Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, whose feast day is today, was killed on August 14, 1941 in a starvation bunker at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp; was cremated on August 15; and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982 as a ‘martyr of charity.’ Those two numbers in the subject line are the Nazi’s dehumanizing arm-branded numbers for Fr. Kolbe and the man he exchanged places with, Franciszek Gajowniczek.
Among the many extraordinary characteristics of this saint, it was his manner of dying that stands as the true canon, or measure of his Christian holiness.
He breathed heaven into the darkest hell on earth, psalmody into the wailing dungeon, joy into the pit of despair, and love into the epitome of hate. As his Master on the Cross had done, he reminded all Christians, and all humanity, that it is precisely in the darkest moments that mercy must shine most brightly. Indeed, I am convinced that it is on this hinge that the ‘success’ of the new evangelization hangs — we are disciples of Christ Crucified in the face of our foe, or we are no Christians at all.
Here is an account of Kolbe’s last days given by eyewitness Bruno Borgowiec:
The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.
Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him.
Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long. The cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant…