Along with St. Therese the Little Flower and St. (Padre) Pio, St. Maximilian Kolbe is one of our modern day saints, one who triumphed during the 20th century. He is considered the "Apostle of Consecration to Mary". As a devout priest, he learned that he was to spiritually fight for God under Mary's leadership. Still barely a child and acting a little mischievous one day, Maximilian's mother remarked to her 12-year-old son (Raymond), "What will become of you!" The sensitive boy took it serious, so serious that he said a prayer and privately asked Our Lady, "What will become of me?" Later, in the church, he prayed very hard again. It was then that he beheld a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mother appeared to him holding two crowns in her hands, one white and one red. She looked at him with love and asked him if he would like to have them. The white meant that he would remain pure and the red that he would become a martyr. The young boy responded, "Yes, I want them both."
Raymond Kolbe, was born Jan. 8, 1894 to Julius and Maria Kolbe in Southern Poland. He was the second of five sons (of which only 3 lived) and the family was poor. His parents were simple weavers, but both were devout Catholics and third order Franciscans. Young Raymond came to view them as parents similar to 'Mary and Joseph' and always had great love and respect for each of them. Later in life, his mother became a nun. His good father died a soldier fighting for the independence of then Russian occupied Poland. Although Raymond temporarily thought of joining the military, too, God had other plans. Raymond studied under Franciscan priests since the age of 13. As early as 1913, the Franciscan novice, "Maximilian" was thought by others to be a saint. He was good-natured, always smiling, loved to stay and pray in church, very bright – an honor student, yet serious minded. He was independent, but also loved to be with friends. Raymond was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1918 at the age of 24 – "Fr. Maximilian Mary Kolbe." He had earned two doctorates – one in philosophy and one in theology.
Early in his priesthood, Fr. Maximilian surrendered himself "as a tool in the hands of Mary as she labors to bring all souls to Christ." He and six friends founded the Militia of the Immaculata (Crusade of Mary Immaculate). They were devoted to the conversion of sinners, opposition to freemasonry (which was extremely anti-Catholic at the time) and spread the wearing of the Miraculous Medal (which they chose to wear as their habit). They were devoted to Our Lady and the path to Christ. During these years of study and early priesthood, Maximilian contracted tuberculosis. On at least two different occasions he suffered for several months under doctor's care. It would affect his health, from time to time, for the rest of his life.
In 1922, Fr. Kolbe established a magazine entitled, "The Knight of the Immaculata" or "The Knight" to fight religious apathy. Five years later the publication was printing 70,000 issues. The friaries from which he worked were not large enough; so, in 1927 the Polish Prince gave him some land near Warsaw. There, Fr. Maximilian founded a new monastery for his work. At its peak "The Knight" had a press run of 750,000 copies a month! His work spread. In 1930, Fr. Maximilian and four brothers left for Japan to begin printing a Japanese version of The Knight. By 1936, it grew to a circulation of 65,000. He also founded a monastery near Nagasaki, which today serves as a center of Franciscan work. But, his poor health forced him to return to Poland in 1936. He continued to enhance the Christian communications network using newspapers, magazines, books and radio (envisioning film and television). By 1939, the monastery housed a religious community of nearly 800 men, the largest in the world in its day! It was completely self-sufficient including medical facilities and a fire brigade staffed by the religious brothers. Fr. Kolbe was their beloved founder and Spiritual leader.
The Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 arresting Fr. Kolbe and several of his brothers. Four months later they were released. On their return to the monastery they continued their priestly work – the brothers took in 3,000 Polish refugees, two-thirds of whom were Jewish. For this, and for printing materials considered "anti-Nazi", the presses were shut down, the congregation suppressed, the brothers dispersed and Maximilian was imprisoned again. It was February 1941. Two months later he was transferred to Auschwitz and branded as prisoner 16,670. There, he and others remained under the supervision of vicious and abusive guards. His calm dedication to the faith brought him the worst jobs and more beatings than anyone. In the camp, he would minister to other prisoners whenever and however he could. He held secret confessions and conducted Mass, delivering communion using smuggled bread and wine.
In July, there was an escape from the camp. Camp protocol required that ten men be killed in retribution for each escaped prisoner. Francis Gajownizek, a married man with 7 young children was chosen as one of the prisoners to die for the escape. He begged to be spared. So, out of great love for Christ and his fellow man, Fr. Kolbe, volunteered to take the man's place. It was accepted and Maximilian was confined 3 weeks in a subterranean cell, naked, isolated, and given no food, nor water. The guards believed he would die before 3 weeks, but since he hadn't, he was then injected with lethal carbonic acid on August 14, 1941. His dead body was burned in the ovens and his ashes scattered. After Fr. Maximilian's death, miracles associated with his intercession led to his beatification and canonization. He was canonized on October 10, 1982 by Pope John Paul II and declared a martyr of charity. We can only believe that the Queen of Heaven greeted Saint Maximilian Kolbe. The white crown and the red crown are truly his. His feast day is celebrated on August 14.