He was born Raymond Kolbe on January 8, 1894 in Zdunska Wola which is near Lodz in Poland during the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII. At an early age he was developing into somewhat of a mischievous youth and one night his mother scolded him severely, remarking that he was heading for danger and a sinful life if he persisted. Though in reality he had yet to reach the age of reason and therefore was not culpable, his mother's words struck a chord and he never forgot it, praying to God and the Blessed Mother to help him. That very same night Our Lady first appeared to him in a dream, holding a white and a red crown. One indicated he should do all in his power to preserve his purity and the other was that he would be a martyr. Young Raymond accepted both, willingly giving his fiat to God.
At the age of 13, he and his older brother both entered the Franciscan seminary in Lwow, Poland, where he exhibited tremendous acumen in the sciences. But it was here also that he first showed the tendencies for military strategy, excelling in history. It affected him greatly because he could see the causes and effects of war and it troubled him; so much so that for a time he abandoned his ideal of the priesthood, envisioning instead a life as a military soldier. He was a true patriot, devoted to his beloved Poland. His parents' decision to enter religious life themselves changed his life.
They let it be known that since all their children were studying to be religious, they themselves were going to do the same, receiving a special dispensation from their bishop. Realizing how much hurt he would put on his folks if he revealed to them that he no longer wanted to be a priest, he delayed leaving the seminary. Thus he entered the novitiate in the Fall of 1910 still having doubts. But he persisted. He received the Franciscan habit and took the name Maximilian. Two years later he was sent to Rome to study philosophy at the Gregorian College and three years later continued at the College Serafico in Rome until 1919. It was here in Rome that a vocation would blossom. Up until arriving in the eternal city he had many doubts but once he began his studies he realized why God had put such a strong desire for militaristic yearnings in him, not to fight temporally but to combat evil through a spiritual army. After all, he reasoned, those members of the Church on earth were the Church Militant. He decided he would do his part to enhance the readiness of the Faithful for the fight against evil. He also realized Mary was the general who would guide him.
In the early part of this century modernism and freemasonry had taken a foothold on the world. Pope Saint Pius X, like his predecessor Leo XIII, was waging war on both modernism and the masonic movement and Maximilian realized this would be his battlefield. Thus, on October 15, 1917, along with six fellow Franciscan deacons, he founded the Militia Immaculata, also known as the Crusade of Mary Immaculate to win back souls by "converting sinners, heretics, and schismatics, particularly freemasons, and bring all men to love Mary Immaculate." Youth would be served. In his enthusiasm he envisioned an entire world coming back to Jesus through the intercession of His Blessed Mother. Because of his impetuous age, he miscalculated how long this would take for it would be a long, harrowing process that would ultimately lead to his own martyrdom as Our Lady had prophesied.
He was ordained a Conventual Franciscan on April 28, 1918 - the feast today of another great crusader for Our Lady Saint Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort. Almost immediately he threw himself into his work, but he had to proceed accordingly since his health was frail. It is interesting how God does not always choose the healthy, robust ones for His special missions, but those who have assorted maladies from partial paralysis such as Mother Angelica yesterday to Saint Maximilian Kolbe who had been diagnosed with an advanced state of tuberculosis. Aware of this, with death seemingly just around the corner, he spent the rest of his life making every moment count and defending Mary Immaculate to all who attacked or denigrated her role.
At the age of 28, with his illness incurable according to medical experts, he decided that whatever time he had left he would devote entirely to Our Lady. Headquartered in Krakow, he began publishing a monthly review called Knight of the Immaculata with 5,000 printed and distributed. Over the next several months it grew considerably and in 1922 he was assigned to a Franciscan Friary in Grodno where he was able, with his superior's permission, to get the Order to purchase a small printing business. When he realized the Friary couldn't handle the workload of the printing press which was going night and day to keep up with demand, he looked toward Warsaw where the Prince of that city Jan Drucko-Lubecki, a strong Catholic ruler, gave him and the Franciscans land west of the city in Teresin. Accepting this generous offer, Father Maximilian put up a statue of Mary Immaculate on the grounds to mark the territory and watch over construction of the new community to be called Niepokalanow, which in Polish meant "city of Mary Immaculate."
