St. Maximilian Kolbe was born on January 8, 1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland. His entire life was centered on his great love and devotion to Our Lady through her Immaculate Conception. At the age of six he had a vision of her:
That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.
—Regis Armstrong and Ingrid Peterson, The Franciscan Tradition, 50
Kolbe and his older brother entered the Conventual Franciscans in 1910 and he made his final vows to the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience, and chastity in 1914. He was then sent to Rome to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University where he pursued a doctorate in Philosophy. He then continued on to receive a doctorate in Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure in 1922.
Throughout his studies he remained steadfast in his devotion and commitment to Mary and consecration to her. He had taken the additional religious name Marie. His devotion to her grew as he witnessed attacks on Popes St. Pius X and Benedict XV at the hands of Freemasons. It was then that he founded the Militia of the Immaculata in order to combat Freemasonry, as well as other enemies of the Church. The movement was founded for the evangelization of the world through the intercession of Mary. His devotion was so great that he even added a prayer to the Miraculous Medal:
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. And for all those who do not have recourse to thee; especially the Masons and all those recommended to thee.
During the midst of his studies, Kolbe was ordained to the priesthood and he returned to the newly independent Poland where he taught at seminary. He continued his dedication to Our Lady and vehemently opposed Leftist ideologies, including Communism. While there he battled his second round of Tuberculosis and upon his recovery lived in a weakened physical state until his death.
After his recovery, he made multiple missionary trips to East Asia. He struggled to garner a following to Jesus Christ and His Church in China, but was able to establish a monastery in Japan. The monastery actually survived the nuclear blast on Nagasaki. In 1936 Kolbe’s poor health forced him to return to Poland.
World War II began for him with the invasion of Poland and Kolbe remained in the monastery with a few of his brothers in order to serve in the area. They opened a small hospital for the wounded and sick. He was briefly arrested and refused to sign the Deutsche Volksliste which would have given him the same rights as Germans if he claimed his own German ancestry; Kolbe’s father was German. He then began his work that would most directly lead to his eventual imprisonment in a concentration camp.
His monastery hid and protected people throughout Poland including 1000-2000 Jews. He also continued his religious publications, even though they were limited by the new Nazi regime. Many of the works they published were anti-Nazi in nature. On February 17, 1941 his monastery was shut down and along with four others, Kolbe was sent to Pawiak prison. On May 28 he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670.
While in Auschwitz, Kolbe continued his duties as a priest. He was harassed, beaten, and tormented by his captors. On July 3 three prisoners escaped prompting the authorities to select 10 men to die in an underground bunker as reprisal. Kolbe volunteered in the place of a husband and father. He then spent two weeks slowly dying of dehydration and starvation. Throughout those last two weeks he spent his days in deep prayer and devotion to Our Lady. On August 14 he was given a lethal dose of carbolic acid and died a martyr’s death. His remains were cremated on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption. He was canonized by St. John Paul II on October 10, 1982.
The heroic witness of St. Maximilian Kolbe is inextricably linked with his great love and devotion to Our Lady. His mission was centered on the conversion of souls and battle against enemies of the Church through her intercession. He called each one of us to follow her example and love her as Our Lord loves her.
If we become like Mary, then we are “Blessed and highly favored.”
We are overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.
We become the Ark, the dwelling place of God.
We give birth to Christ again in the world.
We become the spouse of the Holy Spirit.
We become the perfect disciple of Christ.
We become an intercessor as she did at Cana.
We share in the sufferings of Christ and stand at the foot of the Cross.
Our hearts are pierced by sword.
We are at enmity with the devil.
In becoming like Mary, we can truly live our lives in complete devotion, love, and dependence on God. Mary’s example is what we sinners need as we work out our salvation in “fear and trembling” and she is a guide for us to her Son. It is Mary who helps enflame in us a greater love for the Most Holy Trinity.
The aim of creation, the end of man himself, is the love of God, Creator and Father, an ever greater love, the divinization of man, his return to God from whom he came, union with God, a fruitful love. So that love for the Father might become even more perfect, infinitely more perfect, the love of the Son Jesus, made itself manifest. But so that love for the Son might burn more intensely and thus enkindle a still more ardent love of the Father, there has come to help us the united love of the Holy Spirit and of the Immaculata, the mother full of mercy, the Mediatrix of all graces, an earthly creature like ourselves, who strongly attracts hearts to herself and to her motherly heart.
—St. Maximilian Kolbe, Journal reflection: “Our Purpose”, August 1940
Mary’s love for us is a love that will draw us into sanctity and holiness. She loves with the heart of her Son, so she desires our ultimate good, which is Him. Her love for us is truly great and if we rely on her she will guide us on the path.
So you, my child, must love her as your mother with all the generosity of your heart. She loved you enough to sacrifice God’s Son for you. In the Annunciation she welcomed you with all graciousness as her child. She will make you like herself, will make you ever more immaculate, will nourish you with the milk of her grace. Just let yourself be guided by her; let yourself be ever more willingly shaped by her. Watch over the purity of your conscience; purify it in her love. Do not get discouraged, even if you sin seriously, repeatedly. An act of perfect love will purify you again. You belong to her as her property. Let her do with you what she wishes. Do not let her feel herself bound by any restrictions flowing from the obligations a mother has towards her own child.
—St. Maximilian Kolbe, Journal reflection: “The Immaculata is Yours—You are Hers”, August 1940
Kolbe lived constantly in the tender care of Our Lady. He made it his mission to bring people to total consecration with her through his Militia of the Immaculata. He loved and followed her until his dying breath. His witness and words call each one of us to follow her in complete trust and obedience; to turn to her as Our Mother who desires eternal life for every soul. St. Maximilian Kolbe’s words, witness, and call rings true for each one of us today. We must give ourselves over to Our Lady each day. St. Maximilian Kolbe, ora pro nobis.
We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.