Theology of the Heart- Life of the Saints


"Forget not love."

"We have to win the whole world and each soul, now and in the future until the end of times,
for the Immaculate, and through her, for the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus."
(St. Maximilian María Kolbe)  

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Zdunska Wola
St. Maximilian's Birthplace and the Church of the Assumption where he was baptized.

The first son of the Kolbe family was Francisco. Later, on the 8th of January 1894, Raymond was born in Zdunska Wola, which at that time was occupied by Russia. On that same day he was baptized Raymond in the parish Church of "The Assumption of the Virgin Mary" in the Wloclawek and Wojewod Lodz diocese. He would later take the religious name - Maximilian. In this same church he would do his confirmation. Three more sons were born: José, Valentín and Antonio. The last two died prematurely. The Kolbe home was poor but full of love. The parents, hardworking and religious, educated their three sons who were mischievous and full of life, with rectitude. St. Francis was the ideal for the young boys. "Maximilian desired to overflow with joy like St. Francis and like St. Francis he desired to converse with the birds." (Proc.Vars., fol 340)

Place where the Virgin Mary offered St. Maximilian the Two Crowns.

Around 1906, an event took place that marks a fundamental milestone in the life of Maximilian and that left his mother worried and disconcerted. She herself related the event a few months after her son's martyrdom.
"I knew ahead of time, based on an extraordinary event that took place in his infancy, that Maximilian would die a martyr. I just don't recall if it took place before or after his first confession. Once I did not like one of his pranks and I reproached him for it: ‘My son, what ever will become of you?!’ Later, I did not think of it again, but I noticed that the boy had changed so radically, he was hardly recognizable. We had a small altar hidden between two dressers before which he used to often retire without being noticed and he would pray there crying. In general, he had a conduct superior to his age, always recollected and serious and when he prayed he would burst into tears. I was worried, thinking he had some sort of illness so I asked him: ‘Is there anything wrong? You should share everything with your mommy!’ Trembling with emotion and with his eyes flooded in tears, he shared: ‘Mama, when you reproached me, I pleaded with the Blessed Mother to tell me what would become of me. At Church I did the same; I prayed the same thing again. (He was referring to St. Matthew's Church in Pabianice.) So then the Blessed Mother appeared to me holding in her hands two crowns: one white the other red. She looked at me with tenderness and asked me if I wanted these two crowns. The white one signified that I would preserve my purity and the red that I would be a martyr. I answered that I accepted them...(both of them). Then the Virgin Mary looked at me with sweetness and disappeared.’ The extraordinary change in the boys' behavior testified to me the truth of what he related. He was fully conscious and as he spoke to me, with his face radiating; it showed me his desire to die a martyr.” Maximilian's fascinating encounter with his celestial "mommy" is more than a fleeting episode. It is the root of his entire future; it is the motor behind his far-reaching plans; it is the force for his most audacious flights; it is the wellspring of his sanctity and apostolate.


When he was 13 years old he entered the Franciscan Fathers Seminary in the polish city of Lvov, which was at that time occupied by Austria. It was in the seminary where he adopted the name Maximilian. He completed his studies in Rome and in 1918 was ordained a priest.

The mission

Devoted to the Immaculate Conception, he thought that the Church should be militant in its cooperation with Divine Grace for the advancement of the Catholic Faith. Moved by this devotion and conviction, in 1917 he founded a movement called, "The Militia of the Immaculata" whose members would consecrate themselves to the Blessed Virgin Mary and whose purpose would be to fight, through all the morally valid means available, for the building of the Reign of God in the whole world. In the words of the saint, the movement would have "a global vision of catholic life under a new form that consists in a union with the Immaculata.” A truly modern apostle, he initiated the publication of his monthly magazine, "Knight of the Immaculata," oriented to promote knowledge, love and service to the Virgin Mary in the task of converting souls for Christ. In 1922 he had 500 copies in print, and by 1939 he reached close to one million copies in print. In 1931, after the Pope solicited missionaries, he offered himself as a volunteer to travel to Japan where he founded a new city of the Immaculata ("Mugenzai No Sono") and published in Japanese the magazine, "Knight of the Immaculata" ("Seibo No Kishi").


