We stand on the shoulders of giants. All the saints, our brothers and sisters in Christ, are giants, living in the infinite heart of God. And it’s that infinite nature of God, His boundless love and generosity and strength that shines through in the giants we call saints.
But sometimes there is a holy person whose love for God is played out against a backdrop of extraordinary times, with extraordinary events swirling around him. Sometimes, a holy person is so larger-than-life on this side of life, that it’s hard to wrap your head around it.
St. Maximilian Kolbe was one such saint. As a child, he was visited by an apparition of the Blessed Mother, who held out two crowns to him- a white crown of purity, and a red crown of martyrdom. Famously, Kolbe chose both, and both he was given.
Wholeheartedly embracing the communications technology of the time, Kolbe organized the Militia Immaculata- the Army of Mary- to work for the conversion of sinners, to strengthen the faithful, and to speak out against growing atrocities of the Nazi regime. He published tracts, newspapers, magazines, and even had an amateur radio license.
This giant of a saint traveled to Japan, and set up a monastery in Nagasaki- a monastery that was one of the few buildings to withstand the blast of the atomic bomb dropped on the city.
From Japan, Kolbe returned to Poland, where he sheltered thousands of refugees from the Nazi regime. He was eventually, inevitably, arrested and ultimately was sent to Auschwitz. There, he offered to die in place of another prisoner, and spent his final days in what was termed “The Hunger Pit”- an underground bunker where Kolbe and nine other men were left to die of dehydration.
For two weeks Kolbe led the other men in Mass and prayers and hymns. He stayed with each of the men as they left this world and went to meet God face to face. For two weeks, Kolbe endured, until finally his jailors decided that this giant of a saint needed to die to make room for more victims. A lethal injection of carbolic acid was administered, and St. Maximilian Kolbe, a giant among giants, returned to God, undoubtedly carried there in the arms of his beloved Mary.
But today, on this man’s feast day, this giant of a saint upon whose shoulders we get to stand every time we ask for his intercession, I want to talk about somebody else. Specifically, two somebody elses, who raised up this larger-than-life saint.
Julius and Maria Kolbe were poor laborers. Julius was German, Maria was Polish. Together they had four sons, and worked a number of grueling jobs to make ends meet for the family. They rented their housing. They rented the land Julius grew vegetables on. They knew the pain of losing a child young, and the pain of losing another child even younger.
Their second child, Raymond, was a handful, and was known to be quite mischievous. One day, out of the exasperation all parents know, Maria looked at her high-spirited son and said, “Honestly, what will become of you?”
Those words hit home, because it was that evening that young Raymond was visited by the Blessed Mother and hear her offer of two crowns. From here, Raymond seems to have changed, and, taking those twin crowns seriously, entered a junior Franciscan seminary, applying himself to his studies.
Raymond had a gift for both science and military strategy. He also had a great love for Poland, and he decided that he would better spend his life as a soldier, fighting for his homeland’s independence, rather than becoming a priest.
The story goes that on the very day he was going to leave the seminary, and tell his parents about his plans to enlist in military life, his mother paid him an unexpected visit at the school. She revealed to him that since she and Julius had raised up all their children, they were now going to enter religious life. This story and his parents’ decision affected Raymond greatly, and so he abandoned his military plans, entered the Franciscan Order, and became Maximilian Kolbe.
What the world would have lost without the example of St. Maximilian. Certainly, Raymond Kolbe would have continued to do good as a Polish soldier, but there would have been so much lost, on such a broader scale, had Maria Kolbe not showed up that day with her news.
This is how it goes, I think. A saint does not exist apart from God, but neither does he exist apart from his community, his family. So while we, the Church Militant, get to stand on the shoulders of giants, if we look carefully, we see that those giants stand on the fragile shoulders of their loved ones, who, in a thousand different, unplanned ways, helped raise up a holy man for God.
The people you meet today, tomorrow, next week, family, friends, strangers, all of them were placed in your life on purpose. So while you may never be asked to wear the red crown of martyrdom, your actions may be building up a new giant for God, and surely there’s a crown for that, too.