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  • Writer's pictureRevShirleyMurphy

St. Maximilian Kolbe - The Saint and Martyr of the Immaculate

On the 14th of August we remember St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe He is a wonderful example of one who trusted in Jesus, often through the intercession of Mary. St. Maximillian is a new saint. He was born in 1994 and was canonized in 1982. As a Franciscan friar, he founded the Immaculate movement based on the notion that the fastest easiest way of becoming like Jesus was through the grace of Mary. Most who are familiar with St. Maximilian know of his arrest by the Nazis and time spent in a concentration camp. He volunteered to take the place of another prisoner (a husband and father) who was to be sent to the starvation bunker. While in the concentration camp he made it his mission to show through word and action that there is a God—an incredible task during a genocide!

On the eve of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 14, 1941, Fr. Maximilian’s time in the starvation ended when he died after an injection of carbolic acid. What a testament to his devotion to our blessed Mother! I do not believe this was a coincidence.

Saints are not born, they are made. A careful look at Maximilian Kolbe’s early years indicates some of the factors that led him to the summit of heroic love and transformation into the image of Christ.

St Maximilian was born on January 8, 1894, in Zduńska-Wola in Poland. Maximilian lamented the existence of hatred and the political split in Poland. His father Julius Kolbe, a working-class citizen, struggled under the effects of this disunity, where the bonds of love and understanding did not prevail among the citizens of Poland, largely due to the occupation of Russia, Prussia, and Austria. His three sons Francis, Raymond (who was later named Maximilian in his religious Order), and Joseph, would experience the same social consequences.

As a child, Raymond dreamed the political reunification of their Motherland would come about through the valorous efforts of some knights of Our Lady of Czestochowa. His courageous and generous soul to undertake great things for his country was intensified by his ardent devotion to the glorious Patroness of Poland. This special dedication to the Mother of God could easily be attributed to the influence of his own virtuous mother, Maria Dabrowska, who formed his early years in the daily recitation of the Angelus, the Holy Rosary, and the Litany to Our Lady.

The practice of these pious Marian devotions, however, would not subdue young Raymond’s natural, mischievous nature. At some point, when the youngster was finally reprimanded by his mother, she raised the question as to what would become of him if he continued his naughty behaviour. Tearfully, he presented himself before the Blessed Virgin Mary and humbly asked her the same question of himself.

In response, Our Lady showed him two crowns: one red, the other white. When asked to choose which he preferred, he chose both: to remain pure and undivided in his love for God and the Blessed Virgin, and to be a martyr. Only a saint can make such a generous choice! Saints are the ones who desire to do astounding things for God! Saints have magnanimous ambition, not because they trust in themselves, but because they are urged on by a profound and unbounded love.

At age thirteen, Raymond Kolbe became fascinated by the Franciscan ideals preached by two Conventual Franciscans who conducted a parish mission at his church in Pabianice in 1907. Soon thereafter, he and his elder brother, Francis, entered the Franciscan minor seminary in Lwów. During his formation and study there, the makings of a saint continued to deepen. He fervently sought to draw profit from all the means accessible for his personal sanctification.

He took diligent care to assimilate the instructions he received and to put them into immediate action. Never did he shun occasions to make sacrifices and to vigorously uproot all that was inordinate in his being. Prayer, therefore, was the mainstay of his passionate soul, deriving great benefit from his many hours before the Blessed Sacrament. But most of all, he nourished a tender and profound love for the Blessed Virgin Mary whose devotion is at the very heart of Franciscan life as the inseparable reality of its Christ-centeredness.

On September 4, 1910, Raymond Kolbe entered the novitiate of the Conventual Franciscans. Being invested with the Franciscan habit, he was given the new name of “Friar Maximilian Mary.” Just as most saints, Friar Maximilian also underwent countless trials and tribulations; he had scruples and doubts during his years of formation. The largesse of his soul, however, compelled him to do great things for Our Lady, pressing him on to leave the Order and join the military forces in defense of Poland, his Motherland, under Mary’s patronage. It was proven, however, that God’s plan for him was of a different military nature, and he finally came to understand that his mission was to be fought on the spiritual battlefield.

Having been sent to Rome to further his theological studies, his magnanimous soul found its expression in the intensity of his love for the Immaculate! His Franciscan formation augmented his thirst for the Christ-centeredness of the Order’s spirituality and its theological bent, with emphasis on the Primacy of Christ. On the devotional level, this Primacy is equated to the triumph of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Such emphasis on Christ’s power and redemptive love finds its most perfect fulfillment in the Immaculate; and Friar Maximilian gradually discovered that in order to be a saint, one must be conformed to the likeness of Christ, a likeness which is authenticated in the perfection of the Immaculate. But to be a saint demands a total response to love, made possible only through the help of grace. Mary, being the Immaculate, i.e., full of grace, mediates these graces from God through her spousal bond with the Holy Spirit. This Franciscan intellectual tradition influenced St. Maximilian in founding a movement which had its underlying dogmatic truth on Mary’s role in the economy of man’s sanctification and salvation – a role that ultimately leads one to the fastest, easiest and surest way of becoming like Jesus.