Niepokalanow was consecrated on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in 1927. Slowly but surely more buildings were erected on the site and to accommodate the growing boon of priestly vocations in Poland, a seminary was added in order to spread devotion to Mary Immaculate and prepare young men for the battle with the world in defense of the Church and the Mother of the Church. By 1939 Niepokalanow had become the largest Friary in the world, housing over 750 persons including 12 priests, 18 novices, 527 brothers, 122 young men in the minor seminary and 82 in the major seminary. Also among the inhabitants were doctors, dentists, printers and people from nearly every respectable walk in life in order for the City of Mary Immaculate to become autonomous. More modern printing equipment was added, allowing the operators to print over 15,000 copies of the Militia's monthly magazine an hour. It was necessary for circulation had grown to nearly three quarters of a million monthly.
In order to reach many others who may not be able to read or did not have access to the publication, Father Maximilian installed a radio station sixty-one years ago today on the grounds of Niepokalanow using as the identifying theme song the Lourdes hymn performed by an orchestra composed of brothers from the City of Mary Immaculate. There is a great parallel between Niepokalanow, Boys Town in Omaha, and Mother Angelica's Monastery of the Holy Angels and EWTN headquarters in Irondale, Alabama. While Father Kolbe was the "Apostle of mass communications" in the early part of this century, Mother has become the "Disciple of mass communications" in the last part of this century.
As the publication spread, the fervor of the people's faith increased. Priests throughout Poland attested to the tremendous upsurge of faith. Abortion was raising its ugly head as early as the thirties and it was Father Maximilian's expose of this abominable sin that raised the consciousness of all of Poland. His publication also prepared an entire nation, as Pope John Paul II would later attest to, to persevere through the coming terrible trials of the Nazi invasion, incarceration and after the war the communist occupation.
Despite his frail health, Father Kolbe would not slow down. In fact, he set his sights on foreign missions much to his superiors' dissuasion. They felt Niepokalanow was just able to keep above water financially and to fund foreign missions would deplete the funds. But Saint Maximilian cited the example of Saint Francis of Assisi and the fact that if it is meant to be, Our Lady would find a way to produce the necessary money. Through Divine Providence the money was there for him to travel to the Far East in the Spring of 1930 along with four fellow Franciscan brothers. They first stopped in Vietnam, then Shanghai, China before arriving at Nagasaki, Japan on April 24, 1930. After meeting with Archbishop Hayasaka there, Father Maximilian cut a deal with the bishop. In exchange for permission to print the Militia newsletter in Japan and the printing facilities to do so, he would teach Philosophy at the Diocesan Seminary. Realizing what a gem he had, the archbishop agreed. Less than a month after arriving, he was publishing the Knight of Mary Immaculate newsletter in Japan. A year later ground was broken on the Japaniese Niepokalanow to be called Mugenzai no Sono which meant "Garden of the Immaculate" which was built on the side of Mt. Kikosan. While many ridiculed him for building on such a steep site, it truly proved providential for when American bombers dropped the devastating atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, essentially ending the war, the Garden of the Immaculate was well out of harm's way and suffered only little minor damage such as a few broken panes of stained glass windows.
By 1936 circulation of the Japanese Knight or Seibo no Kishi had reached 65,000. The publication was targeted not just to Catholics but to all Japanese including Buddhists and Shintos. Father Maximilian was greatly loved by all the Japanese for he never tried to force European culture on the people of the rising sun. He showed respect for Japanese customs, even Buddhist and Shinto practices. He was able to establish a seminary and novitiate by 1936 as well. All of this was even more remarkable considering his declining health. Despite this malady, he sailed for Malabar in 1932 to establish a third Niepokalanow. When he was ordered by his superiors to return to Japan, he had to close it because there were no priests to replace him. Sadly he obeyed. He also ventured into Russia, including Siberia all the way to Moscow where he hoped to not only establish a fourth Niepokalanow, but publish the Russian Knight. However the political climate was not right and in 1936 his superiors recalled him to Poland. Reluctantly he left Japan, a land he had come to love and where he truly believed he would be martyred. Not fully understanding he returned to Teresin.
