Father Maximilian Kolbe lived an outstanding Christian life and died an outstanding Christian death. Shortly after his ordination in 1918, Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan, founded the Knights of the Immaculata, an organization dedicated to converting people to Christ through Mary.
A fervent soul if ever there was one, Kolbe insisted each knight be totally dedicated and live a life of personal poverty. The organization used print media extensively. By 1938, its main publication had a circulation of almost one million and there were 762 full-fledged members of the Immaculata, most of whom were specialists in some aspects of publishing.
Almost immediately after the Nazi conquest of Poland in 1939, Kolbe and the organization faced persecution. Eventually, the priest was jailed and sent to Auschwitz. There, despite torture and persecution because he was a priest, he continued his priestly work undeterred. He gave impromptu talks, heard confessions, prayed openly and counselled those who sought help.
In July 1941, a prisoner escaped and the Auschwitz authorities made all the other prisoners stand all day in the hot sun. That evening, the prisoner had not been found, so the commandant went through the crowd choosing 10 to die in his place. One man who was chosen, Francis Gajowniczek, screamed that he had a wife and children. Hearing this, Kolbe immediately stepped forward and offered to take his place, an offer that the commandant accepted.
The 10 prisoners were stripped and thrown into a starvation bunker, without food or water. Those who came by the bunker invariably heard, not moaning and weeping, but the sound of the rosary being led by Kolbe or hymns being sung to Mary. Kolbe never complained, but always prayed and encouraged the others. After two weeks, he and three others remained alive and were given lethal injections. In 1982, Kolbe was canonized as a martyr for the faith.
Kolbe's death was a most horrific one, not one many of us would choose for ourselves. Increasing numbers of people in the Western world see the best possible death as one that is quick and painless. There is growing support for legalized euthanasia from those who dread not only medical technology's ability to keep people alive, but also a slow, lingering natural death.
Yet the Christian tradition is to pray for a happy death. In the Litany of the Saints, we implore, "From a sudden and unforeseen death, deliver us O Lord." There is no need to seek suffering -- although there can be grace in the acceptance of it -- but death is something for which we spend our lives preparing.
The monk, under the rule of St. Benedict, seeks "to keep death daily before one's eyes." And the medieval spiritual writer Thomas a Kempis counselled that "Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out" (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1014).
Is this morbid? No, it is a recognition that we are strangers on earth; our home is in heaven. Prestige, wealth, and comfort are only of passing value. We should not neglect the legitimate concerns of life in this world. But we should judge their importance within the context of eternal life. The catechism states that "Remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfilment" (no. 1007).
Death is a natural event, but people would not die had it not been for original sin. God loved us so much that he wished to spare us death. But through our option for sin, we entered into a process of dissolution and decay. Christ, however, overcame death for us by dying himself. We can further the process of redemption by resolving to die with the same spirit that Jesus and St. Maximilian exemplified in their deaths.
In them we see the supreme virtue of love in laying down one's life for another. They showed courage in accepting an undeserved and brutal death. "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul" (Matthew 10:28). Both Jesus and Kolbe died with a calm resignation and forgiveness for those responsible for their deaths. And both, while not desiring to die, accepted death in obedience to the Father's will.
"It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute," wrote the fathers of the Second Vatican Council (The Church in the Modern World, 18). No one wants to die. We all have "an eternal seed" which resists, even dreads, perpetual extinction. But that eternal seed cannot find fulfilment as long as biological life continues. We cling to earthly life and we long for something beyond it. That is the paradox of our existence.
Kolbe died a courageous death. But that death was the natural outgrowth of a life of habitual sacrifice for others, not an heroic incident tacked on at the end of an otherwise undistinguished life.
This should be an example for us. For every Christian, the process of dying with Christ to live a new life begins at baptism. "If we die in Christ's grace, physical death completes this 'dying with Christ' and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act" (Catechism, 1010).
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