A number of martyrs have been remembered in our liturgy recently. Last week, August 10th, we remembered Lawrence the Deacon, one of the most important martyrs of the early church. The day before, August 9, we remembered Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, who died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz on that day in 1942.
Today we remember Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest, who also died in Auschwitz about a year before her, August 14, 1941.
Peter Brown, an historian of early Christianity, says it wasn’t the bravery of Christian martyrs that impressed the Romans. The Romans were a macho people; war was in their blood. They prided themselves on dying bravely.
What the Romans marveled at was how Christian martyrs approached death. They had other values. They saw themselves as citizens of another world, who followed Jesus Christ in how they lived. They believed in his promise of everlasting life.
Lawrence the deacon, for example, could have escaped Roman persecution, but he wouldn’t abandon the poor in his care. Jesus said take care of the poor.
Centuries later, Maximillian Kolbe was a priest who wouldn’t abandon the vocation God gave him.
Before World War II, Kolbe was active as a Franciscan priest, promoting devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. He ran a large, successful Franciscan printing enterprise in Warsaw.
In 1939, after invading Poland, the Nazi arrested him and a number of other Franciscans and imprisoned them for some months. They ransacked their printing place, probably hoping to intimidate them. Then, they left them go.
Instead of being intimidated, Kolbe began to house refugees from the Nazis, some of them Jews. That got him into trouble, so he was arrested again, on February 14th, 1941, and sent to Auschwitz to do hard labor.
Concentration camps like Auschwitz where Maximillian Kolbe and Sr.Teresa Benedicta died are the nearest thing to Calvary in modern times. More than 1500 of them were spread mostly through German occupied territories in Europe. Twenty million people died in the camps in the Second World War, 6 million were Jews. 1.3 million people went to Auschwitz; 1,1 million died there.
Five months after Kolbe entered Auschwitz, in July 1941, a prisoner from his barracks escaped. In reprisal, the Nazis took 10 men from the barracks to put them to death by starvation. One of them cried out that he had a wife and children who would never see him again. Father Kolbe stepped forward and offered to take the man’s place.
He was the last of the ten men to die of starvation and an injection of carbolic acid two weeks later, on August 14, 1941.
Many stories of Kolbe’s ministry among the prisoners in Auschwitz were told after his death when Auschwitz was liberated. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 1983, who called him “Patron Saint of Our Difficult Age.”
He was a sign of God’s love in a place where God seemed absent.
Maximillian Kolbe’s death on the vigil of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven has been seen as a further sign. God’s hand reached into the dark horror of Calvary to save his Son. God reached out to Mary to bring her, body and soul, to heaven. God reached into Auschwitz and other camps of horror to bring suffering human beings to glory and peace.