Young readers, discover Saint Maximilien Kolbe | National Catholic Register

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Years later, when Father Kolbe was canonized by fellow Pope Saint John Paul II, there was 84-year-old Gajowniczek, who ultimately survived Auschwitz — living proof that Father Kolbe performed at least one miracle.

This was the last heroic act of the Polish priest Saint Maximilian Kolbe. It happened when he was a 47-year-old prisoner in Auschwitz. He and his Franciscan community near Warsaw had been taken away during the Nazi invasion in 1939. Polish priests were marked men; the idea was that in an intensely Catholic country like Poland, ridding the country of its pastors would undermine the Polish people’s will to resist. Among their crimes was harboring 2,000 Polish Christians and Jews.

In August 1941, Father Kolbe saw men selected to starve to death. It was the punishment of a prisoner who had dared to escape. Nazi guards pointed to the former Polish army sergeant. Franciszek Gajowniczek and ordered him to go to the place of his death. As the man was taken away, he lamented the fate of his poor wife and children.

Father Kolbe asked to take the man’s place; the guards simply complied: one less importunate priest. After 10 days, he was injected with poison. His body, like so many millions in this terrible place, was pushed into an oven.

Years later, when Father Kolbe was canonized by fellow Pope Saint John Paul II, there was 84-year-old Gajowniczek, who ultimately survived Auschwitz — living proof that Father Kolbe performed at least one miracle.

In Saint Maximilian Kolbe: A Hero of the Holocaust, author Fiorella De Maria aims the story of the magnificent life and death of the martyrdom of Father Kolbe. It is aimed at young readers, aged 9 to 14. Ideally, it will also be read by parents, to create discussion about what it means to be a Christian.

In De Maria’s account, Father Kolbe was beyond extraordinary. As he got older, he never lost his sense of youthful wonder. He was naive in the best sense of the word. He never saw his dreams as flights but as inspiration from the woman he loved: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

His devotion to Mary was strengthened when, at age 12, he prayed alone in church. As he knelt down, he had a vision. It was Mary looking at him lovingly. She gave him the choice of what his future might hold for him, in the form of two crowns: a white one for purity and a red one for martyrdom. He was told to choose one – he chose both.

Long before his death, Father Kolbe wrote:

“We will frequently ask the Immaculata to enlighten us on what we must undertake and how we must act. Moreover, we will turn to her to ask her for the energy necessary to accomplish for her the most difficult and heroic actions.

He eventually created a worldwide movement called the Militia of the Immaculate, sometimes known as the Knights of the Immaculate. He produced a publication to spread the love of Mary and the Gospels. It was an early form of mass media decades before the internet. It still exists today in digital form. Before World War II, circulation reached a staggering 300,000 copies.

He was deeply loved by his Franciscan brothers, but he annoyed his superiors with his seemingly insane plans – such as when he decided what he needed was prime real estate near Warsaw to mass-produce his publication. His lack of money did not discourage him. He wanted to call the new community “Niepokalanow,” or City of Mary.

He meets the owner, a member of the local nobility, who is at first incredulous at the idea of ​​donating the land. But Father Kolbe believed that Mary could bring about the conversion of hearts. The owner, a devout Catholic, soon realized that giving away the land was more important than gaining more earthly wealth.

Father Kolbe then set his eyes on Japan. With no money and no knowledge of Japanese language or culture, he told his superiors that he wanted to bring Christianity to that distant country. He went with another Franciscan. They had no one to welcome them and no place to stay. The local bishop called the undertaking “madness”. Not only did the community thrive, but it transformed into a haven for injured Japanese and an orphanage after the devastation left in Nagasaki by the atomic bombing in 1945.

A few years earlier, Father Kolbe had been recalled to Poland because of his declining health. Years of tuberculosis left him with only one functioning lung. He was at his beloved Niepokalanow when the German invasion finally arrived in 1939. The world began to explode around him as the invaders mercilessly dropped bombs.

“Maximilian looked up and froze at the sight that greeted him,” writes De Maria. “The sky shone a fierce purplish red: the red of war, of suffering…the color of martyrdom. Memories of a red crown came back to haunt Maximilian as he stood still, staring up at the blazing sky above. In the midst of all that color of anger, he saw a white cross stretch out before his eyes. Red crown, white crown.

His two paths were coming to fruition.

Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.

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