As a young priest in 1982, I was only vaguely familiar with the name Maximilian Kolbe. I remember reading of his canonization by Pope John Paul II, but Father Kolbe’s world was far removed from my modern suburban priestly ministry. I was far too busy to step into it.
I didn’t know that nearly two decades later, Father Kolbe’s life, death, and sainthood would be proclaimed on the wall of my prison cell. I also didn’t know this would help define the person I choose to be in prison.
Being a Jew and not a Catholic, Dr. Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, said nothing about Maximilian’s sainthood or any miracles attributed to his intercession. Instead, Dr. Frankl was moved by the profound charity of Maximilian, which defied the narcissism of our times.
For those unfamiliar with him, the story is simple.
The prisoners of Auschwitz were packed into bunkers like cattle. To encourage informants, the camp had a policy that if any prisoner escaped, 10 others would be randomly chosen for summary execution.
At the morning role call one day, a prisoner from Maximilian’s bunker was missing. Guards chose 10 men to be executed. The 10th fell to the ground and cried for the wife and children he would never see again. Father Kolbe spontaneously stepped forward and said,
“I am a Catholic priest, and I would like to take the place of this man.”
Two weeks later, he alone was still alive among the 10 prisoners chained and condemned to starvation. Maximilian was injected with carbolic acid on August 14, 1941, and his remains unceremoniously incinerated.
For the unbeliever, all that Maximilian was went up in smoke. Viktor Frankl shared some other corner of that horrific prison. The story of the person Father Kolbe chose to be rippled through the camp. This story offered proof to Viktor Frankl that we can be as much inspired by grace as doomed by despair. We get to choose which will define us.
Within days of reading Man’s Search for Meaning and learning of Father Kolbe’s sacrifice, I received a letter from out of the blue.
Conventual Franciscan Father Jim McCurry had been in an airport in Ireland when he heard an Irish priest nearby mention that he corresponds with a priest in a Concord, New Hampshire prison. Father McCurry said he was on his way to visit his order’s house in Granby, Massachusetts and would arrange to visit the Concord prison.
Weeks later, Father McCurry and I met in the prison visiting room. When I asked him what his “assignment” is, he said,
“Well I just finished a biography of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Have you heard of him?”
Father McCurry went on to say that he was involved in Father Maximilian’s cause for sainthood. He had met the man whose great grandfather life was saved by Father Kolbe.
A few years later, Father McCurry arranged a Father Maximilian Kolbe exhibit at the National Holocaust Museum. It was then that he sent me the card depicting Father Maximilian clothed in his Franciscan habit with one sleeve in his prison uniform. I keep the card above my mirror in my cell.
I can never embrace these stone walls. I can’t claim ownership of them. Passively acceding to injustice anywhere contributes to injustice everywhere. Father Maximilian never approved of Auschwitz.
One can’t understand how I now respond to these stone walls, however, without hearing of Father Maximilian’s presence there.
Above my mirror, he refocused my hope in the light of Christ. The darkness can never overcome it.
What hope and freedom there is in that fact! The darkness can never, ever, ever overcome it!
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