For THE CANONIZATION OF St. Maximilian Maria
H.H. John Paul II
has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his
friends" (John 15:13).
From today on, the Church desires to address as "Saint" a
man who was granted the grace of carrying out these words of
the Redeemer in an absolutely literal manner.
For towards the end of July, 1941, when the camp commander
ordered the prisoners destined to die of starvation to fall
in line, this man-Maximilian Maria Kolbe-spontaneously came
forward and declared himself ready to go to death in the
place of one of them. This readiness was accepted and, after
more than two weeks of torment caused by starvation, Father
Maximilian's life was ended with a lethal injection on
August 14, 1941.
All this happened in the concentration camp at Auschwitz
where during the last war some four million people were put
to death, including the Servant of God, Edith Stein (the
Carmelite Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), whose cause
for beatification is in progress at the competent
Congregation. Disobedience to God-the Creator of life who
said, "Thou shalt not kill"-caused in that place the immense
holocaust of so many innocent persons. And so at the same
time, our age has thus been horribly stigmatized by the
slaughter of the innocent.
Father Maximilian Kolbe, himself a prisoner of the
concentration camp, defended in that place of death an
innocent man's right to life. Father Kolbe defended his
right to life, declaring that he was ready to go to death in
the man's place, because he was the father of a family and
his life was necessary for his dear ones. Father Maximilian
Maria Kolbe thus reaffirmed the Creator's exclusive right
over innocent human life. He bore witness to Christ and to
love. For the Apostle John writes: "By this we know love,
that he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down
our lives for the brethren" (1 John 3:16).
The Church has venerated Father Maximilian as "Blessed"
since 1971. By laying down his life for a brother, he made
himself like Christ.
Gathered today before the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, we
wish to express the special value which Father Maximilian
Kolbe's death by martyrdom has in the eyes of God.
"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his
saints." These are the words we have repeated in today's
responsorial psalm. It is truly precious and inestimable!
Through the death which Christ underwent on the Cross, the
redemption of the world was achieved, for this death has the
value of supreme love. Through the death of Father
Maximilian Kolbe, a shining sign of this love was renewed in
our century which is do seriously and in so many ways
threatened by sin and death.
In this canonization liturgy there seems to appear before us
that "martyr of love" of Oswiecim (as Paul VI called him),
saying: "O Lord, I am thy servant. I am thy servant, the son
of thy handmaid. Thou has loosed my bonds" (Psalm 115
And as though gathering together in one sacrifice the whole
of his life, he-a priest and a spiritual son of saint
Francis-seems to say: "What shall I render to the Lord for
his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and
call on the name of the Lord" (Psalms 115 (116):12).
These are words of gratitude. Death undergone out of love-in
the place of one's brother-is an heroic act of man. It is an
act through which, together with the one already beatified,
we glorify God. For from God comes the grace of such
heroism, of this martyrdom.
Therefore let us today glorify God's great work in man.
Before all of us gathered here, Father Maximilian Kolbe
lifts up his "cup of salvation." In it is contained the
sacrifice of his whole life, sealed with the martyr's death
"for a brother."
Maximilian prepared for this definitive sacrifice by
following Christ from the first years of his life in Poland.
From these years comes the mysterious vision of two
crowns-one white and one red. From these our saint does not
choose. He accepts them both. From the years of his youth,
in fact, Maximilian was filled with the great love of Christ
and the desire for martyrdom.
This love and this desire accompanied him along the path of
his Franciscan and priestly vocation, for which he prepared
himself both in Poland and in Rome. This love and this
desire followed him through all the places of his priestly
and Franciscan service in Poland and in his missionary
service in Japan.
Immaculate Virgin Inspired His Life
The inspiration of his whole life was the Immaculata. To her
he entrusted his love for Christ and his desire for
martyrdom. In the mystery of the Immaculate Conception there
revealed itself before the eyes of his soul that marvelous
and supernatural world of God's grace offered to man.
