Theology of the Heart - Church Teachings on the Saints

The Beatification of Fr. Maximilian Maria Kolbe
Homily of Pope Paul VI
October 17, 1971


Maximilian Kolbe Blessed! What does this mean? It means that the Church recognizes in him an exceptional figure, a man in whom God's grace and the soul have so interacted as to produce a stupendous life. Anyone who observes it closely discovers this symbiosis of a dual operating principle, the divine and the human. One is mysterious, the other can be experienced; One is transcendent but interior, the other natural but complex, and expanded to the point of reaching that extraordinary image of moral and spiritual greatness that we call holiness; that is, perfection reached on the religious parameter, which as we know, soars towards the infinite heights of the Absolute. 'Blessed,' therefore, means worthy of that veneration permitted by the Church in certain places and among certain groups, a veneration that implies admiration of the one who is their object because of some unusual and magnificent reflection of the Sanctifying Spirit in him. It means 'saved and glorious.' It means 'citizen of heaven' with all the peculiar signs of a citizen of earth; it means 'brother and friend' whom we know is still ours, more so than ever, in fact, because he is identified as an active member of the Communion of Saints, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, living both in time and in eternity. It means, therefore, 'advocate and protector' in the kingdom of love, together with Christ "who is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he forever lives to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7,25: cf.Rom. 8,34). Finally, it means 'exemplary specimen' a type of man to whom we can conform our way of life, since he, the Blessed, is recognized as having the apostle Paul's privilege of being able to say to the Christian people "I beg you then, be imitators of me" (I Cor. 4, 16).

Life of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe

This is what we can think of Maximilian Kolbe, the new Blessed, from today onwards. But who is Maximilian Kolbe? We know him well! He is so close to our generation and so imbued with the actual life and experiences of our times that everything is known about him. Rarely does a beatification process deal with such a wealth of documents. Just for the sake of our modern passion for historical truth, we include almost as an epigraph, the biographical sketch of Father Kolbe written by one of the most assiduous of the scholars devoted to him.

Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was born in Zdunska Wola near Lodz on January 8, 1894. In 1907 he entered the Seminary of the Franciscan Conventuals. He was sent to Rome to continue his ecclesiastical studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Seraphicum of his Order. When still a student, he founded a movement, the Militia Immaculatae. Ordained a priest on April 28,1918, he returned to Poland and began his Marian apostolate, particularly with the monthly publication Rycerz Niepokalanej (The Knight of the Immaculata), which reached a press run of one million copies in 1938. In 1927 he founded Niepokalanow (City of the Immaculata), a center of religious life and of various forms of apostolate. In 1930 he left for Japan where he founded another similar institution. Returning to Poland permanently, he dedicated himself wholly to his work with various religious publications. The Second World War found him at the head of the most imposing publishing complex in Poland. On September 19, 1939 he was arrested by the Gestapo, who deported him to Lamsdorf, Germany, then temporarily to the concentration camp at Amtitz. Released on December 8, 1939, he returned to Niepokalanow, resuming his interrupted activity. Arrested again in 1941, he was put into Pawiak Prison in Warsaw, and then deported to the concentration camp at Oswiecim (Auschwitz). Having offered his life for an unknown man condemned to death, as a reprisal for the escape of a prisoner from their block, he was sentenced to a starvation bunker. He prepared his co victims for death, and on August 14, 1941, on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, he was finished off with an injection of phenol. His body was cremated.

But in a ceremony such as this, the biographical data, in a way, dissolve in the dazzling splendor of the principle lines of the many faceted figure of the new Blessed. Let us fix gaze for a moment on these lines which characterize him and entrust him to our memories.

Secret of Kolbe's Sanctity Love and Devotion to Mary

Maximilian Kolbe was an apostle of the formal religious veneration of the Blessed Virgin, seen in her first, original privileged splendor, as she defined herself at Lourdes: the Immaculate Conception. It is impossible to separate the name, the activity and the mission of Blessed Kolbe from that of Mary Immaculate. It was he who instituted the Militia Mariae Immaculatae here in Rome, even before he was ordained a priest, on October 16, 1917. We can commemorate its anniversary today.

It is well known how the humble and meek Franciscan with incredible audacity and extraordinary organizational genius developed the initiative and spread devotion to the Mother of Christ, contemplated as "clothed with the sun" (cf. Rev. 12, 1). This devotion was the focal point of his spirituality, his apostolate and his theology.

Let no hesitation restrain our admiration and commitment to all that our new Blessed had left us as a heritage and an example, as if we too were distrustful of such and exaltation of Mary in view of two other theological movements, the Christological and ecclesiological, which seem to compete today with the Mariological. On the contrary, there is no competition, for in Father Kolbe's Mariology, Christ holds not only the first place but the only necessary and sufficient place in the economy of salvation. His love of the Church and its salvational mission was never forgotten either in his doctrinal outlook or in his apostolic aim. On the contrary, it is precisely from our Lady's complementary, subordinate role in regard to Christ's universal, saving design for man that she derives all of her prerogatives and greatness.

How well we know it! And Kolbe, in accord with the whole of Catholic doctrine, the whole liturgy and the entire theology of the interior life, sees Mary included in God's plan of salvation as the "term fixed by eternal counsel," as the woman filled with grace, as the Seat of Wisdom, as the woman destined from eternity to be the Mother of Christ, as the Queen of the Messianic Kingdom, and at the same time as the Handmaid of the Lord, chosen to participate in the Redemptive Act as Mother of the God Man, our Saviour. "Mary is the one through whose intercession men reach Jesus and the one through whom Jesus reaches men" (L. Bouver: Le trone de la Sagesse; p. 69).