Today Niepokalanow is considered the second religious sanctuary in Poland, it is the most important one in Poland after Jasna Gora, next to Czestochowa. It is situated approximately 40 kilometers to the west of Warsaw. St. Maximilian was not resigned to just one or various magazines, his dream was to create a true, "City of the Immaculata" and for it to be the motor and focus that radiates magazines, books, newspapers and dailies to conquer the whole world for the Sacred Heart through the Immaculata. “Cover the whole world with printed paper to give back to souls the joy of living," is what St. Maximilian taught his brothers in the City of the Immaculata -or "the house, property and reign of the Immaculata."

St. Maximilian began with his homeland, but with the desire and objective that in all nations there would eventually be a Niepokalanow. Niepokalanow is translated in Latin as “Inmaculateum,” meaning, what belongs to the Immaculata. The name reflects the ideal, the program, and the end of a great saint like St. Maximilian Kolbe: “In Niepokalanow, Mary is everything: she is the heart and the goal; she is the ideal and the strength. We work, we live, we suffer, for Her. We also die for her. All for the greater glory of the Immaculata!"

The organization and functioning of the City of the Immaculata with its citizens – the Franciscan friars – under the authority of the superior of the convent, who also acted as the director of the editorial complex and a division with five departments, was distributed as follows:
1. Writing and Administration Department.
2. Printing Department.
3. Technical Department.
4. Domestic Economics Department.
5. Construction Department.6. A clinic, two houses of Formation and two houses for the Novitiates- for aspiring brothers and for aspiring friars - future priests.

At the moment of its greatest flourishing, Niepokalanow was the largest Religious Community having a total of 762 religious.

“We should conquer the universe and each soul, now and in the future until the end of time, for the Immaculata and through her for the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
(St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, The Knight of the Immaculata)


After the City of the Immaculata was firmly established in Poland, St. Maximilian set his sights abroad to conquer hearts throughout the world for the Immaculata. He set off for the far east and ended up in Nagasaki, Japan, where he established another community. In the midst of sickness, poverty, and many difficulties, the new community in Japan began to grow. Very soon, they had a Japanese version of the Knight of the Immaculata, the periodical that had flourished originally in Poland, and now in Japan. After a few years in Japan, St. Maximilian was summoned back to Poland, largely due to his ever-declining health.

His Arrest

In 1936 he returned to Poland as the spiritual director of Niepokalanów. Three years later, in the midst of the Second World War, he was imprisoned along with other friars and sent to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. He was freed shortly thereafter, precisely on the day he consecrated himself to the Immaculate Conception. In February of 1941 he was again made a prisoner and sent to the Pawiak prison. He was later transferred to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, where in spite of the terrible living conditions he continued his ministry.


The former concentration camp in Auschwitz, situated some 60 km from Cracow, is located in the midst of swampy terrain. The SS chose these old quarters from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to situate the concentration camp because of the favorable conditions for lines of communication. Under the authority of the camp’s first commander, Rudolf Höss, the camp, which would later be known as Auschwitz I or Central Camp, began to be built in May of 1940. This first expansion was thought to house 7000 prisoners, and it included 28 two-story brick buildings and some other adjacent wooden buildings. Two barbed wire fences with high electrical voltage surrounded the entire camp. Over the door at the entrance of the camp, a sign of sarcasm and disdain read: "WORK WILL SET YOU FREE."

There, every kind of cruelty and infamy, every sort of bestiality and aberration, every kind of atrocity and horror, took place to truly transform the camp into a living hell. Continual deaths occurred due to illness, malnutrition, cold, exhausting fatigue, scurvy, dysentery, traumas and infections. The firing squad would riddle with bullets dozens of people at a time, against a thick wall lined with rubber to diminish the sound. In the arms plaza, five people would climb unto a stool, the executioner would place the rope around their necks, and with a kick of the bucket, the victims remained suspended in air.

Auschwitz had become famous for the having installed the first gas chamber which began to operate the 15th of August 1940. It was not the bullets, hangings, or the gas chambers that were feared most, but rather the death basements or bunkers, which caused the slow, agonizing and maddening martyrdom due to hunger and thirst. By Heinrich Himmler’s order, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) camp began to be built in October of 1941. This one was much more extensive than the central camp. Auschwitz is the epitome of the most atrocious crime ever committed in the history of humanity. A crime that was completely documented, Auschwitz represents the location where the most well-organized and planned genocides in history took place. The victims were not buried; instead, they were burnt and their ashes where spread along the adjacent fields. Our linguistic resources are insufficient to describe all the cruelties that so many innocent men, women and children were subjected to in this place of horror. Not only were they brutally assassinated, but in addition, thousands of them died of starvation and many were subjected to forced labor under inhumane conditions until they died of exhaustion.

