It is a testament to the inherent goodness of the same human condition that uncountable acts of mercy, kindness, and self-sacrifice also took place within those same electrified fences. While most of those selfless deeds were lost to history with the lives of the ones who performed them, one that is remembered is celebrated today, the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan monk, the acknowledged “saint of Auschwitz.” Kolbe had already made his mark in the Church, long before his imprisonment. A passionate devotee of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, he had employed his extraordinary organizational skills to promote that Marian devotion through establishment of new monastic communities, a lay movement, and numerous widely read journals. What has etched his name in religious history, however, took place after he had been interred at Auschwitz, when a fellow prisoner from his housing block was discovered missing. In retaliation, as was the practice, ten men were arbitrarily selected for starvation. When one of them, a young sergeant in the Polish army, bemoaned never seeing his wife or children again, Kolbe stepped forward to take his place. His final tortuous days were spent in prayer, support, and encouragement of his companions as they slid toward death. On August 14, 1941, prison guards, needing the space for another batch of the condemned, injected him with a lethal dose of carbolic acid and sent his corpse off to a camp crematorium.
Today’s readings are a befitting celebration of this holy and heroic
man. Ezekiel reminds us of both the justice and the mercy of God,
Who knows all that happens, Who punishes our “abominations” while still
recognizing the good that we do. It is in the Gospel passage, however,
that my reflection on Maximilian Kolbe lingers and that my admiration for
him grows. Through Matthew, Jesus reminds us that “where two or three
are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” That Kolbe
found Christ amid the dirt, the disease, the desperation, and the death
of Auschwitz is not only inspiring, but also astonishing. Likewise
called to find God in all things, surely then I can find that Loving Presence
in my own relatively trivial trials—in children who defy, in colleagues
who disagree, in students who disappoint, in drivers who dawdle, even—indeed,
especially—in my own struggles to live out Christ’s message. Today,
that’s St. Maximilian Kolbe’s message, too.
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