Therefore our Blessed is not to be reproved, nor the Church with him, because of their enthusiam for the formal religious veneration of the Mother of God. This veneration with its rites and practices will never fully achieve the level it merits, nor the benefits it can bring precisely because of the mystery that unites her to Christ, and which finds fascinating documentation in the New Testament. The result will never be a "Mariolatry," just as the seen will never be darkened by the moon; nor will the mission of salvation specifically entrusted to the ministry of the Church ever be distorted if the latter honors in Mary an exceptional Daughter and a Spiritual Mother. The characteristic aspect, if you like, and the original quality of Blessed Kolbe's devotion, of his "hyperdulia" to Mary, is the importance he attributes to it with regard to the present needs of the Church, the efficacy of her prophecy about the glory of the Lord and the vindication of the humble, the power of her intercession, the splendor of her exemplariness, the presence of her maternal charity. The Council confirmed us in these certainties, and now from heaven Father Kolbe is teaching us and helping us to meditate upon them and live them. This Marian profile of our new Blessed places him among the great saints and seers who have understood, venerated and sung the mystery of Mary.

The Heroic Death of Fr. Maximilian

Next let us consider the tragic and sublime conclusion of Maximilian Kolbe's innocent and apostolic life. It is mainly to this that we owe the glorification of the meek humble, hard working religious, exemplary follower of St. Francis and knight in love with Mary Immaculate that the Church celebrates today. The circumstances of his departure from this life are so horrible and harrowing that we would prefer not to speak of them, and never to contemplate them again, in order not to see the depths of inhuman degradation to which the abuse of power can lead, an abuse which seeks to make a pedestal of grandeur and glory from the impassive cruelty it inflicts upon helpless beings that it has degraded to the rank of slaves and doomed to extermination. There were millions of these victims sacrificed to the pride of force and the madness of racism. Nevertheless it is necessary to scan this dark picture again in order to pick out, here and there, the gleams of surviving humanity. Alas, history cannot forget these frightful and tragic pages. And so it cannot but fix its horrified gaze on the luminous points that reveal, but at the same time overcome, their inconceivable darkness.

One of these points, perhaps the one glowing most brightly, is the calm, drained figure of Maximilian Kolbe. A serene hero, always pious and sustained by a paradoxical, yet reasonable confidence. His name will remain among the great; it will reveal what reserves of moral values lay among those unhappy masses, petrified by horror and despair.

Over this immense vestibule of death hovers a divine and imperishable word of life, that of Jesus revealing the secret of innocent suffering: to be the expiation, the victim, the burnt sacrifice and, above all, to be love for others. "There is no greater love than this; to lay down one's life for one's friends" (Jn. 15:13). Jesus was speaking of himself in the imminence of his sacrifice for the salvation of men. Men are all friends of Jesus, if they at least listen to his words. Father Kolbe fulfilled his maxim of redeeming love in the fatal concentration camp of Oswiecim. And this by a double title.

Kolbe Perfect Exemplar of Priesthood

Who among us does not recall the incomparable episode? "I am a Catholic priest," he said, offering his own life unto death and what a death! to save the life of an unknown companion sentenced to the starvation bunker in blind reprisal. What a magnificent moment! His offer was accepted. It came from a heart trained to give itself. It was as natural and spontaneous as if it were a logical consequence of his priesthood. Is not a priest a "second Christ?" Was not Christ the Priest, the redeeming victim of mankind? What a glory it is for us priests, and what a lesson, to find in Blessed Maximilian such a splendid exemplification of our consecration and of our mission! What a warning he addresses to us in this hour of uncertainty, when at times human nature would like to assert its rights to the detriment of our supernatural vication to follow Christ through the total gift of ourselves to him! What a consolation it must be for that close knit, faithful legion, so beloved and noble, of good priests and religious who, filled with the legitimate and praiseworthy desire to transcend personal mediocrity and social frustration, understand their mission just as he did. "I am a Catholic priest, and for this reason I offer my life to save those of others." Such would seem to be the commission which the new Blessed leaves especially to us, ministers of God's Church, and in some way to all in the Church who accept the Spirit.

The Apostle of Unity

And to this priestly title we can add another, one which shows that Blessed Maximilian's sacrifice was motivated by a friendship: he was a Pole. As a Pole he was condemned to that unhappy concentration camp, and as a Pole he was willing to give up his life for that of a fellow countryman, Francis Gajowniczeck. How many thoughts come to our minds at the memory of this human, social and ethnical aspect of the voluntary death of Maximilian Kolbe, a son of noble Catholic Poland! This nation's historic destiny of suffering seems to document, in this typical and heroic case, the centuries old vocation of the Polish people to find in its shard passion a single, united conscience; a knightly mission for freedom achieved in the pride of the spontaneous sacrifices of its sons and daughter, and their readiness to give themselves for one another and to overcome their vivacity in invincible concord; and indelible Catholic character which makes of it a living and suffering member of the universal Church; a firm conviction that the secret of its renascent prosperity lies in the miraculous but tear stained protection of the Blessed Virgin. These are the iridescent rays of light issuing from the new Polish martyr: they show us the true visage of his country and lead us to ask Blessed Maximilian, its emblematic hero, for firmness in faith, ardor in charity, prosperity and peace for all his people. The Church and the whole world will rejoice over it together! Amen.

Go to Main Page on St. Maximilian Kolbe


siervas_logo_color.jpg (14049 bytes)
Return to main page
This page is the work of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary