In Catholic tradition, people entering the church are confirmed in the name of their selected patron saint. The whole concept of patron saints is somewhat foreign to most Christians outside of the Catholic church. The idea is basically that a patron saint—a holy person recognized by the Church as a saint—is one who can act as an intercessor on your behalf in heaven. You can pray to your patron (or any saint, for that matter) and ask for their assistance much like you can ask your friends and family to pray for you in time of need.
While you ultimately get to choose who your confirmation saint is, many would say that you don’t chose your patron . . . they choose you. In my case, as I started considering who my confirmation saint would be, I loaded the SQPN Saints Index and began browsing. I looked at patron saints of places I enjoy, for subjects that are close to my heart (the Internet, pro-life, etc.), and more. Eventually, you stumble upon a saint who’s story touches you and just feels right.
In my case, I was confirmed in the name of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. If I remember correctly, I stumbled upon his page while clicking through the various saints associated with the pro-life movement, and I was nearly brought to tears when I read his story.
He was born Raymond Kolbe in Russian-occupied Poland in 1894. He—like me—was a ‘mischievous’ child and a trial to his parents. He received a vision of the Virgin Mary at the age of 12 which he explained this way:
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 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.
Kolbe, as an adult, became a Priest. In 1922 he started a magazine called Knight of the Immaculate to fight religious apathy and founded the Niepokalanów (‘City of the Immaculate’) monastery in Poland in 1927. In 1930 he traveled to Japan, where he began a Japanese edition of his magazine and founded a new monastery there in 1931. He returned to his native Poland in 1936 due to poor health and continued his work at the Niepokalanów monastery he had founded nine years earlier. There he continued his involvement in magazine publishing, a radio station, and various other publications. Many of his publications and broadcasts were unabashedly critical of the Nazi regime brewing in neighboring Germany.
In September 1936, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Within three weeks, Kolbe and other leaders of the Niepokalanów were imprisoned. They were released three months later and immediately resumed their Priestly work—including public criticism on radio and in-print of the Nazi regime. The brothers of Niepokalanów protected thousands of refugees within their community, including about 2,000 Jews that might otherwise have been carted off to concentration camps, as long as they could.
For their efforts, Kolbe and many of his brothers at Niepokalanów had their presses shut down and were dispersed by the Nazis in February 1941. Kolbe himself was arrested and taken to Pawiak prison in Warsaw, Poland. In May, he was transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp and branded as prisoner 16670.
While the holocaust is (rightfully) thought of as having primarily targeted Jews, many others were victims of the Nazi regime. Catholic Priests across conquered Europe were treated with similar malice, as were homosexuals, the mentally disabled, and more. At Auschwitz, the most vicious guards were often assigned to guard the Priests. In the face of unspeakable abuse, Kolbe maintained a calm dedication to his faith—a dedication that often brought him the worst assignments and the strongest beatings from his captors. While imprisoned, Kolbe continued to hear Confessions and perform Masses—using smuggled bread and wine to consecrate the Holy Eucharist.
In July 1941—only two months after his transfer to Auschwitz and only ten months after the Nazi invasion of Poland—a prisoner went missing (who was later found drowned in a latrine). The deputy camp commander, in an effort to deter future escape attempts, picked ten men from the barracks to be starved to death. One of these men, a Jew named Franciszek Gajowniczek, wept and begged that he be spared because he had a wife and young children.
Maximilian Kolbe—a Priest with no immediate family—stepped forward and asked to take Gajowniczek’s place. The guards and commanders of the camp granted his wish, and Kolbe was led off with nine others to the starvation chamber.
In the cramped cell, Kolbe led his fellow captors in prayers and singing. After three weeks of starvation, only Kolbe and three others remained alive. While the other surviving prisoners moaned and wept in pain, the guards found Kolbe sitting calmly, solemnly, resolutely in the middle of his cell each time they checked in. Finally, the impatient Nazis tired of waiting for Kolbe and the other three to die. The four men were removed from their cells and killed with an injection of carbolic acid on August 14, 1941.
Maximilian Kolbe was Canonized as a Saint by Pope John Paul II on October 10, 1982, and was declared a ‘martyr of charity’ and the ‘the patron saint of our difficult [20th] century.’ He is the patron saint of drug addicts, families, imprisoned people, journalists, prisoners, and the pro-life movement.
St. Maximilian Kolbe’s story is, obviously, a heart-wrenching one. For me, it struck me in a few key ways:
First, Kolbe wasn’t afraid to stand up for what was right and to speak his mind, and his faith. If Kolbe could continue broadcasting and printing anti-Nazi material as Nazi tanks rumbled through Warsaw, then I can certainly keep writing my little blog and speak about my faith in the face of an ever-more secular society.
Second, Kolbe backed up his words with action. Journalism and writing serves an important purpose, but it is actions that really count. Kolbe didn’t just write about how evil Nazism was, he and his brothers at Niepokalanów did everything they could to protect the people—primarily Jews—who were at risk. It is easy for me to spout off on this site, but Kolbe’s life is a reminder to me that I need to back up my words with real action.
Third, Kolbe’s story reminds me just how evil people can be if they push God out of their lives and out of their governments. We are deluding ourselves if we believe that what happened during World War II can never happen again. It can. If all Christians around the world do everything they possibly can to prevent it though, it probably won’t. If Germany had been filled with Maximilian Kolbes, there would not have been a holocaust. His story reminds me how important it is to have God first in our lives, and what happens if we don’t.
Finally, St. Maximilian Kolbe’s story reminds me that positives can come from negatives. It is easy to look at the Holocaust and see nothing but abject, horrific evil. But even in the midst of unspeakable darkness, there are pinpoints of light. It is easy for us to look at this as a sad story, but Maximilian Kolbe’s sacrifice saved Franciszek Gajowniczek. After more than five years in captivity, Gajowniczek was released. He and his wife survived the Nazi holocaust, although their two children were killed in a Soviet bombardment. Gajowniczek died in 1995 at the age of 94—having lived 54 years from the day he was selected to be starved to death thanks to a selfless Catholic Priest volunteering to take his place. Good can come even from the worst situations imaginable, if Godly people take the opportunities they are given.
“The most deadly poison of our times is indifference. And this happens, although the praise of God should know no limits. Let us strive, therefore, to praise him to the greatest extent of our powers.”—St. Maximilian Kolbe