The faith and works of the whole life of Father Maximilian
show that he thought of his cooperation with divine grace as
a warfare under the banner of the Immaculate Conception.
This Marian characteristic is particularly expressive in the
life and holiness of Father Kolbe. His whole apostolate,
both in his homeland and on the missions, was similarly
marked with this sign. In Poland and in Japan the centers of
this apostolate were the special cities of the
Immaculata-Niepokalanow in Poland and Mugenzai no Sono in
God Found Him Worthy of Himself
What happened in the starvation bunker in the concentration
camp at Oswiecim (Auschwitz) on August 14, 1941?
The reply is given in today's liturgy. "God tested"
Maximilian Maria "and found him worthy of himself" (Wisdom
3:5). God tested him "like gold in the furnace and like a
sacrificial burnt offering he accepted him" (Wisdom
3:6).Even if "in the sight of men he was punished," yet "his
hope is full of immortality." For "the souls of the
righteous are in the hands of God and no torment will ever
touch them." And when-humanly speaking-torment and death
came to them, when "in the eyes of men they seemed to have
died...", when "their departure from us was thought to be an
affliction...", "they are in peace." They experience life
and glory "in the hands of God" (Wisdom 3:1-4).
This life is the fruit of death like Christ's death. Glory
is the sharing of his resurrection. So what happened in the
starvation bunker, on August 14, 1941?
There were fulfilled the words spoken by Christ to the
Apostles that they "should go and bear fruit and that their
fruit should abide" (John 15:16).
In a marvelous way the fruit of the tragic death of
Maximilian Kolbe endures in the Church and the world!
In Their Minds It Was Not "Death"
Men saw what happened in the camp at Auschwitz. And even if
to their eyes it must have seemed that a companion of their
torment "dies," even if humanly speaking they could consider
"his departure" as "a disaster," nevertheless in their minds
this was not simply "death." Maximilian did not die but
"gave his life...for his brother." In that death, terrible
from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive
greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He
spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love.
And in this human death of his there was the clear witness
borne to Christ: the witness borne in Christ to the dignity
of man, to the sanctity of his life, and to the saving power
of death in which the power of love is made manifest.
Maximilian's Death a Sign of Victory
Precisely for this reason the death of Maximilian Kolbe
became a sign of victory. This was victory won over all
systematic contempt and hate for man and for what is divine
in man-a victory like that won by our Lord Jesus Christ on
"You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John
15:14). The Church accepts this sign of victory-won through
the power of Christ's redemption-with reverence and
gratitude. She seeks to discern its eloquence with all
humility and love.
As ever when the Church proclaims the holiness of her sons
and daughters, as also in the present case, she seeks to act
with all due exactness and responsibility, searching into
all the aspects of the life and death of the Servant of God.
Yet at the same time the Church must be careful, as she
reads the sign of holiness given by God in his earthly
Servant, not to allow its full eloquence and definitive
meaning to go unnoticed. And so, in judging the cause of
Blessed Maximilian Kolbe even after his Beatification, it
was necessary to take into consideration many voices of the
People of God-especially of our Brothers in the episcopate
of both Poland and Germany-who asked that Maximilian Kolbe
be proclaimed as a martyr saint.
Before the eloquence of the life and death of blessed
Maximilian, it is impossible no to recognize what seems to
constitute the main and essential element of the sign given
by God to the Church and the world in his death.
Does not this death-faced spontaneously, for love of
man-constitute a particular fulfillment of the words of
Christ? Does not this death make Maximilian particularly
like unto Christ-the Model of all Martyrs-who gives his own
life on the Cross for his brethren? Does not this death
possess a particular and penetrating eloquence for our age?
Does not this death constitute a particularly authentic
witness of the Church in the modern world?
And so, in virtue of my apostolic authority, I have decreed
that Maximilian Maria Kolbe-who after his Beatification was
venerated as a Confessor-shall henceforeward be venerated
also as a Martyr!
"Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his
faithful ones!" Amen.
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