By Isabel Orellana Vilches
Maximilian Kolbe trusted the Immaculate. A “Franciscan, martyr of charity, he offered himself as victim in the Auschwitz concentration camp to save a father of a family. He had founded the Militia and the City of the Immaculate.”
John Paul II said that Maximilian “did as Jesus had: he didn’t suffer death but gave his life.” Shortly before the invasion of Poland, the Saint had written: “To suffer, work and die as knights, not with a normal death but, for example, with a bullet in the head, sealing our love for the Immaculate, shedding our blood, as a genuine knight, up to the last drop, to hasten the conquest of the whole world for Her. I know nothing more sublime.” God took him at his word.
Raymond was born in Zdunska Wola, Poland, on January 8, 1894. His parents, Maria Dabrowska, who was unable to fulfil her dream to be a nun, and Julian Kolbe, members of the Franciscan Third Order, transmitted to their son their faith and devotion to the Virgin. Of the five sons of their marriage, two died prematurely; the three that survived grew up permeated by Franciscan spirituality. In 1906 little Raymond had a vision in which Mary appeared to him with a white crown and a red crown, whose symbolism he interpreted as a symbiosis of purity (the white one) and prophecy of his martyrdom (the red one). Maria Dabrowska, who knew a bout the vision, kept this sword of sorrow in her heart, as the Virgin did, knowing that it would be the reason for the eternal glory of her dear son. Raymond placed his life and apostolic endeavour in the hands his heavenly Mother.
He entered the Franciscan Seminary of Lviv at 13, together with Francis, his older brother. There they grew in prayer and love of study, and gave proof of their strong vocation. However, the promise to defend Mary that they had both made, was accompanied in Raymond’s case by the idea of arms. He would fight for Her remembering the day in which Polish King John Casimir consecrated his country to the Virgin before the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. All this came to his mind and heart because peace had been broken on Lviv’s border, occupied by the Russians and under Austrian dominion. Raymond soon realized that the priesthood and arms were irreconcilable, but felt called to join the ranks of those ready to fight to defend the homeland.
He felt for a moment the sting of doubt regarding his vocation; he influenced his brother and they both decided to leave the convent. However, their mother was praying and watching over her sons, with so much faith that she happened to visit them at the opportune moment. She was the bearer of joyful news, telling them that their brother Joseph, the youngest of the brothers, was going to join them, and that their parents had decided to dedicate themselves to serve God exclusively.
Their hesitation having dissipated, in September of 1910 Raymond began his noviciate. At his profession, he took the name Maximilian. He studied Philosophy and Theology in Rome between 1012 and 1919, obtaining a doctorate in both disciplines, although he was also brilliant in Mathematics and Physics. It was at this time that the Virgin inspired him to found the Militia of the Immaculate. Now a priest, he returned to Poland with a physical weakness but with an indomitable apostolic spirit. His poor health freed him from other commitments and he was able to dedicate himself wholly to the promotion of the Militia, which he materialized in his country, together with another group of Religious, in 1919. Driven by his sublime love of Mary and believing that he was a channel to rescue souls, he created the monthly magazine “Knight of the Immaculate, whose circulation reached a million in 1939. With this publication he reached Polish homes and other places of the world, while at the same time giving classes in Krakow.
He founded the first “City of the Immaculate” in 1929, whose headquarters were in the Franciscan convent of Niepokalanow. It was soon blessed with such a number of vocations that it became the most important monastery of the time and one of the most numerous in terms of members in the whole history of the Church. Two years later, and in response to the Pope’s request for missionaries, he left for Japan where he created another City and published the monthly magazine. He opened a noviciate and a seminary, with an apostolate that included press and radio, realizing his dream to “conquer the whole world and all souls for Christ and for the Immaculate using all licit means, all technological discoveries, especially in the realm of communications.”
He returned to Poland in 1936 as Niepokalanow had gone through a crisis in his absence. During the Nazi occupation he harboured thousands od displaced people of Poznan, giving them protection and spiritual assistance. The Gestapo seized him in February of 1939 and interned him in the concentration camps of Amtlitz and Ostrzeszow. Although he was released, he was detained again in 1941, taken to Pawiak and then to Auschwitz, assigning him the number 16670. A prisoner escaped on August 3, 1941 and, as a punishment, 10 others were to be executed. Raymond heard the clamour of one of them, called Francis Gajowniczka, who suffered for his family. Raymond stepped forward and offered himself to the Commandant to die in his place, stating his priestly condition. It was yet another visible sign of his holiness.
He was sentenced to die of hunger in an underground chamber, the fearful bunker no. 13, along with the remaining nine prisoners. He, who had written, “I must be as holy as possible,” continued to offer Holy Mass in those conditions with the help of some guards who brought him what he needed to consecrate, sharing prayers and hymns with his companions and encouraging them in those cruel circumstances. Three weeks later, he was the only survivor; the others had died little by little. His executioners administered a lethal injection to him on August 14, 1941. His mother had direct news of the martyrdom he was prepared to suffer from a letter he had written to her.
Pope Saint Paul VI beatified him on October 17, 1971, and John Paul II canonized him on October 10, 1982.