Sometimes it seems as if saints belong to the distant past, so it is good to be reminded that there are saints in every age, including our own. Sometimes it seems as if the stories of saints are legends, perhaps made up, but surely, we think, at least embellished by those who wish the stories to be true. So it is good to have stories for which there are eyewitnesses, those who can attest to the truth of what the saint did and said.
Maximilian did not know the weeping man, but he still stepped forward and offered himself in his place.
We have such a saint and such a story today in St. Maximilian Kolbe. Maximilian was a Polish Franciscan born in 1894. When the German army invaded Poland in 1939, Maximilian and his fellow Franciscans began working to help refugees escape the German terror. In addition, Maximilian wrote and distributed a paper devoted to Mary, The Knight of the Immaculata, which published articles critical of the occupation forces. Both these activities were capital crimes under the occupation, and soon Maximilian was arrested and taken to the concentration camp called Auschwitz, where he was assigned to a labor battalion.
Any attempts at escape from Auschwitz were punished by death. The one who tried to escape was killed, as were others chosen at random. Their captors meant to terrify anyone else who might try to escape.
One day, at roll call, a prisoner was found to be missing. (It was thought he had escaped. Later, his dead body was found inside the camp.) Certain they had an escaped prisoner on the loose, the soldiers pulled ten men out of the prisoners’ ranks to be killed as punishment for the one. The men knew they would be killed. One cried out, “What will become of my wife and children?”
Maximilian did not know the weeping man, but he still stepped forward and offered himself in his place. Maximilian was taken with the other nine to a starvation barracks, where they would be given neither food nor water until they died.
Those who were there say Maximilian sang hymns to the Virgin Mary as he was led away to his long death. Those who saw and heard what happened next in those days report hearing prayers and hymns coming from the barracks. It was disturbing to the jailers, who had become numb to the sounds of wails and moans.
One by one the men began to die, until Maximilian alone was left. The jailers could not bear the sound of his prayers and so they gave him a lethal injection. He died one day before the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.
He was canonized on October 10, 1982 by Pope John Paul II, another Polish priest who had lived through the dark days of the Second World War and the German occupation of their country. Pope John Paul II called him “The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century.”
A new film about his life is out now. Watch the trailer here: