9 Books I Read While Discerning Catholicism: St. Maximilian Kolbe
As I write this, I am no longer a Protestant. I have officially come into full communion with the Catholic Church. When you come into the Catholic Church, you need to pick what is commonly known as a “confirmation saint”. I ultimately picked St. Joseph as my confirmation saint, but I was very close to picking St. Maximilian Kolbe. At some point, maybe I’ll write the reason for this, but for now we turn to St. Kolbe and the impact he had on my life.
We will not cover everything, but we will discuss four major aspects of his testimony:
His illness and martyrdom.
The Knight of the Immaculata publications
The Garden of Mary in Japan
How his life only makes sense in a Catholic faith, not a protestant one.
“It Really Isn’t That Easy To Die”
These are the words Kolbe wrote to his concerned mother. One thing people don’t often know is that Kolbe was near death most of his life. He had contracted tuberculosis during his years in seminary. It left him with one functioning lung that was constantly hemorrhaging, debilitating headaches and fevers, and a body that was frail and weak. Many times he was sent to the sanatorium to recover from his poor health. So when he writes, “It really isn’t that easy to die” to his mother, it is both saintly and ironic. But that’s how saints are: even their jokes convey a holy chuckle along with a holy truth. It’s as if he is saying, “God decides when you die, and I’m a living example of that fact.”
For those that don’t know, Kolbe eventually would be arrested and taken to Auschwitz. While he was there, the other prisoners conferred to him the title, “The prince of Auschwitz”. It was here the prince would give up his life for another man, a father who was sentenced to a slow and agonizing death in the starvation cell.
The Lost Sheep
There were some prisoners who were selected for farm work outside the walls of Auschwitz. This presented the prisoner with an opportunity to escape and one of them did. As the alarms sounded, guards shouted and barking dogs were unleashed to find the lamb that got away. Ten more would be sacrificed if he didn’t return; the devil always seems to pervert our Lord’s teaching.
Christ seeks the lost sheep by leaving the 99. When the lost sheep is saved, there is much rejoicing. The devil seeks the lost sheep too, but when the devil finds the lamb, it is slaughtered. If the lost sheep finds his Shepherd, the devil returns to those unfortunate lambs he’s captured and devours them. This was the law of Auschwitz.
For every one prisoner that escaped, ten prisoners would be executed. While the guards sent out patrols to find the escapee, the rest of the prisoners would be marched out of their barracks and ordered to stand at attention and weather the elements. Should one of them step out of line, they would be killed. Hours went by, and no prisoner had been retrieved. The devil was angry and his wolves needed to be satisfied, and so they began to select their victims:
[Testimony from] the painter Miescislaw Koscielniak:
The Servant of God died voluntarily in place of a companion in captivity, Francis Gajowiniczek, father of a family. It was at the beginning of the month of August 1941. Because of the escape of a prisoner, the Lagerführer Fritsch ordered, as reprisal, the death of ten men.
Our barrack was surrounded by guards with automatic rifles and dogs. The Lagerführer Fritsch himself chose the victims. I was in the third row, and I could see very well what happened. At one point, Fritsch pointed out the prisoner Francis Gajowniczek, who, terrified by death, begged to be spared.
Then out of the ranks came a prisoner whom I recognized as Father Kolbe. The Servant of God approached Fritsch and in a calm voice declared in German that he wished to die in place of Francis Gajowniczek. Fritsch, irritated by the gesture of the Servant of God, put his hand on his revolver and demanded: “Have you gone mad?” Father Kolbe clearly repeated his request saying that his life was less useful than that of the other man, meaning Gajowniczek, who was the father of a family. After a short silence, Fritsch asked the Servant of God: “What is your profession?” Father Maximilian replied: “I am a Catholic priest.” After another silence, Fritsch gave his consent and sent the Servant of God, with the group of prisoners destined to die, while Francis Gajowniczek returned to his rank.
— André Frossard, Forget Not Love. Ch. 28., “The Death of the Servant of God”.
Despite his weakness of body, loss of lung function, and repeated abuse in Auschwitz, Kolbe would not yield to death. After all, “it is not really that easy to die.”
André Frossard, the author of Forget Not Love, recounts the horrors of the starvation cell. Frossard writes, “Hunger is terrible; thirst is even worse. Dehydration attacks the brain cells first and unleashes silent storms of nightmares and hallucinations.” Yet, Kolbe was a light in that dark place. After a prisoner had breathed his last, guards would remove the corpse. It was at this point that one prisoner would walk by the corridor and see:
“[Father Kolbe] standing or kneeling, praying or singing a canticle, repeated by the chorus around him. The witness, passing in the corridor said that he thought he was in church. . . prisoners in the courtyard of barrack II. . .sometimes saw the shaved heads in the moonlight and heard singing.” — Ibid.
The jailers themselves were astonished, “That is a man”, they said. — Ibid.