The Gas Chambers
The most efficient method of exterminating humans was asphyxiation through the gas chambers. In a hermetically enclosed space, the SS used Zyklon B acid, which evaporates at body temperature so that in a very short time it provoked death by asphyxiation. The first attempts at submitting humans to asphyxiating gases were in Auschwitz I on September of 1941 in prison cells located in block 11. Later on the deposit of cadavers adjacent to Crematorium I was used as a gas chamber. Because of the limited space in Crematorium I and the impossibility of maintaining this in complete secrecy, the SS moved to Birkenau in 1942 and transformed two farms in the middle of a forest into gas chambers. The cadavers were transported by narrow train lines to graves. Since these provisional installations were also not sufficient, in July of 1942 they began to build the four great “death factories.” These began functioning between March and June of 1943. The prisoners themselves were forced to build these places of extermination. At that time it was possible to assassinate and burn 24,000 persons daily.

Assassination by lethal injection
The prisoners were afraid of being admitted to the infirmary since this meant they would be submitted to a “lethal injection,” even when they had only a minor illness.
The “lethal injection” meant being assassinated by an injection of 10 cm of phenol, injected directly into the heart. The victims died on the spot. This assassination method began in August of 1941. The majority of times the phenol injections were administered by the health officers, Josef Klehr and Herbert Scherpe, as well as initiated prisoners like, Alfred Stössel and Mieczyslaw Panszcyk. The prisoners, including children, who were selected for the lethal injection needed to present themselves to block 20 of the central camp. There they were called in one by one and told to sit in an ambulatory chair. Two prisoners held the victim’s hands and a third one blindfolded his eyes. Immediately thereafter, Klehr would introduce the needle into the heart and empty the syringe. Between 30 and 60 people died each day by this method.

Love in the midst of hate

In an attempt by the Germans to exterminate all the leaders in Poland, in May of 1941, St. Maximilian Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo in Niepokalanow-the city of the Immaculata, and taken to Auschwitz-the city of hatred and death. Fr. Kolbe was beaten and received great cruelties for the simple fact that he was a Catholic priest. They made priests work even harder than civilians and the SS enjoyed the most minimal opportunity to beat them inhumanly. If anyone attempted to help them, they would punish the priests by increasing their work, or they would beat them until they would lose consciousness. St. Maximilian was a light in the midst of such darkness. There are many testimonies by those who, through his words and example, were able to keep the faith in the middle of such desperation and death.

One concentration camp survivor explained: "Life in the concentration camp was inhumane. One could not trust anyone because there were spies, even amongst the prisoners. All of us were selfish at heart. With so many being assassinated all around, the hope was that others would be assassinated and that we could survive; our animal instincts took over because of hunger.” This was the reality that Maximilian Kolbe shared with them, yet he brought peace to the hearts of the most troubled, consolation to the afflicted, strength to the weak, and the grace of God through the Sacrament of Mercy, prayer and sacrifice – just like a good Teacher of souls. He lived to the extreme what he didn’t tire preaching to his friars: “Don’t ever forget to love.”

In Auschwitz, the Nazi regime looked to shed all prisoners of any vestige of their personality by treating them inhumanly and impersonally, as if people were numbers. St. Maximilian was assigned number 16670. In spite of everything, during his stay in the concentration camp, he never ceased being generous and concerned for others, and he always maintained the dignity of his fellow inmates. On the night of August 3, 1941 a prisoner assigned in the same section as St. Maximilian escaped. As a reprisal, the camp commander ordered that 10 random prisoners be chosen to be executed. Among the men chosen was Polish Sergeant, Franciszek Gajowniczek, who was married with children. "There is no greater love than to give up your life for your friends" (Jn 15, 13). St. Maximilian, who was not one of the 10 chosen to be executed, offered himself to die in the Sergeant’s place. The commander of the concentration camp accepted the exchange and St. Maximilian was condemned to die of starvation together with the other nine prisoners. Days after the condemnation, since he was still alive, they administered a lethal injection on the 14th of August, 1941.