Having obtained permission from his superiors at the Conventual Franciscan Collegio-Serafico in Rome, this movement, named the “Knights of the Immaculate” (“MILITIA IMMACULATAE” or “M.I.”), was founded on the eve of October 16, 1917, a year before Friar Maximilian’s ordination. Along with six other friars, he consecrated himself totally to the Immaculate and drafted the simple M.I. Statutes of this Marian-Franciscan movement. Even to this very day, its goal continues to be the sanctification of as many souls as possible under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

What could possibly be the secret of the incredible progress of Kolbe’s work? He himself pointed out to the friars that the true progress of Niepokalanów does not actually consist in constructing more buildings, of adding more printing presses, or of publications becoming more widespread. It consists, rather, in the daily deepening of one’s love for the Immaculate. The success of the work is brought about by Mary’s mediation and assistance. She – seeing the profound love of a soul for her – would eventually reward such love by loving that soul in return; thus generating the fruit of these two loves (i.e., the soul’s and the Immaculate’s): the birth of Jesus in countless souls. This is Kolbe’s dynamic principle of action and reaction.

A saint’s heart can never be constrained to geographical boundaries. He is, by grace, always a missionary. This was especially true of St. Maximilian Kolbe. He loved the Immaculate with the Heart of Jesus, and he loved Jesus with the heart of Mary. It is manifested in a similar, universal desire to win all souls to Jesus and the Immaculate.

With the permission of his superiors, St. Maximilian, considering the need for further expansion, started a mission in Japan with four other friars in 1930. At Nagasaki, they established a new “City of the Immaculate” (Mugenzai no Sono – literally “Garden of the Immaculate”), thereby introducing his ideal, the Immaculate, to the Orient. In spite of problems with local authorities, language, culture, and climate – one month after their arrival, Father Maximilian was, nevertheless, able to publish the first issue of “Seibo no Kishi,” the Japanese version of the magazine “Knight of the Immaculate.”

He wrought numerous conversions among the Japanese; most of them thanked him for his heroic and unconditional sacrifice to draw them to the true Faith. But St. Maximilian recognized that this apostolic success could only be attributed to a pure and undivided love for the Immaculate. Where there is love and charity, there is God.

After having initiated the undertaking and seeing it flourish in Japan, his major superiors appointed him as the superior of the Polish City of the Immaculate whose apostolic potentials had peaked at that moment in time. Upon his return to Poland, with somewhat of a prophetic “instinct,” knowing perhaps his end was approaching, he busied himself giving continuous and regular spiritual conferences to the friars, so as to consolidate his spiritual and apostolic legacy.

Such preparation became the spiritual strength of the friars themselves. Shortly afterwards, the Nazis occupied Poland in September, 1939. Father Maximilian and many of the friars were arrested. Their incarceration lasted approximately two months. Upon his release from prison on December 8, 1939, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of his Heavenly Queen, Father Maximilian returned to a ransacked Niepokalanów. The Nazis suppressed his printing and publishing apostolate. Without being disheartened, his zeal remained unabated. Due to the harsh war conditions of the time, Niepokalanów was quickly turned into a refugee center for displaced families, Jews and victims of political unrest. His solicitude for these war victims had no sectarian boundaries; he fostered in them the need to forgive their enemies, and to acknowledge that hatred is destructive and love alone is creative.

On February 17, 1941, Father Maximilian was arrested by the Nazis for a second time. Only hours before the Gestapo arrived, he completed his final and most comprehensive, theological essay on the Virgin Mary’s identity as one who is perfectly united to the Holy Spirit by a bond of love. Soon after, in the concentration camp, Father Maximilian would translate his theological and spiritual insights into practical words and actions for his fellow inmates, by tangibly showing that there is God, and therefore, love and hope exist even in the midst of horrific genocide in the camps of Auschwitz.

Only a saint can stand firm, with constancy and unwavering hope, throughout life’s many difficulties and sufferings. Only a saint can influence others to do the same, because only a saint knows that true and perfect peace is found in God alone. For the saint, trials don’t weaken, they fortify. Serenity and calmness amidst atrocities are not a sign of defeat but of victory, for love is greater than hatred!

In July of 1941, it was reported to the deputy camp commander that a prisoner from St. Maximilian’s barracks had escaped. In order to set an example, and to prevent further escapes, the standard procedure was to have the commander of the barracks single out ten men for the starvation bunker. Father Maximilian, although not among the ten first selected, volunteered, in a heroic act of charity, to be the victim in place of a prisoner who cried out: “My poor wife; my poor children!” The result of this self-offering was that Father Maximilian would be assigned to the infamous starvation bunker where he would slowly but surely die. At this precise moment, the victim Saint attained full conformity to the Victim of the Cross; for there is “no greater love than this, that a man lays down his life for his friend” (Jn 15:12).

Pope John Paul and St, Maximilian KolbeOn the vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 14, 1941, Father Maximilian’s two-week ordeal in the starvation bunker was brought to an end by an injection of carbolic acid. Of the ten victims, he was the last to die, very providentially on the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption into heaven! His death was the crowing of a lifetime of Marian mysticism. Years later, in June, 1979, Pope John Paul II would visit St. Maximilian’s death chamber in Auschwitz, proclaiming him “Patron Saint of our Difficult Age.”

St. Maximilian is a wonderful example of faith and trust in our Lord. I can only imagine the peace he brought to his fellow prisoners in the concentration camp.

Pope John Paul II proclaimed him the “Patron Saint of our Difficult Age.” The challenge is for us to find those saints among us—they are there— and they serve as incredible models of faith and trust.


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