Priest. Journalist. Martyr
Bishop Adam Lepa
On 14 August 1941 Fr Maximilian Maria Kolbe was killed by phenol injection in the starvation cell. He volunteered to give his life for a man, who had a family and who was sentenced to death, together with nine prisoners as punishment for a successful escape from the camp.
Was the life of the man, who astonished all people by his great works, extraordinary activities and first of all, by extremely effective actions and sacrificial love for people, to end this way? There were no farewell and funeral. It was a horrible death, humiliation, disregard for man’s dignity. There was a crematorium and ashes thrown somewhere.
He evangelised through media
But the camp in Auschwitz was actually the place where the first stage of this extraordinary man and spiritual giant ended; the stage during which one can establish carefully the list of Fr Maximilian’s works, their originality and rage of influence as well the dates of their creation and ways of functioning. Today we know how much the heroism of the Polish Franciscan supported, spiritually and morally, the prisoners in this most horrible death camp in the world. In the camp the deed of Fr Maximilian was regarded as victory over the helplessness of prisoners’ lives and over the persecutors’ contempt for whom people were only numbers condemned to annihilation, devoid of the rights to names and graves. The very fact that the commander of the camp agreed to Fr Maximilian’s proposal to die instead of the appointed prisoner was an act of victory of good over evil in the eyes of the witnesses. They needed this deed very much. Despite the prisoners’ earlier fears the death of Fr Kolbe did not lessen his achievements but on the contrary, it gave them deep sense and turned the opinion of the world to the matters he dealt with; it became the event that ennobled his achievements.
Fr Maximilian Kolbe created a huge Catholic media centre in Niepokalanow, which was unique in the entire world. The centre embraced a publishing house, press, radio and printer’s workshop as well as an excellently organised network of distribution, using all means of transport. Fr Maximilian also prepared to transport books and papers by air. He also thought of using television for evangelisation and he even took the first steps to do that. He did his best to publish and print books, papers and other materials (e.g. calendars) in Niepokalanow as cheaply as possible. A considerable part of the published materials was given free of charge. As a priest he did not want to make profit on his periodicals. Since the most important function of Catholic media should be the mission of evangelising the world. He remained faithful to this mission to the end of his life, and his patroness was the Immaculate Virgin, the Mother of Christ. At the same time he assumed rightly that the Catholic media could not be only means or tools of evangelisation. First of all, they should be the place of evangelisation. That’s why in ‘The Knight of the Immaculata’ or ‘Small Daily’ and on the radio he did not only write and speak about giving the testimony of faith and encourage people to give testimonies but he gave his testimony of faith in public. The same applied to catechesis and charity. Since when evangelisation becomes only a theory and wishful thinking it destroys itself. No wonder that John Paul II called St Maximilian ‘a wonderful guide in the work of evangelisation’ during his apostolic visit to Lodz in 1987.
Charisma of journalist and publicist
The daring initiatives in the field of media Fr Maximilian took cannot be explained by his intuition, following his predecessors or his education. One of the reasons is that intuition is not sufficient to create such great works and moreover, Fr Maximilian did not finish journalist’s education and did not study mass communication since such studies did not exist then. He could not follow the examples of his predecessors in the field of media, either. He simply did not have any. He was a pioneer in everything he did. The key to understand Fr Kolbe’s work is the action of the charismatic grace God enriched his life and with which he kept collaborating. Undoubtedly, great help in his activities was his studies in Rome, completed with doctorates in philosophy and theology as well as his personal characteristics such as inquisitiveness of the mind, curiosity of the world and its mysteries as well as creative and innovative thinking. He expressed them by organising successive religious centres in Poland and Japan as well as creating new media. And he could always count on God’s help that he constantly asked through the mediation of the Immaculate Virgin. The charisma God gave Fr Maximilian told him to build such a monastery that would become fully functional headquarters of the new publishing house and its the media. The thinking of the charismatic journalist who wanted to evangelize effectively inspired him to build a printer’s house first and only then a chapel and monastery in Nagasaki, Japan. Thanks to that the Japanese reading ‘The Knight of the Immaculata’ learnt first hand about the Polish Niepokalanow, the Catholic Church and her Immaculate Mother.
Fr Maximilian was first of all a practitioner in the field of media although he passed his reflections in publications, using secular media as well. For example, his statements concerning the use of sensational news in the Catholic press were valuable. He was also a pioneer in direct contacts with readers. Together with his brothers he went by train to various places to meet the recipients of the press from Niepokalanow, to listen to their opinions and proposals. And moreover, he explained them how a newspaper was made and what role the Franciscan brothers played in the process. Fr Maximilian was convinced that direct evangelisation was most effective. No wonder that in Niepokalanow he published half of the whole Catholic press in Poland. In a special exhibition of that press, organized in 1936 in the Vatican, it turned out that the whole circulation of Catholic press was 2.4 million copies and the press published by Fr Maximilian was 1.2 million per a single circulation. Thanks to his extraordinary charisma he knew perfectly well how to publish Catholic press but first of all, he understood what it should be like in his times. Therefore, it was written about the unique success of ‘The Knight of the Immaculata’ that ‘the career of this monthly belongs to the most brilliant ones in the European press.’
Heroism of martyrdom
The deed of Fr Maximilian in Auschwitz was regarded as an example of unequalled heroism. Poles received in his person one more proof for their great pride and important inspiration to sacrificial activities for the good of their Homeland. They experienced satisfaction from the fact that their new saint was honoured as a national hero. They also know that before the pontificate of John Paul II he was the most known Pole in the world. Considering the radicalism of Fr Maximilian in his fulfilment of the commandment of love and his mature patriotism we cannot omit the reflection that he offered his sufferings in the starvation cell in the intention of his Homeland so that Poland would regain freedom and independence as soon as possible. His martyr’s death would have been senseless if it had not affected the social and political spheres and the decisions that were taken in those days. Since the mysticism of events is not an illusion but educational reality. One should discover only in the spirit of faith and due discernment the new facts and situations of those times. For example, Philippe Mazence, the author of the book about the Martyr from Auschwitz, entitled ‘Maximilien Kolbe. Prętre, journaliste et martyr (1894-1941) [Maximilian Kolbe. Priest, Journalist and Martyr (1894-1941)] suggests such a picture of Fr Maximilian. The book was published in Paris in May 2011, Éditions Perrin. The author, who is a known French journalist and writer, concludes that Fr Maximilian as a victim of innocence became an obvious example to follow for all those who have the courage to live in the conviction that the last word always belongs to Love.