Blogger’s Note: I have no set order for these Sacred Heart posts, but am writing as Providence provides and the Spirit moves. Today the readings in 33 Days to Morning Glory shifted to focus on John Paul II, and I was called back to July 2016, World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland…
Rome may be the the Eternal City and the seat of Catholic teaching authority, wisdom, and creativity in the world, but it seems to me that Poland is its bleeding, beating heart. Ravaged by wars and neighboring countries, ripped apart and reconstituted, invaded and occupied, the Poles have fought, suffered, and died for centuries, surrendering everything they had except their faith. Today, Poland is the homeland of ten 20th-century canonized Catholic saints and, I would argue, serves as the counter-cultural, Catholic conscience of Europe.
In summer of 2016, however, three specific Polish saints loomed large over World Youth Day in Kraków: the martyr of Auschwitz, St. Maximilian Kolbe; the visionary nun, St. Faustina Kowalska; and the prophetic pope, St. John Paul the Great. Each in his or her own way lived out the love of Christ in the world, pouring themselves out for the salvation of souls. Each embodied His suffering Sacred Heart. Over the next three days I will look at them, one at a time, and explain as best I can what captured my imagination about each of them.
St. Maximilian Kolbe
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” — John 15:13
Born Raymund Kolbe in Zdunska Wola, Poland, in 1894. Franciscan friar and priest, publisher, and founder of monasteries in Poland, Japan, and India; arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned at Auschwitz; volunteered to die in the place of a Jewish husband and father. Venerated as the Apostle of Consecration to Mary. View a more complete biography here.
How did St. Maximilian Kolbe love as God loves? With purpose, urgency, and courage. His goal was to make make an army of saints, as many as possible, as quickly as possible, under the generalship of Mary Immaculate. And yet he went bravely and calmly to his death, offering to starve in the place of another, leading hymns and prayers until he was the last one living of ten men doomed to die, and calmly accepting the needle for the final lethal injection.
We visited Kolbe’s monastery, Niepokalanów, as well as Auschwitz while we were in Poland. The sheer volume of Catholic pilgrims in the country (more than three million by some counts) meant that the cell in which he died was closed off during the week we were there—no one would have gotten in or out that week. What has always struck me about St. Maximilian’s storied martyrdom struck me even harder when we were there at Auschwitz. The sheer scale and efficiency of the Nazi death camp is terrible to behold. It was built to kill—as many as possible, as quickly as possible. And yet for some reason, when a Catholic priest answered the cries of a condemned man desperate to live and volunteered to die in his place, the Nazis honored his gesture. They could have killed both men, slowly or on the spot, but they didn’t.
Why? I believe that even in the middle of such cruelty and indifference, people are drawn to the self-sacrificial love of Christ. Truth resonates, even in the hardest of hearts.
Tomorrow: St. Faustina Kowalska
* * * * *