One by one, the prisoners died. When the guards entered on the final day, they found Kolbe standing in the corner, still alive. It was a significant day for him. Kolbe had dedicated his life and ministry to the Blessed Mother and the day that he died was the same day that the Church celebrates Mary’s Assumption. He had finished his race, and would receive his reward. Frossard recounts the event:
“A henchman of death armed with a syringe of phenic acid entered the half light of the cellar. He perceived three dying men stretched out on the cement and a dried-out figure folded against the wall. It was Kolbe, who had arrived at the end of his passion. The auxiliary approached him, and the syringe did its work.” — Ibid.
The fact that Kolbe lasted as long as he did was a miracle in itself. What is even more surprising is the way his ministry and death find their significance within the Catholic faith.
Frossard was a survivor of Hitlerian persecution himself, and dives into the details of the tension surrounding Kolbe’s canonization and whether Kolbe would be pronounced a saint and a martyr, or only a saint. Would he receive the red robe or the white one?
There was a significant tension according to Frossard because, according to Kolbe, Mary had visited him as a young boy and offered him two crowns: a red crown of martyrdom and a white crown of purity. Those investigating his case for canonization were divided. Ultimately, he was awarded both, but I will let you read the book to find out how it was resolved.
I bring this up because most protestants don’t know about Kolbe’s devotion to Mary. It was unsettling at times, but in the same way we talk about radical change of atheists when they become saved, Kolbe was a different child after the apparition. It seems that the Blessed Mother had touched his life in a significant way, and the way that he would become like Christ was by honoring the Mother that Christ himself honored.
Fast forward to his ministry years, and we discover this “little” Franciscan priest has started his publication, The Knight of The Immaculata. This publication was meant to bring hope to the readers it served and avoid the political divisions among the people But there was a hang up.
The Church would permit Kolbe to begin his ministry, but they would not finance it. The Christians of Kolbe’s day saw the newspaper as ephemeral as the posts we make on social media. The papers were here today and gone tomorrow, often times used as wrapping or just thrown in the trash. So if it was of God, then Kolbe would be proven successful. So Kolbe dedicated himself, the magazine, and all of his ministerial projects to the Immaculate Virgin Mary. Throughout his life, Kolbe is constantly reminding the brothers that Mary will not fail them, that she will take their prayers to God, and that any suffering they endure will not go unseen.
Now, as a former protestant, I’ll admit that all this was challenging my worldview. Yet, I could not deny that Kolbe’s life was surrounded by too many “coincidences” to disqualify his claims. Kolbe’s story sounded very similar to the pattern in the early church. There are multiple witnesses, his ministry is successful despite unreasonable odds, and his impact rippled throughout the world. Not only that, he was often discouraged by priests and bishops throughout his work. In fact, his canonization was challenged by the Devil’s Advocate because he seemed to some superiors as having too much of an individualistic spirit. If Mary told him to do it, he would stand his ground respectfully but immovable in his position.
In spite of obstacles from the Church, health problems that led to health sabbaticals for 6 months at a time, and hostility and mockery from his brothers in the order, Kolbe was still successful in his efforts. The Knight, his magazine publication, ended up having nearly 1 million subscribers, and these subscribers were ultimately financing the project in Poland before all hell broke loose. If you had Kolbe to your church to give a ministry update, he would probably say something like this:
The aim of this magazine is solely the diffusion among souls of love and devotion to the Immaculata [Mary the Immaculate]. We believe firmly that she is living in paradise and that she loves every soul on this earth, but all souls do not know her love or recollect it as deserved. . . .We wish to speak to all souls living in the world, in all languages, to describe the graces she pours into hearts. . . .Until now, The Knight has been published only in Latin, Polish, Italian, and Japanese, while the inscription blanks for the Marian Militia are printed in thirteen languages. . . The Knight is at the exclusive service of love. . .Politics play no part in the goals of the “Militia”, as the attached statutes show. Consequently The Knight, which is its official publication, does not have anything to do with politics either.
— Ibid., Letter from Maximilian Kolbe to a German Offficer inquiring about Kolbe’s magazine and ministry., Ch. 23., “The Reprieve”.
Kolbe would go on to found the largest monastery in the world, at least at the time of publishing Forget Not Love. He would also found a Garden of Mary in Japan. It would be one of his final missions for the Immaculata before his death in Auschwitz.
The Garden of Mary
In the same way St. Paul wrestled with God about the doctrine that Christ was the Son of God, the Messiah, God with us, reigning in Heaven, and calling St. Paul to Himself, so we must wrestle with God’s truths today. One of these points of conflict is certainly the life of Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe’s life is intertwined with major world events. One has to recognize that Kolbe’s life is not merely the story of a man who died for another man in Auschwitz, but a testimony to the truths of the Church.
We must not confuse heroism for a saintly life. In the same way Christ seemed counter to the Jewish faith, Kolbe has a life that seems counter to the modern Christian faith. Yet, God worked through Kolbe’s life by means of his devotion to the Church teachings on Mary.
In the same way he was challenged in Poland, Kolbe was challenged in Japan. He had minimal financial support, he was requested to help on other projects unrelated to his publications, his health problems almost killed him, and he received pushback from church authorities that were skeptical of his claims that Mary was leading him to do these things. These were all obstacles he had faced before, but now they were in a country foreign to him. This did not deter him; he pressed on.
