Pornchai Moontri looked on the death chamber of Maximilian Kolbe and saw devouring jaws of evil. I saw that evil too, but choking on a brave soul’s noble defiance.
Auschwitz 1941: “After the so-called dinner, I was invited between Blocks 18 and 19 where some prisoners had gathered among whom were several priests… Our colleague, Kolbe, spoke of the Feast of Corpus Christi, of the great omnipresent God, and of our sufferings by which He was trying to make us ready for a better life.” (A priest at Auschwitz, from “Depositions of Fellow Prisoners,” 1970, p. 34)
The photograph in this post has deep meaning and significance for us. TSW reader Lupe Gwiazdowski stood with her camera before the gaping maw of a prison window at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland. She photographed the window of the death chamber that consumed the life of our Patron Saint but could not extinguish the light of his sacrificial priesthood.
When Lupe’s letter with the photograph arrived in early July, Pornchai “Max” Moontri and I were standing with 100 other prisoners for Mail Call. The mail handlers here reversed the pages before stuffing the letter back in its envelope so the page with this photo was on top when I unfolded the letter.
I did not know what the photo was, but right off Pornchai pointed to it. It’s a face!” he said. “An evil face!” Study the photograph above for a moment. Once I saw what Pornchai saw, I could not look at the photo again without instantly seeing that same demonic face. You will see it too.
But what Pornchai saw as the gaping jaws of evil ready to devour, I saw those same jaws choking on whatever was inside. When I suggested this to Pornchai, he saw it too. Stare at the photo for another moment, and you may see what I mean.
Then I read the letter that accompanied Lupe’s photo, and realized with a jolt that it was behind these gaping jaws that our Patron Saint, Maximilian Kolbe, surrendered his life in defiance of the great evil that manifested itself at Auschwitz.
Over two weeks of forced starvation followed his choice to die in place of an innocent young man. When Father Kolbe did not die in a timely manner that suited his captors, his life was taken by lethal injection on August 14, 1941. After a lifetime of devotion to “The Immaculata,” death came on the Vigil of the Solemnity of the Assumption. Lupe tells the story of the photo in her letter of June 29, 2017 that touched our hearts deeply:
“Hi Father G: I wanted to send you this photo and I hope you get it. I went to Poland this month, and I made a mental note to pray for you and Pornchai “Max” Moontri at the Auschwitz cell of St Maximilian Kolbe.
As is often the case with my mental notes, when I got to the cell I was so overwhelmed that I forgot it. As soon as we exited the block of cells I remembered. I left the group and tried to push my way back to the cell, but Polish tour guides are not to be pushed against! I didn’t make it.
I was downcast as I caught up with the group, and then realized that the guide was pointing to the bars of the Saint’s cell window from the outside. I didn’t even hear what she was saying as I looked upon this sacred spot. I thought of how this priest and his companion prisoners died
giving such powerful witness through those same bars to so many whose hope was perishing. I lifted you and Pornchai up right there, and then snapped this photo for you. Father, I do not know what else to say.
When I got back to a computer, I saw your post, “Thoughts Upon My 35th Anniversary of Priesthood Ordination,” and realized that your anniversary was on the same day I prayed for you and Pornchai-Max at Auschwitz. Father, thank you for your priesthood.”
IN NOBLE DEFIANCE OF EVIL
Today, virtually everyone knows the story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. His Earthly remains were reduced to smoke and ash in the ovens of Hitler to drift in the skies above Auschwitz. But what he wrote and said and did, the glow of his soul, still moves mountains and the hearts of millions.
In Father Maximilian Kolbe, evil did not destroy what it set out to destroy. It imprisoned and killed the body of a man, but the priest lived on in noble sacrifice and love. The jaws of that window choked on the goodness of the soul contained therein.
Of all the thousands of accounts about the witness and strength of Father Maximilian Kolbe, for me the most powerful account comes from Herrmann Langbein who was a prisoner at Dachau and then at Auschwitz. He is best known for his book, Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps, 1938-1945. He singles out one man’s defiance that I have cited in other posts about our Patron Saint:
“The best-known act of resistance was that of Maximilian Rajmund Kolbe, who deprived the camp administration of the power to make arbitrary decisions about life and death.” (People in Auschwitz, p. 241)
Langbein went on to write powerfully of the witness, not only of Father Kolbe’s sacrifice by volunteering to take upon himself the death sentence of a fellow prisoner, but of his demeanor in prison:
“Kolbe and his companions in misfortune had to spend almost three weeks [in starvation] in an unlit cell. On. August 14 (1941) a lethal injection ended the suffering of the man whose bearing elicited the respect of the supervising SS men to the very end.” (p. 241)
I pray for the gift of this brave priest’s noble defiance of evil. It’s easier to just succumb to it, enduring it for as long as we can until it starts to bring about subtle changes in our resolve. My favorite passage in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (Harper, 1942) is Letter 12. You have seen this passage before in these pages. The demonic “Uncle Screwtape” describes perfectly the slippery slope that suffering and sin conspire to spread the contagion of evil. Their cumulative effect…
“…is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing…. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
In no place is a man or woman without defiance “edged away from the Light out into the Nothing” more than in prison. Like all prisons – whether they be prisons of iron, or fear, or trauma, or loneliness, or sickness, or pain – year upon year of it can set us upon the subtle turnings C.S. Lewis describes. For some, no doubt, resistance to the evils of our prisons seems futile.
