Maximilian Kolbe was a man who demonstrated great courage and charity throughout his life. Born in Poland in 1894, he went on to be a Franciscan priest. He established several monasteries and was also a very successful publisher of religious pamphlets promoting devotion to the Blessed Mother. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kolbe used his publishing house to speak out against the Nazi ideology, which led to his arrest and eventual imprisonment in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. There, Kolbe showed compassion and care for his fellow prisoners even under brutal conditions. In July 1941, a prisoner escaped from the camp. In response, it was announced that ten prisoners would be selected at random to be sent to die in the starvation bunker. The last man chosen, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began crying and pleading for his life. At that moment, Kolbe stepped out of formation and approached the camp commander. Stunned by this audacious act, the commandant asked him who he was. Kolbe said: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” Incredibly, the commandant allowed it, and Kolbe processed into the cell where he would die with the 9 other inmates.
Kolbe’s offer of himself in place of the other inmate was an act that reveals the supernatural Gift of Fortitude. The natural virtue of courage that he had cultivated over the course of his life was perfected by the movement of the Holy Spirit in his heart, which allowed him in that moment to simply step forward, even though he knew it meant a terrible death. By nature, all of us have a powerful aversion to the possibility of suffering and death. Even Our Lord experienced that revulsion during the Agony in the Garden, when He contemplated his impending Passion: “In his anguish… his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44). Kolbe most certainly experienced that natural fear of suffering, yet during the two weeks he spent in the starvation bunker, Kolbe continued to demonstrate remarkable fortitude and pastoral charity as he ministered to the other dying prisoners, leading them in prayer and the singing of hymns as he prepared them for death. A witness to what happened there said that Kolbe had turned that place of horror into a kind of chapel, thus revealing to the world through his example that the love of God was not absent amidst the horrors of Auschwitz.
If we look around, fear seems to pervade contemporary society. We see it manifested in the widespread fear of commitment. We are terrified of making mistakes and of being ridiculed. We are constantly worried about losing everything. To live as a faithful Catholic, however, requires courage. It takes courage to reveal to others that we are believers, that we love Christ Jesus, that we love the Church. It takes courage to live in accord with the teachings of the Church, which are often thought strange and even ridiculous. It takes courage to offer correction to loved ones, friends, and co-workers when we see that they are heading down a bad path. It takes courage to tell the truth despite the consequences. To be courageous doesn’t mean being without fear. It means acting despite our fear – out of love. Kolbe was able to do what he did because he loved God and his neighbor more than he feared death. When we consider his sacrifice we marvel at it, as we do at the sacrifices of all the martyrs.
Their sacrifices were made possible by the supernatural Gift of Fortitude. It is a gift that we also have received, and which we must foster in our own lives. We do this by humbly acknowledging our weakness and dependence on God’s grace. We also do this by developing a habit of prayer and sacrifice, as well as a devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharist. The Holy Spirit who moved the heart of Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz is the same Holy Spirit that we receive at Baptism and then again at Confirmation. It is the Holy Spirit who comes to our aid in the midst of trials and gives us the fortitude to remain steadfast in faith, hope, and charity despite our fears.
Come, O Spirit of Fortitude, and give fortitude to our souls. Make our hearts strong in all trials and in all distress, pouring forth abundantly into them the gifts of strength, that we may be able to resist the attacks of the devil. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.
Please don’t forget to reserve a place at this weekend’s Masses if you are able and want to attend. You can make a reservation through the homepage of this website.