he entered a Franciscan seminary. He was a gifted student and was sent to Rome for his philosophical and theological studies.
In 1912, while a seminarian, along with some other young men in formation, he founded the Militia of Mary Immaculate — a society whose members commit to consecrating their lives to Jesus through Mary and striving to draw others to Jesus by promoting Marian devotion under her title of the Immaculate Conception.
Maximilian Kolbe suffered throughout his adult life from tuberculosis. On several occasions, he was ordered by his superiors to cease his apostolic activities and rest for months at a time. Despite these physical limitations, what Mary was able to accomplish through Maximilian Kolbe was truly amazing.
In 1918, Father Kolbe began publishing The Knight of Mary Immaculate, a newsletter that sought to promote holiness by inspiring devotion to Mary. By 1938, the newsletter had more than a million subscribers. In 1927, Father Kolbe founded a monastery, The City of Mary Immaculate.
By 1938, it was the largest friary in the world with more than 700 members. Without knowing Japanese, Father Kolbe established a sister monastery in Nagasaki that withstood the atomic bomb and remains a vibrant community today. In 1938, Father Kolbe established a radio station to complement the monastery’s publications.
Much impressive apostolic activity was spawned by Maximilian Kolbe. Humanly speaking, what was accomplished was impossible. Yet, all of it was the fruit of a very simple spirituality.
Throughout his life and ministry, Maximilian Kolbe had a core principle: If Mary desires it, it will happen. If she does not want a particular apostolate, it is not necessary.
In the late 1930s, Father Kolbe asked his brother friars: “What should we do now in The City of Mary Immaculate?” He received a variety of responses: 1) increase the circulation of The Knight of Mary Immaculate; 2) purchase a new linotype machine; 3) build an airport; 4) double productivity, etc. Finally, one friar suggested shyly: “We should sanctify ourselves.”
Father Kolbe told the friars: “True progress does not depend on enlarging the borders of The City of Mary Immaculate, or on importing the most modern machines and improving service. Even though we build skyscrapers and gathered the most beautiful and useful inventions of human genius, that still would not be true progress. Even if our publications doubled or grew tenfold, spreading over the whole world, that still would not serve as evidence of progress.”
Maximilian Kolbe told his fellow friars: “Our goal is sanctification. I demand that you all become saints, and I mean very great saints.”
The friars protested that he was expecting too much. They asked him: What is the key to sanctification? In response, Maximilian Kolbe wrote a formula on a blackboard: w = W. He said it was the infallible formula.
“Whoever conforms to it in life may be assured of sanctity.” Bewildered, the friars asked: What does the equation mean? Father Kolbe responded: “It is very simple.
“The small w stands for our human will. The capital W means the will of God. . . . If you desire the same thing as God, you will be saint. It is as simple as 2 + 2 = 4.”
One of the friars protested that “it is easy to write but it is difficult to apply it to life.” Father Kolbe responded: “It would no doubt be difficult without the Immaculata. She, however, was the first one to bridge the distance between our will and the will of God. . . . If you trust her unreservedly, she will help you to bend your will to that of God.”
My prayer, as we begin 2021, is to strive to bend my will to conform more completely to God’s will. I have many hopes and dreams for the archdiocese.
However, the most important goal is for each of us to strive for sanctity, conforming our wills to God’s will. Maximilian Kolbe remarkably was able to do this throughout his life, even in the depravity of a Nazi concentration camp. The key to his success was his true devotion to Mary.
As Gabriel told Mary, when she gave her fiat: Nothing is impossible for God.