I am a Catholic priest...
Fr Lukasz Jaksik
Before the war only three titles published in Niepokalanow constituted half of the whole Catholic press in Poland. Today one million and two hundred thousand copies may be only a dream of publishers. Who was the father of this success?
‘The life and work of St Maximilian are impressive’, Fr Ignacy Kosman, OFMConv, says. ‘He founded a resilient religious organisation ‘Militia Immaculata’ and created a gigantic monastery-publishing house. He copied his efforts from his stay in Japan where, without any funds, knowledge of the country and its language and being of poor health, he published ‘The Knight of the Immaculate’ in Japanese within one month and founded another ‘Niepokalanow’.
The secret of Fr Kolbe’s success was not his genius and unique personality but his being rooted in Christ. His power was his confident faith that flowed from this relationship.
‘The deepest mystery of Fr Maximilian’s soul was his confidence in the Immaculate and a child’s attitude’, Fr Jerzy M. Domanski, OFMConv, says. ‘He had a heroic, full of love, attitude of a knight who wants to win the whole world for his ideal.’
Between heroism and bestiality
During his lifetime Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe surprised the world with his intelligence, the breadth of his pastoral work and the zeal of a neophyte. However, when in August 1941 he volunteered to die in the starvation cell in Auschwitz only three words, ‘I am a Catholic priest’ were taken from his luminous past.
‘These three words spoken in the camp square, the place of dehumanisation and death, assumed a unique, symbolic meaning’, Fr Zdzislaw Kijas, OFMConv, says. ‘They were the fullest synthesis of his life.’
The story began with a prisoner’s escape. The furious Rapportführer Karol Frotzsch summoned all prisoners from the block and selected ten men to be starved to death. One of them was Franciszek Gajowniczek, who would have orphaned his wife and children. Then Fr Kolbe moved forward and asked to be sentenced to death in place of Mr Gajowniczek. Asked who he was he replied that he was a Catholic priest. And together with nine companions he walked to Block 13, called the death block. Being used to starvation he was alive for two weeks, without eating and drinking anything. Finally, the Nazis killed him with an injection of phenol. It happened on 14 August 1941. It was the eve of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There are no remains of St Maximilian. His body was burnt in the camp crematorium.
Thanks to the sacrifice of Fr Maximilian Franciszek Gajowniczek survived and died in 1995 at the age of 94. On 17th October 1971 Pope Paul VI beatified Fr Maximilian in the presence of thousands of believers from all over the world, including over 3,000 pilgrims from Poland. It was Pope John Paul II that canonised him on 10 October 1982. During his pilgrimage to his Homeland he visited Niepokalanow on 18 June 1983 and the historical post-canonisation celebrations were held there.
The martyrdom of Fr Kolbe began in some sense much earlier when he was doing the main work of his life. Firstly, he bought a statuette of the Immaculate for 90 zloty. Prince Jan Drucki-Lubecki promised the friars in black habits to assign a lot for the construction of a monastery in his estate in Teresin near Sochaczew. He gave five acres of arable land and he gradually expanded his grant up to 25 ha, which was over half of the area of the Vatican. ‘It was the beginning of the ‘Niepokalanow enterprise’, states Fr Jacek Pedziwiatr from the Bielsko-Zywiec Diocese. ‘Fr Maximilian created a place of prayer, work and rest for 762 people. There was order, harmony and thrift so that no man, no talent, no pair of hands and no plant, brick, nail or paper went to waste.’
In the year 1939 Niepokalanow had 13 fathers, 18 novices, 527 professed brothers, 82 candidates for brothers and 122 boys in the minor seminary. ‘The Knight of the Immaculate’ had a circulation of 750,000 copies. ‘Rycerzyk Niepokalanej’ [Little Knight of the Immaculate] and ‘Maly Rycerz Niepokalanej’ [Small Knight of the Immaculate] had a circulation of 221,000 copies. ‘Maly Dziennik’ [daily for children] had 137,000 copies and its Sunday issue had 225,000 copies. Furthermore, they published ‘Informator Rycerstwa Niepokalanej’ [Brochure of Militia Immaculata], ‘Biuletyn Misyjny’ [Missionary Bulletin] and ‘Echo Niepokalanowa’ [Echo of Niepokalanow]. In 1937 the Calendar of the Knight of the Immaculate was published in 440,000 copies. From 1938 Niepokalanow had its own radio station, which musical signal was the tune of ‘Po gorach, dolinach’ [the Polish version of the Marian song from Lourdes].
Some journalists accuse St Maximilian of anti-Semitism. But the facts prove something different. The well-known film director, scientist, the author of two dramas about St Maximilian Prof. Kazimierz Braun from the United States met the young Franciscan friars in May 2010 in St Maximilian’s Centre in Harmeze near Oswiecim. He said that despite many proofs Fr Kolbe was accused of anti-Semitism.
‘Fr Maximilian Maria Kolbe has been accused until today. Some have accused him of anti-Semitism. But there are many facts, documents that contradict that.’ He recollected the letter in which even from Japan Fr Kolbe rebuked those who used unfair words against the Jews. Moreover, he mentioned the fact that during World War II St Maximilian provided shelter to refugees, out of whom half were Jewish, for over a year.
Prof. Braun quoted the testimony of a young Jew from Auschwitz Zygmunt Gorson, ‘Many of us lost hope. Many of my peers used the electric barbed wire fence to commit suicide. When I was wondering, looking for anyone to talk to, I met Fr Kolbe and he talked to me. He was like an angel to me; he wiped my tears. I lost my faith and Fr Kolbe gave it back to me! I have been Jewish for generations because my mother was Jewish. I belong to the Mosaic religion and I am proud of it. He knew I was Jewish but it did not matter to him. His heart did not differentiate between people and it did not matter whether they were Jewish, Catholic or other believers: he loved all people and gave love, nothing more than love.’
‘The accusations of the alleged anti-Semitism of St Maximilian came from two sources’, says Fr Paulin Sotowski. OFMConv. ‘One of them was the way the Niepokalanow press warmed against communism, promoted by the Jews. The other source was the formula of ‘Maly Dziennik.’ Fr Maximilian had no influence on its daily contents.
Jerzy Turowicz, the editor of ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’ [General Weekly] for many years, who remembered the publications of Niepokalanow, stated that the press published by Niepokalanow was not more ‘anti-Semitic’ than other Catholic titles and the official statements of the representatives of the Church during those years.
The Year of Kolbe
Next year we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the events that yielded an extraordinary harvest. Fr Kolbe’s way of the cross began from the prison ‘Pawiak’ on 17th February 1941. It led him to the hill of Auschwitz on 28 May where his sacrifice was completed on 14 August 1941.
‘We are facing a big spiritual challenge’, says Fr Stanislaw M. Pietka, OFMConv, the guardian of Niepokalanow. ‘We will begin the Year of Kolbe on 14 August 2010 and it will last till 15 August 2011. During this time we want to honour the Son of the Polish land and the Saint of our Order in a special way. In the Year of Kolbe we are to look at ourselves: how much Christian and human we are, how much we can give to Christ and man in need, whether we can love to the sacrifice of our lives…’
Such questions will be raised in many places, including Niepokalanow, Warsaw and Auschwitz as well as in Krakow, Kalwaria Paclawska, Zakopane, Mszana Dolna, Nieszawa, and abroad: Japan, Ukraine, Belarus – in all the places marked by the presence of St Maximilian Maria Kolbe.
Text based on ‘Rycerz Niepokalanej’