Wisely his superiors knew what they were doing for from 1936 to 1939, as Adolf Hitler rose to power and his Third Reich became too powerful, Father Kolbe counseled his fellow priests, brothers and all others to prepare for suffering and offer all to God by praying to Immaculate Mary for strength to persevere. During this time he also formed a refuge for over 3,000 Polish refugees, two-thirds of which were Jews. He appealed to his brothers, "We must do everything in our power to help these unfortunate people who have been driven from their homes and deprived of even the most basic necessities. Our mission is among them in the days that lie ahead." St. Francis would have been proud of the Franciscan community which went out of their way to house, feed and shelter the refugees. As the number increased, many refugees interned in various trades showing their thanks in helping wherever and however they could.
Up until 1940 Father Kolbe had been careful with his words so as not to incite the Nazis for fear of being silenced. But as 1941 dawned, he realized he could not be silent any longer. He wrote in the February issue of the Knight of the Immaculata magazine, "No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs 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 ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?" It aroused the ire of the Nazis. Less than a few weeks after publishing that issue, he was arrested and incarcerated in Pawiak prison in Warsaw, one of the most intolerable camps in Poland. Because of the influence he wielded, the Nazis treated him worse. He was beaten, mocked and stripped of his garments - not unlike another Who died for others - Our Lord Jesus Christ. On May 28, 1941 he was loaded on the crowded railcars with 300 other prisoners of war and began the slow, grueling screeching trek on the rails to Auschwitz in the stench-filled box cars. Arriving in Auschwitz, his identity was changed from Father Maximilian Mary Kolbe, OFM Conv. to 16670. He was handed the striped pajama-like threads of a convict's uniform and forced to lug huge blocks of stone for a crematorium wall under construction. He, and other priests in the compound, were all singled out for extra, backbreaking work. Even when fellow inmates tried to come to his assistance, he resisted their help, affirming, "Mary gives me strength. All will be well." Even so, he was subjected to undue stress and torture, kicked and beaten in the Nazi's attempt to break his spirit and resolve. Though Saint Maximilian bent, he never broke. When he wasn't being tortured or doing heavy lifting, he assembled many of his fellow prisoners, teaching them all he knew and instilling in them tremendous hope in God's Mercy and Love. He kept emphasizing to all that the internment camp was a purgatorial hell, but that like the early Christians, all could overcome the inevitable despair by focusing on a higher prize - Heaven.
On the final day of July in 1941, three of the prisoners escaped over the wall. The sirens rang out and the Nazis were quick to retaliate by declaring that ten would be put to death immediately to discourage such attempts at fleeing in the future. Father Maximilian had heard NCO Franciszek Gajowniczek moan in despair when he was marked as one of the ten, "Oh, my poor wife, my poor children. I will never see them again." Realizing better than anyone else Our Lord's words in John 15: 13, "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends", Saint Maximilian offered himself for immolation in place of Gajowniczek, a Jewish husband and father. Having a compassionate heart, Father Kolbe stepped forward from his position in line in the Blocks and the German commandant Fritsch deridingly barked, "What does this Polish pig want?" The emaciated priest said calmly, "I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children." Surprised by such an act of chivalry but needing ten to atone for the escapees, the German commando pushed Father Kolbe into the ranks of the ten and they were marched off to Block 13, which to all was known as the "Death Block" where, if they didn't starve to death in the airless cells beneath the earth, they would be either gassed or innoculated. During the next two weeks, Father Kolbe encouraged and consoled his fellow nine by praying loudly, singing hymns and reciting the Rosary while the stench and sounds of death reverberated through the corridor. Witnesses say that while others broke easily, Saint Maximilian was strong in character and perseverance, though he had wilted to a shell of his former self bodily. He was quoted as saying, "For Jesus Christ I am prepared to suffer more." When he survived the starvation routine, impatient German officers, in need of the cell space and fearing he was hindering their efforts to break the spirit of the prisoners, they marched him to the infirmary where the head of sickquarters, a German criminal named Bock administered a rough injection of carbolic acid into Father Kolbe's left arm. With a prayer on his lips and forgiveness in his heart, Our Lady's prophesy of his martyrdom had finally become a reality on August 14, 1941. His body was burnt in the same crematorium oven that he had been forced to help build.