The legacy

St. Maximilian, in the midst of the greatest adversity, gave testimony and exemplified human dignity. In 1973 Paul VI beatified him and in 1982 John Paul II canonized him as a Martyr of Charity. John Paul II comments on the great influence that St. Maximilian had on his priestly vocation: “Another singular and important dimension of my vocation arises from here. The German occupation soldiers in the West and the Soviet occupation forces in the East made a great number of detentions and deportations of polish priests to concentration camps. In Dachau alone there were interned almost three thousand. There were other camps, like for example, the one in Auschwitz, where St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan Friar from Niepokalanow, offered his life for Christ and became the first priest canonized after the war.” (John Paul II, Gift and Mystery)

St. Maximilian’s legacy provides a notion of a militant Church, unceasingly building up of the Kingdom of God. Even today there still remain active works he inspired, such as the religious institutes of the Franciscan friars of the Immaculate, the Franciscan sisters of the Immaculate, as well as other movements consecrated to the Immaculate Conception. But above all, St. Maximilian’s legacy was his marvelous example of Love.

̈“Charity should be open to all without discrimination; her only limit should be whatever is possible, which because of its spirit of sacrifice- should reach to the extreme.” (St.Maximilian)


Sigmund Gorson, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, called him “A prince among men.”
I was born in a precious family where love was abundant. All my family, parents, sisters and grandparents were murdered in the Concentration Camp. I was the only survivor. For me, it was extremely hard to find myself alone in this world, in the horror and hell that was lived in Auschwitz, and alone thirteen years old.

Many youth like myself lost all hope of survival, and many jumped into the high voltage barbed wires to commit suicide. I never lost hope of finding someone among the immense mass of people who would have known my parents, a friend, a neighbor, so that I wouldn’t feel so alone.

This is how Father Kolbe found me, to put it in simple terms, while I was looking for someone with whom I could make a connection. He was like an angel for me. Just like a mother hen takes in her chicks, that’s how he took me into his arms. He would clean my tears. I believe more in the existence of God ever since then. Ever since the death of my parents, I would ask myself, Where is God? I had lost all faith. Father Kolbe gave me back my faith.

Father Kolbe knew I was a young Jew, but his love would embrace everyone. He gave us lots of love. To be charitable in times of peace is easy, but to be charitable the way Father Kolbe was in that place of horror is heroic. I not only loved Father Kolbe a lot in the Concentration

Camp, but I will love him until the last day of my life.

Mieczyslaus Koscielniak relates how Saint Maximilian had attempted to create a school of saints in Niepokalanow, and how he attempted to do the same
amidst the horror of Auschwitz:

Saint Maximilian would encourage us to persevere with fortitude, “Do not allow yourselves to break down morally,” he would say to us, promising that God’s justice existed and that the Nazis would eventually be defeated. Listening to him, we would forget about our hunger and the degradation which we were subjected to constantly.

One day, Saint Maximilian asked me for a favor. He said, our life here is very insecure, one by one we are being taken to the crematoriums, maybe I will go next, but in the meanwhile, can you do me a favor? Could you make me a drawing of Jesus and Mary, to whom I am very devoted? I drew it for him in the size of a postage stamp, and he would carry it with him all the time in a secret space he had on his belt.

Risking his own life or at least a good beating, between the months of June and July, he secretly met with us, almost every day, to instruct us. His words meant a lot to us. He would speak to us with such great faith about the saints who were celebrated each day, and how much they had to suffer. He would speak to us with great ardor about the martyrs who had totally sacrificed their lives for God’s cause. On Pentecost, he exhorted us to persevere, not to lose hope. Even if we don’t all survive, he said, we will all for sure triumph.

Henry Sienkiewicz was a young man who slept next to Saint Maximilian when they both arrived at the camp. I never let a day pass by without seeing my friend. Father will win the hearts of all. Father Kolbe lived day by day by the hand of God. He had such an attraction, which was like a spiritual magnet. He would take us to God and the Virgin Mary. He wouldn’t stop telling us that God was good and merciful. He desired to convert everyone in the Camp, including the Nazis. He not only prayed for their conversion, but would exhort us to also pray for their conversion.

One morning when I was getting ready to go do some hard labor, right before leaving, Father gave me a quarter of his bread portion. I didn’t want to take it, because I noticed he had been brutally beaten and he was exhausted. Besides, he would not receive anything else until the night. Father Kolbe embraced me and said: You should take it. You are going to be doing hard labor and you are hungry.

If I was able to leave that place alive, keep my faith and not despair, I owe it to Father Kolbe. When I was close to desperation and just about to jump on the electrical voltage barbed wires, he gave me strength and told me I would come out of there alive. Just lean on the intercession of the Mother of God. He instilled in me a strong faith and a living hope, especially in her Maternal protection.


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