Eventually, he would win the argument with Church leadership to start a monastery on the outskirts of Nagasaki. Kolbe was advised not to, but he believed this was what Mary required of him. When Nagasaki was targeted by the Allies, their target would be a Catholic Cathedral. Some estimate that a 1/3 of Japanese Catholics were killed in the atomic blast. These were some of the most faithful Christians in the world, as Japan was ruthless in their martyring of Christians throughout its history. Had Kolbe listened to the Bishop, the Garden of Mary would have been decimated. Instead, the blast would reach the mountain range and stop. On the other side was the property that Kolbe had dedicated to the Immaculata, unscathed from the blast. Kolbe submitted himself to the Church and trusted Christ’s Queen Mother would not make him a fool. The monastery ended up being used as a ministry HQ for taking care of orphans from the blast.
If Kolbe’s story is true, then Mary has to be included in that story. To remove her from the testimony would be like removing Jesus from the testimony of Paul. If we did this, they would just be delusional religious leaders that did some crazy stuff because they believed a lie.
Yet, Kolbe didn’t make up the theology he held fast to. His understanding of Mary had come through the Church and saints that had come before him. If you rewrite the history and change his writings to say “God” rather than Mary, it would be a sin across all denominations. 1) Because Mary is not God, and 2) it would be a lie. Kolbe never worshiped Mary. He devoted his life to her and in doing so, believed that he would become more like Christ in the process.
Interestingly enough, his passion had many coincidences that makes the reader think of the Passion of Christ. Both biographies, when describing his life in Auschwitz, describe a priest remarkably fulfilling his role as In persona Cristi.
Any Christian who reads these accounts will be inspired to follow more closely to Christ. Kolbe would say that Mary prepared him for those days so that he would more fully imitate his and Mary’s Lord.
The following are just a few interesting tidbits; Frossard records a few more:
Kolbe predicts his death to his followers; Christ predicts his death to his followers.
12 witnesses were mentioned in his canonization; Christ had 12 disciples
3 privileged witnesses saw him in his final moments; Christ had 3 witnesses in his final moments in the Garden of Gethsemane
Kolbe took the place of a man condemned to die so that he might have life; Christ took our place so that we might have life.
The guards approached him and “lanced” him with a needle; Christ was lanced with a spear. Both were a final blow to confirm their death was complete.
One may be skeptical of Kolbe’s life. Fair enough, there is no shortage of crazy claims in the world. But what is challenging with Kolbe is that his life is intertwined with WWII history. In the same way Christianity is both history and theology woven together, so Kolbe was modern history revealing the theology of the Church that had been preserved for nearly 2000 years. Kolbe cannot be claimed or taught in Protestant churches because they do not share his doctrine, and many would claim it heretical. The only way one can do justice to Kolbe, is if they do justice to Mary.
What makes Christianity unique is that miracles are often meant to affirm a God that, if believed to be true, brings with Him a host of claims and doctrines that you may never radically experience in the same way as others in the faith. For example, Eucharistic miracles are rare, but affirm the doctrine that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine. We unite ourselves with him every Mass. Yet, some parishes and communities are blessed with an extraordinary event where the host actually bleeds or turns into cardiac tissue. In some situations, this has led atheists to convert to Catholicism. But which is harder for God, to turn bread and wine into the body and blood, or to raise a man from the dead?
We must remember that Christianity was built on three things: testimony, miracles, and authority. All denominations have implicit or explicit belief in these three things. If you take away any of those, the religion collapses. If you take away testimony, then it becomes a dictatorship where the miracles are only experienced by the authority, and testimony has no way of challenging authority in a faithful, humble, and courageous way. If you take away miracles, you have no reason to trust the authority when the Gates of Hell attack, and the testimonies become propaganda for yet another religion. If you remove authority, then it becomes rationalistic, and miracles and testimony are only affirmed by the man with the most PhDs and best debate skills; miracles confounded the wise and bolstered the faith of the disciples, who were mere fishermen.
Kolbe is a unique figure, and I hope that I have piqued your interest to read more about him. Kolbe will draw you closer to Christ. He will also make you realize that Mary and the saints are not just up in heaven singing songs and ignoring what’s happening in your life. You have a God who loves you, a heavenly Mother who prays for you, and family of saints that are cheering you on in your pilgrimage on earth. So know this, that when the evil of this world attempts to steal your hope, you have a heavenly family who loves you and is praying for you.
Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!
St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!
Coming up next…
For those that just want the list, here it is. I attempted to put them in the order I purchased and read them, not necessarily by order of significance. If you decide to purchase them, please use my affiliate links here below 👇 . That way I get a kick back 😇.
Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn
40 Reasons Why I’m Catholic by Peter Kreeft
Jesus and The Jewish Roots of Mary by Brant Pitre
The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn
This is My Body by Bishop Barron
Persecuted from Within by Joshua Charles and Alec Torres
Saint Maximilian Kolbe: A Hero of The Holocaust by Fiorella De Maria
The Case for Catholicism by Trent Horn
Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism by Brian Besong and Jonathan Fiqua
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