Maximilian Kolbe was born in Poland in 1894, became a Franciscan friar as a teenager, and was later ordained as a priest who served a small parish community. But when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, tragic events of human suffering where set into motion in which Kolbe’s destiny would be sealed and his holiness revealed.
In his labors to protect many Jewish refugees, Kolbe found himself a Nazi target, was arrested, and sent off to Auschwitz in 1941. There, in the midst of the death camp’s unimaginable daily horrors, he worked to encourage his fellow prisoners by setting an example of faith and hope.
One day a prisoner escaped, and, in order to bring an end to any future plans of the same, the guards decided to punish 10 inmates of cellblock 14 by condemning them to death by starvation in an underground bunker. One of the ten was Franciszek Gajowniczek, who began to weep and cried out, “My poor wife and children! I will never see them again!” At that moment, Fr. 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 deputy commandant, who asked Kolbe to identify himself. His response was simple and direct: “I am a Catholic priest.” Those words said far more about the saint than any name possibly could. The commandant agreed to grant the request.
Thrown into the dank, crowded underground bunker with the other men, Maximilian Kolbe continued to set an example of faith and hope, leading them in prayers of praise and adoration to God, singing hymns, and encouraging them to focus on the certain and irrevocable promises of Christ. Looking back on those events, we see that Fr. Kolbe’s food, in imitation of the Savior, was to do the Father’s will (see Jn 4:34), for weeks later it became necessary to kill him by lethal injection.
Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr for charity, was canonized by Pope John Paul II on 10 October 1982, with the surviving Franciszek Gajowniczek present.