St. Maximilian Kolbe and Me
By Jean M. Heimann
Today is the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, one of my favorite saints. A Conventual Franciscan, “St. Max” graciously assisted me during one of the most difficult times in my life – a dark night of the senses – approximately 14 years ago.
The Lord led me to seek spiritual direction from a Conventual Franciscan (much like St. Maximilian Kolbe in that he was self-giving and self-sacrificing) who guided me on the path to a closer relationship with Jesus and His Holy Mother. At the time, family members, who lived thousands of miles away were seriously ill, my husband was unexpectedly laid off for several months, and we were facing serious financial difficulties. I was ill and unable to work outside our home. The Lord was showing me the meaning of true humility and total dependence on Him. This is when St. Maximilian Kolbe entered into my life.
St. Maximilian Kolbe was born in Russian – occupied Poland on January 7, 1894. His baptismal name was Raymond and he was the second of three sons born to two lay Franciscans in a poor, but pious family. Raymond had a reputation as a mischievous child who was, at times, a trial to his parents. However, in 1906 at Pabianice, at age twelve, he received a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary that changed his life.
St. Max explains: “I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.”
Joining the Conventual Franciscans, Raymond took the name Maximilian, pronouncing temporary vows in 1911. In 1917, one year before his ordination to the priesthood, Maximilian founded the Militia of Mary Immaculate in Rome to advance Marian devotion. He was ordained in the Eternal City in 1918 and returned to Poland. There he founded the “Cities of the Immaculate Conception” in 1927, institutions that flourished in Poland, Japan, and India which served as centers of Marian-Franciscan evangelization for the Movement.
Father Kolbe employed the mass media, especially the printed word, to spread the ideals of the MI and to encourage others to consecrate themselves to Our Lady. He became director of Poland’s chief Catholic publishing complex, which published both a monthly magazine with a circulation of about one million and a daily paper with a circulation of about 125,000.
As Kolbe grew older, his health, which had never been strong, deteriorated. He was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis, which was nearly fatal to him. His bout with this serious illness weakened him and he became quite frail. He bore the effects of the disease for the rest of his life, suffering from severe headaches and was covered with abscesses; but these were only minor problems when compared with what was yet to come.
In 1941, Maximilian was arrested by the Gestapo when the Germans invaded Poland and was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He took the place of a married prisoner, who had a family, in a retaliatory punishment in the camp. Ten prisoners were being executed because one prisoner had escaped. Maximilian volunteered to die in place of the married prisoner and he was condemned to a slow death in a starvation bunker. On August 14, 1941, his impatient captors, eager to see him die, ended his life with a fatal injection of carbolic acid. He was beatified in 1971 and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982.
Maximilian was a ground-breaking theologian. His insights into the Immaculate Conception anticipated the Marian theology of the Second Vatican Council and further developed the Church’s understanding of Mary as “Mediatrix” of all the graces of the Trinity, and as “Advocate” for God’s people.
His patronages include: drug addicts, families, imprisoned people, journalists, and the pro-life movement.
My Franciscan spiritual director seemed to be the only person who understood me and could relate to the inner turmoil I was experiencing at the time. Each time I met with him, I also went to see Jesus in Eucharistic Adoration, surrendering to him, and waiting for the peace He promises. At times, I was also able to coordinate my appointments with the parish recitation of the Divine Mercy, which helped to soothe and heal my soul.
I was encouraged by the Conventual Franciscans to pray to “St. Max”, who had truly been a wonder – worker for them. “He always comes through!” Praying to St. Max, I thought about the suffering he faced, the unselfishness he showed by the act of giving up his life for another. Even though he was experiencing great suffering himself, he put the needs of others before his own. What a tremendous love he must have had for Jesus to do this and to do it without hesitation. In his last letter to his mother, he made a request to her, “Pray that my love will be without limits.”
How she must have prayed for her son!
Each day, St. Maximilian grew stronger spiritually in his devotion toward Mother Mary, seeking to emulate her in the pure, unselfish love she had, as she submitted to God’s will rather than her own. St. Maximilian tells us: “The love of the Immaculate is the most perfect love with which a creature can love God. With her heart then, let us strive to love the heart of Jesus more and more. Let this be our greatest work.”
It was through St. Max that I was drawn into a deeper union with Mother Mary. I returned to praying the rosary daily with my husband and renewed my consecration to Our Blessed Mother at Marytown (the home of the Conventual Friars and the Shrine dedicated to St. Maximilian) in Libertyville, IL, which I had done a few years earlier. There, in the home of the St. Maximilian Kolbe museum, I viewed and venerated his relics, and learned more about his life through photographs.
My renewed love for Mary led me closer to Jesus, who in turn led me to a deeper love for Jesus in the Eucharist. Within a short time afterwards, St. Max encouraged me to divert my attention from my own problems and to focus on those whose lives were on the line everyday – the innocent unborn. He also led me to a deeper appreciation of Eucharistic Adoration and a closer relationship with Mother Mary.
Our situation eventually improved over time, but in the meantime, it was St. Maximilian Kolbe’s example that inspired me and his prayers that supported me.
Here are some of his quotes which have spoken to my heart:
“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”
“The most deadly poison of our times is indifference. And this happens, although the praise of God should know no limits. Let us strive, therefore, to praise Him to the greatest extent of our powers.”
“God dwells in our midst, in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.”
“He remains among us until the end of the world. He dwells on so many altars, though so often offended and profaned.”
“The culmination of the Mass is not the consecration, but Communion.”
“You come to me and unite Yourself intimately to me under the form of nourishment. Your Blood now runs in mine, Your Soul, Incarnate God, compenetrates mine, giving courage and support. What miracles! Who would have ever imagined such!”
“If angels could be jealous of men, they would be so for one reason: Holy Communion.”
“Let us give ourselves to the Immaculata. Let her prepare us, let her receive Him in Holy Communion. This is the manner most perfect and pleasing to the Lord Jesus and brings great fruit to us.”
– St. Maximilian Kolbe
~ © Jean M. Heimann, August 2008, updated and revised, August 2014
Novena Prayer to St. Maximilian Kolbe
O Lord Jesus Christ, who said, “greater love than this no man has that a man lay down his life for his friends,”
through the intercession of St. Maximilian Kolbe whose life illustrated such love, we beseech you to grant us our petitions . . .
(here mention the requests you have).
Through the Militia Immaculata movement, which Maximilian founded, he spread a fervent devotion to Our Lady throughout the world. He gave up his life for a total stranger and loved his persecutors, giving us an example of unselfish love for all men – a love that was inspired by true devotion to Mary.
Grant, O Lord Jesus, that we too may give ourselves entirely without reserve to the love and service of our Heavenly Queen in order to better love and serve our fellowman in imitation of your humble servant, Maximilian. Amen.
(Say 3 Hail Marys and a Glory Be.)