Something happened recently – something profoundly humbling – that I thought about when I read the short passage at the top of this post from a priest-prisoner in Auschwitz with Maximilian Kolbe. The passage is from a published collection, “Depositions of Fellow Prisoners,” in the investigation of Maximilian Kolbe’s cause for sainthood.
More than 12,000 priests died in Auschwitz and the other camps of Germany and Poland, but the priest who wrote the passage atop this post survived. I wonder about those who perished there, those whose hope was siphoned off by the evil in their midst.
But for Maximilian Kolbe, resistance to evil was the one charism of a sacrificial priesthood available to him in a place where priesthood and sacrifice were deemed meaningless by worldly powers. Prison can quickly descend into “every man for himself,” but Maximilian lived and died on life’s road less traveled.
PRIESTHOOD LOST IN TRANSLATION
Over the last twenty of the nearly twenty-three years that I have been in this prison unjustly, there has been another priest here. He is a priest of my diocese, but I never knew him outside of prison. In fact, I barely knew him here. He was convicted of a sexual abuse charge in 1997, one alleged to have taken place long before then, and has been here ever since.
I know that in 2001, this priest acquiesced to a demand that he be voluntarily laicized (dismissed from the clerical state). Over the ensuing years, after 25 years of priesthood, he never again heard from our bishop or diocese. He was discarded. The prisoner-priest lost his faith. He became unable to be present at Mass for the next sixteen years. He was in a different prison unit than me, and I saw him only in rare passing.
However, when printed copies of some TSW posts were mailed to me, the sender would often send two. So, with the clandestine help of friends here, I started to send the other copy to this priest. I did not send him every post, just the ones about priesthood. One post reached an untapped well of faith and hope.
It was “St Maximilian Kolbe: A Knight at My Own Armageddon” posted one year ago this week. It was the middle of an important three-part post, and was the only post for which the priest sent back – via the same circuitous prison channels – a request to see more. These posts were the limits of our contact.
The same week that Lupe’s letter and photo arrived, Pornchai Moontri and I were climbing the multiple tiers of stairs on a Sunday morning for Mass in the prison chapel. As we passed the second floor landing, the priest mentioned above was just then emerging from the prison medical unit. I greeted him and shook his hand (another act of resistance as shaking someone’s hand is forbidden here) and then something strange happened.
Pornchai did not even know who he was and I did not want to put the priest on the spot so we parted company and proceeded up the next flight of stairs. Then Pornchai turned and said, “Do you want to come with us?” The priest paused for a moment looking puzzled, and then quietly followed us up the stairs. Before we entered the Chapel, I asked Pornchai to go find us some seats while the prisoner-priest told me that this is his first time at Mass in 16 years. He became reconciled, and we sat with him.
The next week – being an idiot sometimes – I took our usual seats and Pornchai stood glaring at me. “What are you doing?” he asked, and then pointed to that other priest still standing outside the door. “Go get him and bring him in to sit with us,” said Pornchai. God bless Pornchai!
In early July I spotted that prisoner-priest on the local news. He was appearing before the New Hampshire Parole Board with a request for medical parole because he was dying of cancer.
A physician who spoke at the hearing reported that he has no more than six months to live, and his care would be a burdensome expense for the state. After some callous remarks from a victim advocate on the State’s payroll about whether he “looks sick enough,” and whether twenty years in prison exacts sufficient reckoning, the Parole Board granted his medical parole.
ON THE MOVE
A week later, Pornchai and I were suddenly moved – he to one place and me to another. Apart for the first time in over ten years, this has been a great hardship for us both. We are trying to reunite, but once anything like this is done here, it resists being undone. Pornchai is trying to be moved to the same place I am in. I plan to write more of this very soon, and hopefully will have a happier ending for you.
The place I was sent to is the unit the other priest has been living in for the last twenty years. My first week there was his last week there, and we were able to walk each morning and talk. He is restored to faith and hope that our sufferings will make us ready for a better life.
I was with him early in the morning as he left prison a few days ago, and went home to his sister to die. I like to think that we managed to fill in some of the cold abyss in which our Church let him wander alone in exile these twenty years. I cannot imagine, even in my most vengeful thoughts, that such alienation and abandonment are what Christ summons forth from the Apostolic witness of His Church.
Most of all, I like to think we helped to prepare my brother priest for something essential imparted to us by a Patron Saint who guides us on a right path through prison: the gift of a noble defiance of evil while living the witness of a sacrificial priesthood.
Editor’s Note: For more on the story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe behind These Stone Walls, visit the following links:
- Saints and Sojourners: From Prison to Divine Mercy
- Suffering and St Maximilian Kolbe Behind These Stone Walls
- The Sign of the Cross: St Maximilian Kolbe’s Gift of Life
- Saints & Sacrifices: Maximilian Kolbe & Edith Stein at Auschwitz
- St Maximilian Kolbe, Patron of Prisoners, Priests & Bloggers
And soon to be published this summer by Father Michael Gaitley, MIC:
“Father Gaitley’s newest book brings us more deeply into Marian consecration. It follows the spiritual path of St Maximilian Kolbe who started a worldwide movement of Marian consecration to win the whole world for God. This movement began just three days after the final apparition at Fatima. I plan to write more about Consoling the Heart of Mary in coming months on These Stone Walls.” – Father Gordon MacRae