St. Maximilian Kolbe reminds us there is hope in the worst of circumstances: Bishop Hartmayer

Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv.

Mass Marking the 75th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of St. Maximilian Kolbe
August 14, 2016
Shrine of St. Anthony
Ellicott City, Maryland

I was honored to be asked by Father Michael to celebrate the closing Mass of the 75th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, a Conventual Franciscan Friar, who gave his life so that another may live.

I never heard of Maximilian Kolbe until I came here for the first time in August of 1969.  It was 47 years ago, today, that I was invested in the Franciscan habit in what is now known as the Shrine of St. Anthony.

I was 17 years old and I had no idea what I was getting myself into! The Holy Spirit drew me here and gave me brothers. As novices, we learned about the life of St. Francis of Assisi and history of the Franciscan Order. It was then that I first learned about the courage and the sanctity of Maximilian Kolbe. Each day we would pray for the intercession of the Servant of God; Maximilian Kolbe.

It is good to return here, to this special place, where I spent a full year with 24 other novices. This was a working farm at that time.  We raised pigs and chicken and cattle and we learned what it meant to live in a Franciscan fraternity where we would pray, study, work, eat and recreate together like a family. And that is what we became, brothers to one another.

It was during that year that we learned about many Franciscan saints and we were challenged to become one too.

The man, whose 75th death anniversary we commemorate today, was known by several names. He was called Raymond, which was his baptismal name; he was called Maximilian, the religious name he was given when he became a Conventual Franciscan; he was also known as #16670 as a prisoner in Auschwitz and he was known as a “Catholic priest” which was the way in which he identified himself when he offered to give his life so that another man with a family could live. He said: “I wish to die for that man”.

As most of you know, Maximilian Kolbe became a martyr during World War II in the concentration camp in Auschwitz in Poland in 1941 after being arrested because he was a Catholic priest who continued to print and promote devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

While in that death camp, a prisoner escaped, and, in order to bring an end to any future plans of other prisoners to escape, the guards decided to punish 10 inmates of cell block 14 by condemning them to death by starvation in an underground bunker. One of the ten was Francis Gajowniczek, who began to weep and cried out, “My poor wife and children! I will never see then again!” At that moment, Father Kolbe calmly and purposefully stepped forward.

“I wish to die for that man. I am old; he has a wife and children.” 

Such an unusual offer surprised the commandant, who asked Kolbe to identify himself. His response was simple and direct: “I am a Catholic priest.” Those words said far more about him than any name possibly could. The commandant agreed to grant the request.

Thrown into the dark, crowded underground bunker with the other men, Maximilian Kolbe continued to set an example of faith and hope, leading the starving men in prayers of praise and adoration to God, singing hymns and encouraging them to focus on the certain and irrevocable promises of Christ.

Weeks later, after all the others had died of starvation, it became necessary to kill Maximilian by lethal injection.

As you know, Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr for charity, was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 10, 1982, with the surviving Francis Gajowniczek present.

Two and a half weeks ago I went to Poland to attend World Youth Day held in Krakow. I decided that I wanted to include a trip to the place where Maximilian lived and worked with almost 800 other Conventual Franciscan Friars. When I arrived in Poland, I traveled with a native-speaking Polish priest from the Savannah Diocese, Fr. Mariusz, and we went to the City of the Immaculate in Niepokalanow. It was there, in 1927, that Maximilian and the large community of friars built a radio station and a state-of-the-art printing operation to promote total consecration to the Mother of God which Kolbe believed was essential for personal sanctification.

The friars in Niepokalanow printed a monthly magazine that had a circulation of over one million. By the time the war broke out in 1939, Niepokalanow had expanded and was publishing three monthly magazines. 

During this period, the Japanese Niepokalanow in Nagasaki also grew. It was the aim of Maximilian to conquer the entire world for Christ through the Immaculate.

Maximilian Kolbe and the friars at Niepokalanow ran the largest printing house in Poland and increased the effort to spread devotion to the Immaculate. Work was stopped by World War II. After their arrest and several months' stay in German internment camps, Fr. Maximilian returned to Niepokalanow and renewed the religious community under different conditions by helping those in need, taking care of the disabled and those expelled from their homes; many of whom were Jews. This is where Maximilian was arrested in 1941 with four other friars and then transported to the German concentration camp of Auschwitz.

It was important for me to visit that special place built by Maximilian Kolbe. There is a beautiful shrine there now.  I saw the chapel where Maximilian prayed, I saw his bedroom, his study and the closet where his Franciscan habit is hung. I walked through the property and saw the buildings where the printing took place and where the friars lived. I visit the cemetery where so many of the friars that worked and lived in Niepokalanow were buried and I visited the grave of Francis Gajowniczek, the man whose place Maximilian took in the concentration camp in Auschwitz who asked to live with the friars and requested to be buried with the friars in Niepokalanow.

The friar who showed us around the property invited us to dinner and to spend the night in the pilgrim retreat house. The next morning we celebrated with the friars who are still living and working in the City of the Immaculate that Maximilian built.

Yes, it was good for me to visit this holy legacy that was built by a man of faith who had a vision and who was engaged in evangelization of the gospel and promoted a deep devotion to Mary the mother of God.

As we were preparing to leave Niepokalanow, the friars presented me with a first class relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe which I will always cherish.

While there are many things we can learn from the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, one which stands out above others is the power of hope.  Not hope as a natural human virtue, such as we might find in the personal conviction that we will somehow “get through the day” or complete a difficult task but rather as one of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity that are infused into the human person by God.

St. Maximilian’s hope did not originate from within himself but from outside himself, as a supernatural gift bestowed by God. It was the virtue of hope that allowed St. Maximilian to continue to trustingly walk forward, even when he was faced with death itself, confident in the promises of Christ.

The joy experienced in looking forward to a life of unending happiness with God would replace by the darkness of discouragement and despair.

God provides us with unceasing encouragement through the virtue of hope, even in the midst of the greatest difficulties, providing us with not only a thirst for what he has planned out of his endless goodness, but the certitude that he himself will aid us in journeying ever-more-deeply into his life of love.

St.  Maximilian Kolbe provides us with a portrait of the theological virtue of hope.  In his life, we see not only the external, human manifestation of the virtue of hope, but we also learn not to embrace the negative and dark choices that are so common in the present age.

I believe that St. Maximilian’s life teaches us not to fall prey to the temptation of thinking that life’s tragedies are somehow entirely random coincidences, outside of Providence, which cannot possibly in any way be linked to our destiny of eternal happiness in God.
Even the very worst of circumstances such as the horrors found in the death camp of Auschwitz or the senseless violence and acts of terrorism that are so present in our world today should not be permitted to extinguish our hope for a better world. But we must be strong witnesses to the faith and the virtues of the gospel.

As we commemorate this 75th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, let us be reminded that Christ crucified calls us to see in hope the “now” and beyond it into eternity. In doing so, aided by the Spirit and thus empowered to live in a new, even astonishing, recreated and transformed way, we join our voices confidently and with conviction to St. Maximillian Kolbe’s: “I wish to die for that man.”

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