He had fought the good fight and won. News of his heroic martyrdom spread like wildfire among the prisoners, giving them a new resolve to hope in God and see the Light when all else looked totally dark. As we know, another saint would pass through this same notorious and nefarious death camp - Saint Edith Stein also known in religious life as Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross. After the war, the media picked up on the heroism of Father Kolbe as the "saint of our times." Many came forward with claims of cures through his intercession and on August 12, 1947 his cause for beatification was begun with his cause being introduced in Rome on Marach 16, 1960. On October 17, 1971 Pope Paul VI beatified Maximilian Mary Kolbe.
Looking down from Heaven, this dedicated Conventual Franciscan had to be overjoyed at who would declare him a saint - a fellow Pole - John Paul II, who declared him a saint on October 10, 1982. He pronounced that Saint Maximilian Kolbe's feast day would be celebrated universally in the Church on August 14, the day of his death and the eve of the glorious Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary to whom Saint Maximilian Kolbe dedicated his life just as our current Holy Father has dedicated his pontificate to Mary through Totus Tuus. He was one of the first in the long, record-breaking number of saints John Paul II would canonize during his papacy. At his canonization the Pope declared Saint Maximilian was a "Martyr of Charity."
There are numerous web sites dedicated to him, but the most popular ones are www.marytown.org, the official site for the St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe Shrine in the United States and www.kolbenet.com which provides information on how one can become a member of Militia Immaculata.
His insights into Marian theology laid the foundation for Vatican II and the eventual fulfillment of the Final Dogma in which Mary will be proclaimed Coredemptrix, Mediatrix and Advocate. Father Kolbe knew way back in the twenties and thirties that all this was necessary before the ultimate Triumph of the Immaculate Heart. He also realized, from studying the messages of Our Lady and Marian theology that suffering must come in order to purify her little ones for the glorious events to come. In order to reach the salvific Resurrection, we too must walk the way of Calvary and the Cross. He was a visionary ahead of his time in spreading the word like none other before him and through his use of printing and the medium of radio, he has become the "Apostle of Mass Media." Like Tertullian's words that "the blood of martyrs has become the seed of Christianity," Saint Maximilian's martyrdom has produced tremendous fruits worldwide and today the Militia Immaculata is stronger than ever as his legacy continues. This frail, incurable disease-ridden priest has shown all that with God nothing is impossible.
Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX asserting that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without Original Sin. For more on this, see LITURGY.
Pope Pius IX publishes his 24th encyclical Quanta cura which condemned errors of that time.
The First Vatican Council, also known as the 20th Ecumenical Council, is convened by Pope Pius IX at St. Peter's in Rome.
Pope John XXIII closes the first session of the Second Vatican Council, the 21st Ecumenical Council. He would not live to reconvene Vatican II which would be left to his successor Pope Paul VI.
Pope Paul VI brings the 21st Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, to a solemn close after a three year run incorporating four sessions in which sixteen documents were promulgated.
Death of Pope Pius IV, 224th successor of Peter, at the age of sixty-six. This Milan-born pontiff and last of the de' Medici family, who served for five years, reopened the landmark Council of Trent and brought it to a successful conclusion. He intervened in European politics in order that Piedmont might be restored to Emmanuel Filiberto, thus making the House of Savoy a part of Italian history. He also pardoned all sinners in a widesweeping gesture as part of the counter-reformation.
Death of Pope Clement IX, 238th successor of Peter, who was Sovereign Pontiff for two years. He acted as intermediary between France, Spain, England and Holland at the Peace of Aquisgrana, known also as the "Clementine Peace" in his honor. He also oversaw the completion of the Bernini Colonade of St. Peter's Square (284 columns) that were decorated with the statues of 140 saints.
Friend of Pope John Paul II, the Polish countryman Lech Walesa, head of the Solidarity campaign, is elected president in Poland, opening up resurgence of the Church there after decades of suppression by the communist regime.