St. Maximilian is very dear to my heart. I knew that he had given his life for the sake of another, which of course in and of itself recommends that person as one of great integrity and virtue. But he is also a favorite of Henry's, and Henry's enthusiasm made me want to look to St. Maximilian more closely. I downloaded a book for Henry to his Kindle, Maximilian Kolbe: Saint of Auschwitz by Elaine Murray Stone, which is a biography written for children his age, and we've been reading it together before bedtime each night. Henry has been entranced, and I have learned quite a bit about our Maximilian. :)
...like the fact that his given name was Raymond, and that he came from a family of brothers, born in Poland during the late nineteenth century. His parents were both very devout Catholics, and raised their three sons firmly in the faith. In fact, as a widow later in her life, his mother became a Benedictine nun, and his brother Alphonse also became a priest. Apparently, in his younger years, Maximilian (the name he chose when he became a Franciscan novice and received the habit) was a bit precocious and gave his parents some gray hair. After he made his First Communion, however, he had to grow up in a hurry. He had a vision of Our Blessed Mother, during which time she held out two crowns, one white (for purity) and one red (for martyrdom). Our Lady asked Maximilian which he would accept, and he replied that he would accept both. A weighty endeavor, indeed.
After he joined the Franciscans as a young man, Maximilian started the Immaculata Movement, a group devoted to Our Lady and the spirit of evangelization. He was full of zeal for spreading the message of the love of Christ and Our Lady. Part of this ministry was a newspaper that he developed called The Knight of the Immaculate. This newspaper was very successful, with a daily run, and the monastery where he lived even acquired a printing press to aid in this important part of their work.
Throughout the early part of his adulthood, Maximilian struggled with his health. He contracted tuberculosis and his physical strength never fully recovered. He didn't let that stop him from traveling to Japan to spread his missionary efforts there, including a Japanese language edition of The Knight.
He ended up back in Poland on account of his health, and following the Nazi invasion in 1939, he was arrested with other priests for publishing material speaking out against Nazi atrocities. He and his group of friars were briefly released, but two years later, the Nazis came again for Fr. Maximilian, and this time they were angry enough that release wasn't an option. He was taken to a prison in Warsaw, and then on to Auschwitz. The friars at his monastery were devastated.
In the camp, he ministered to others as discreetly as he could, staying awake at night to pray with other prisoners and hear confessions, to the detriment of his own health. The hard labor and meager rations the prisoners received certainly also contributed.
Two months later, a man from their cell block escaped and was not re-located. The punishment for this was the death of ten men from within this same group, via starvation. Ten were chosen, and one of them, a husband and father of young children, asked that his life be spared for their sake. Fr. Maximilian offered to take his place, and his request was granted.
At this point of the story, I will pause to say that Henry and I got to this part last night in our reading of the book I mentioned above. I tried to mentally prepare myself, so that I wouldn't get emotional. But needless to say, if a lack of Ziploc bags can make me cry, I had zero chance of keeping it together last night. I struggled a bit as I read about how the men were shoved into this small cell and began to suffer. For *two weeks*. Fr. Kolbe did his best to keep their spirits up by praying with them and singing. When I got to the part where one man was so desperate from thirst that he drank urine, I lost it and started crying. Henry was watching me, very wide eyed, but I couldn't help it. For children oftentimes, human suffering and death, while sad, is very abstract. Not so for adults.
The men began to die, bodies being carried out daily. Fr. Kolbe lingered until the end. When the cell was needed for other condemned prisoners, Fr. Kolbe was given a lethal injection to end his life.
We're certainly ending on a sad note. But St. Maximilian's story is an inspiring one of faith and courage. I'm so glad that Henry has taken a shine to him, and hopefully will ask for his intercession throughout his life.
|Henry's rosary, with St. Maximilian Kolbe medal near crucifix|