On October 10, 1982, St. John Paul II canonized Father Maximilian Kolbe, hero of Auschwitz, who he called a “martyr of charity.” Father Kolbe had been arrested by the Nazis and sent to that infamous concentration camp for housing Polish refugees, most of them Jews. In July of 1941, he voluntarily stepped forward to take the place of a younger, married father who was selected by the camp guards to be sent to the starvation bunker. His selfless act eventually led to the man being reunited with his wife at the end of the war.
His heroic and selfless act of valor has not only been praised by the Church; others too, have recognized in him a giant of a man. A website which chronicles some of the history of the Auschwitz camp states: “Father Kolbe’s incredible deed is an inspiration for all mankind. His life serves as eulogy to the millions who perished in World War II. He did not leave his legacy as an ode to the past – rather as a beacon of hope to the future…”
The Church, who celebrates his feast day on the fourteenth of August, acknowledges the greatness of this man’s love in her liturgy: “O God, who filled the Priest and Martyr Saint Maximilian Kolbe with a burning love for the Immaculate Virgin Mary and with zeal for souls and love of neighbor, graciously grant, through his intercession, that, striving for your glory by eagerly serving others, we may be conformed, even unto death, to your Son.” Father Kolbe demonstrated an astounding conformity to the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross, through which we can learn important lessons about the universal call of the Chrsitian soul to love heroically.
This hope can inspire and raise up those who are bowed down. This hope emerges when people perceive in the sufferings and sacrifices of others—or even in their own—a love and a passion for truth, beauty, and goodness that proves that there is something more, something beyond suffering that is both worldly and transcendent to hope for. Even if the transcendence that Christ’s Paschal Mystery points to—the eternal joy of Heaven—is not perceivably evident to people through suffering, we can still acknowledge that the “glory that is hidden in the very suffering of Christ” can be evident and lead to an inspiring hope. A hope such as this, even when not explicitly pointing to Christ and the victory of His Resurrection, can still lead towards it, albeit in a hidden way. This is because of the universality of the human heart’s draw toward a love that is stronger than the power of evil.
The Scripture verse that perhaps best describes the ultimate act of valor of the martyrs of charity can be found in the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, spoken by Christ to His apostles the night before laying down His life for mankind: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). Throughout the history of the Church, and indeed of humanity, there have been those who have laid down their lives so that others may live, just as Father Kolbe did that July day seven decades ago.
Petty Officer Michael Anthony Monsoor is an example of a young Catholic who lived this “great love” to the very end. Michael was a twenty-five year old US Navy SEAL, who during a firefight with insurgent forces in Ar-Ramadi, Iraq, was tasked with providing protection for a sniper element on a rooftop on September 29th, 2006, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, the young SEAL’s patron saint. What occurred next is best narrated by the official citation for the Medal of Honor which was posthumously bestowed on the young SEAL for his valor:
“As enemy activity increased, Petty Officer Monsoor took position with his machine gun between two teammates on an outcropping of the roof. While the SEALs vigilantly watched for enemy activity, an insurgent threw a hand grenade from an unseen location, which bounced off Petty Officer Monsoor’s chest and landed in front of him. Although only he could have escaped the blast, Petty Officer Monsoor chose instead to protect his teammates. Instantly and without regard for his own safety, he threw himself onto the grenade to absorb the force of the explosion with his body, saving the lives of his two teammates. By his undaunted courage, fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of certain death, Petty Officer Monsoor gallantly gave his life for his country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Michael’s heroism has influenced the lives of numerous American youth, showing them the true meaning of love—that to be real, it has to be “ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.” The love that he showed for his brothers is the same love that Christ showed for us. His story has been told at youth retreats and in high school classrooms, sometimes eliciting awestruck tears at the magnitude of the selflessness that he exhibited that September day sixteen years ago. Young men have been taken aback by it, relating that they had never thought of love in that sense. It is safe to say that examples such as these prove that even within the darkness of suffering and death, people can perceive a light also; they perceive “not so much the defeat of life and of love, but rather victory, the victory of life over death, of love over hatred”.
Both Father Kolbe and Michael understood something profound about Christ’s call to love others as He loves us. Indeed, not everyone is confronted with the life-or-death decision that these two martyrs of charity were, yet all people can learn the magnitude of love that we are all called to. We may not be called to literally die for our spouse, or child, or friend – but we are always called to love them with a self-sacrificing spirit.
The understanding that suffering and sacrifice can have a transcendent character is so sorely needed in our world today. When people see someone who suffers with fortitude, patience, and endurance, someone who suffers for the sake of another, someone who sacrifices everything to save another’s life, they are forced into an encounter with a transcendent mystery that they cannot describe. Even in the midst of suffering, a hope can enter in: “…the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.”