Tomorrow (8/14) is the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan priest who is best known for volunteering to die in place of another prisoner at Auschwitz in August, 1941. He was canonized a saint in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, who declared him a “martyr of charity” for offering his life out of love for his neighbor. Perhaps less well-known was his missionary work in Japan in the 1930s. In 1931 he established a Franciscan monastery in the outskirts of the port city of Nagasaki, which became the center of his apostolate in promoting devotion to the Blessed Mother among Catholics in Japan. Eventually, because of poor health, Kolbe had to return to Poland in 1933
It was four years after Fr. Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom at Auschwitz that the United States military dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, killing 35,000 residents almost instantly. The monastery that Kolbe built survived the blast, however, because it was built on the side of a mountain facing away from the explosion. Interestingly, Kolbe had the monastery built there against the advice of locals who, based on their Shinto beliefs, suggested that the other side of the mountain was a more fitting location, being more in harmony with nature.
Working in Nagasaki at the time of the bombing was a radiologist named Dr. Takashi Nagai. When the bomb hit the city, he was in his office at Nagasaki Medical University, a hospital located only half a mile from the epicenter. The hospital, built of reinforced concrete, was not completely destroyed, though 80 percent of its occupants were killed. Dr. Nagai survived the blast, but was severely injured when the impact threw him across the room and covered him with broken glass. Despite his own injuries, he tried to attend to the wounded, which exposed him to high levels of radiation that made his condition even more grave. Soon after, while being treated for radiation poisoning in the hospital, doctors told him he had a short time to live. But Dr. Nagai heard a voice in his mind that he attributed to his guardian angel that told him to pray, asking the intercession of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, whom Nagai knew well during the priest’s time in Nagasaki. Dr. Nagai did what the voice told him, and he was miraculously cured. Sadly, Nagai’s wife had been incinerated by the atomic explosion in her home, where Nagai found her remains clutching her rosary beads. Their children survived with their grandmother at her home in the countryside. Nagai would go on to write several books about the experience of the bombing of Nagasaki before his death in 1951, the overall theme of his writings always being the peace of Jesus Christ that one receives through the acceptance of God’s will, including the cross of suffering.
St. Maximilian Kolbe spent his life promoting devotion to the Blessed Mother. His feast day leads us into the great Solemnity of the Assumption on 8/15. May this great missionary of the Mother of God lead us to turn to Our Lady and ask her to pray for peace and healing in our world, and may his example inspire us to be more charitable to one another each day.