Spiritual joy: Maximilian Kolbe

Another remarkable individual whose life illustrates the arising of spiritual joy in response to suffering is the Polish Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe. At the outset of World War II Father Kolbe, then age 45, was head of a monastery which was home to over 600 Brothers, over 100 seminarians, and the largest religious publishing center in Poland. Despite his prominent leadership position he is described by those who knew him as humble, soft-spoken and open-hearted.

Patricia Treece (author of A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz) says that when military invasion by Germany appeared imminent Father Kolbe spoke to members of the monastery: “[He] spoke on how to use suffering to benefit oneself and others; how to rejoice in spite of sufferings and trials and, even in them, how to remain free—hence fearless—in any circumstances; and the importance of loving and praying for one’s persecutors. Kolbe said: ‘My sons, a frightful struggle threatens. War is much nearer than one can imagine. Whatever happens, everything will be for our good. We are in such a position that nothing can do us any harm. The moral and physical sufferings will only help towards our sanctification. In short, we are invincible’.” On another occasion he said “it is only through suffering that we learn how to love. In suffering we reach a high degree of sanctity and, at the same time, bring our persecutors to God.”

With the invasion of Poland in September, 1939, Father Kolbe was arrested by German soldiers and placed in an internment camp. After several months he was allowed to return to the monastery but a year later, in February, 1941, Father Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Pawiak Prison, which the Gestapo used for interrogation and sometimes torture of prisoners before they were consigned to concentration camps or were taken to be shot. At that time members of the clergy were the target of systematic repression in Poland; thousands were imprisoned, and hundreds were shot. In times of crisis the Polish people had traditionally turned to the church for guidance and spiritual strength, and the occupation authorities apparently sought to preclude any opposition from this quarter. In May, Father Kolbe and hundreds of other prisoners were put in railroad freight cars and transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Because he was a priest Father Kolbe was often assigned to the hardest work details under the most brutal guards. On one occasion Father Kolbe’s work squad was assigned to clear a section of swampland. A fellow prisoner recalls that Father Kolbe “was singled out to carry loads that were two or three times what nonpriests carried” and then ordered to run with his load. When he fell to the ground the guard “kicked him mercilessly in the face and stomach.” He was then beaten so severely with a rod that he was unable to move and had to be carried back to the barracks by fellow prisoners. In the face of such brutality Father Kolbe maintained his belief in the transformative power of suffering for oneself and others—he prayed for his oppressors that their hearts might be transformed, and he urged his fellow prisoners to do the same.

Many of Father Kolbe’s fellow prisoners were struck by the sense of calm and peace which they felt in his presence. During the tense period of time just prior to the outbreak of war Father Kolbe had told some of the Brothers at the monastery that “in spite of the anxieties and worries of each day, at the bottom of my heart is always a peace and joy I can’t describe.” Consistent with this, a man who shared a cell with Father Kolbe at Pawiak Prison said “his whole person exuded something so calm and soothing that we all clustered close to him.” And a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz recalls that when Father Kolbe was admitted to the hospital for a time with a serious illness “at night under cover of dark,” other prisoners crawled on the floor to Father Kolbe’s bed, “begging him to hear their confessions or seeking comfort.”

Like the other prisoners at Auschwitz, Father Kolbe suffered from malnutrition, yet he sometimes shared a portion of his own meager rations with other prisoners. He also secretly gathered small groups of prisoners together for prayer and spiritual support, and he heard the confessions of those who requested it. A fellow prisoner recalls that when prisoners asked to receive communion “Father would take his own piece of bread, bless it, and give us each a piece. He refused to let us pay him back out of our rations.” Religious practice was prohibited in Auschwitz, so Father Kolbe risked a severe beating or death for these actions.

Another former prisoner at Auschwitz recalls that “morally, things had really broken down. The struggle to conserve one’s life had assumed a form so brutal that it was very rare for a prisoner to aid another.” In the face of this Father Kolbe “urged us to persevere courageously. ‘Do not break down morally’, he pleaded . . . He assured us that, although not all would survive, all of us would conquer.” Father Kolbe “kept encouraging us not to be afraid of dying, but to have at heart the salvation of our souls.”

The ultimate demonstration of Father Kolbe’s convictions came one day when the deputy commander of Auschwitz ordered the 600 prisoners in Father Kolbe’s barrack to assemble in lines and announced that a prisoner from that barrack had escaped. As a reprisal for the escape the officer then walked down the rows of prisoners and began to randomly select a group of prisoners who were to be locked in “death cells” and starved to death. When a man standing near Father Kolbe (a former sergeant in the Polish army) was selected, he began to sob for the wife and children he would leave behind. Although Father Kolbe apparently didn’t know the man personally, he stepped out of line, approached the deputy commander and asked if he could be sent to the death cell in the man’s place. The officer consented, and Father Kolbe and the others were led away.

A fellow prisoner who had been assigned to a work detail in the cell where Father Kolbe was held recalled that Father Kolbe retained his composure throughout the ordeal and did what he could to comfort the other condemned men. He also recalled that Kolbe “looked directly and intently into the eyes of those entering the cell. Those eyes of his were always strangely penetrating. The SS men couldn’t stand his glance, and used to yell at him, ‘Look at the ground, not at us’.”

[Source: Patricia Treece, A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz (San Francisco, Harper & Row Publishers, 1982).]

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