Feast Day: August 14th
Would you be willing to give your life to save the life of a complete stranger? Would be willing to be starved and tormented for someone you did not know? If you found yourself in a small cell with 9 other men being starved death, what would come out of your mouth? Every August 14 we celebrate the Memorial of St. Maximilian Kolbe, an amazing saint who demonstrated the virtue of Charity by giving his life for a stranger and singing hymns in praise of God as he was cast into a cell block to be starved to death.
In the Gospel of Saint John, Our Lord Jesus teaches us: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14) St. John echoes this teaching of Our Lord in his First Letter: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:20-21)
The virtue of charity is a theological virtue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that theological virtues “relate directly to God. They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object. The theological virtues are the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it its special character. They inform and give life to all the moral virtues. They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being. There are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.” (CCC 1812-1813).
Regarding the theological virtue of Charity, the Catechism teaches: “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” (CCC 1822) The Catechism continues: "If I . . . have not charity," says the Apostle, "I am nothing." Whatever my privilege, service, or even virtue, "if I . . . have not charity, I gain nothing."103 Charity is superior to all the virtues. It is the first of the theological virtues: "So faith, hope, charity abide, these three. But the greatest of these is charity." (CCC 1826) And, “The fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy…” (CCC 1829)
St. Maximilian had a tremendous love of God and this love of God led to a great love for his neighbor. He was born on January 8, 1894, and he died on August 14, 1941, in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. He was a Catholic priest and a Conventual Franciscan. Prior to his arrest and imprisonment at Auschwitz, his great love of God spurred him to spread the Gospel. He was a great evangelist who used the latest technology of his day, including radio and the modern printing press, to share the gift of our faith. He is noted for his great devotion to Mary. From 1930 until 1936 he was in Japan, establishing a monastery and a newspaper that shared our faith. He returned to Poland in 1936 to lead a monastery that he had founded, and which grew from 20 people to 800. From that monastery, he published a newspaper and oversaw radio programming that reached millions of people throughout Poland.
An entire lifetime of practicing the virtue of charity led up to the supreme act of charity, laying down his life for a stranger. On July 29, 1941, a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz. The penalty for a prisoner escaping was that 10 men would have to be imprisoned in the same prison cell and die a terrible death of starvation. 10 men were chosen. One of the men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out when he was chosen. He expressed his concern for his wife and children. In an amazing act of courage and love, Fr. Kolbe approached the Nazi officer and asked to take the place of the man. He said, “I am a Catholic priest,” he said. “Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.” The guard allowed the exchange. The ten men, including Fr. Kolbe, were sent to cell block 11 where they were starved, as well as having to endure beatings from the SS guards. However, the guards standing outside the prison cell heard something they had never heard before coming from within: they heard hymns of praise to God. One by one the prisoners died. Fr. Kolbe was the last to die. After 15 days, he was still alive. Tired of waiting for his death by starvation, he was killed by an injection of carbolic acid on August 14, 1941.
In 1994, as a sophomore at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz and to see cell block 11. In a place of such great evil and darkness, I marveled at how the light of Christ broke through in the amazing charity of St. Maximilian Kolbe.
God desires to love others through us. He gave us the gift of charity at our baptism and it is renewed through our regular celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and reception of Holy Communion. During this difficult time when so many people are experiencing loneliness and fear, there is an urgent call for men to love others with the love of Christ. Through the intercession of St. Maximilian Kolbe, let us pray for an increase in the virtue of Charity. The greatest poverty in our world is the absence of charity. St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us.