ST. MAXIMILIAN KOLBE
By Father Stefano Manelli, O.F.M., Conv., S.T.D.
On October 10, 1982, at Rome, Blessed Maximilian Kolbe was canonized. It is just forty-six years ago that Maximilian was martyred in the Nazi prison camp of Auschwitz. Pope John Paul II has declared him "the patron of our difficult century." We are happy to publish this article to enable more people to know Saint Maximilian, whom God has raised up in our times as a model of deep faith. The key to this Saint's holiness is his ever-increasing love towards Mary Our Mother. Saint Maximilian set no limits to his love for God's Mother and in practice he showed his magnificent devotion towards Her by an intense prayer life which bore fruit in a marvelous Marian apostolate during this lifetime. He used the mass media to bring people to a greater knowledge and love of Jesus and Mary.
However, the Franciscan superiors would not accept the conditions stipulated by the prince. Saint Maximilian was distressed. He visited the prince to tell him of their refusal. The prince was peeved and was unsure about what to do. He remarked to Kolbe, "On the property you have set up a statue of the Immaculate Virgin. I have no need of it."
Kolbe replied, "Let her stay there. It will show that this time the Madonna could not find a home."
After this surprising answer the prince stared at Kolbe. Then he gave him a warm handshake and said, "Very well, the land goes with the statue, without any stipulation."
Maximilian's heart was pounding. As soon as he returned to his friary he gave a festive greeting to the friars at work at their printing machines: "Let us kneel down and thank the Immaculata."
The Chapel Comes First
The first group of friars together with Maximilian arrived at the new site and they went to work with shovels, pickaxes, and other tools to clear the land. This was at the end of August 1927. Maximilian was with them. Their work progressed at a rapid pace. They slept on straw bedding on the floor of a farmhouse and ate very little.
The first structure to rise was a wooden chapel. Maximilian celebrated Mass there and consecrated the place to serve the glory of God and the salvation of souls through the Immaculate Virgin.
Around the chapel, barracks for the friars were constructed as well as buildings for the different sections of the printing plant.
On November 21, Feast of Our Lady's Presentation in the Temple, all the friars of Grodno who were working with Saint Maximilian journeyed to the new grounds and moved into the first two barracks on the Teresin acreage, which from then on was called "City of the Immaculata" (in Polish, "Niepokalanow")
A beautiful statue of the Immaculate Virgin towered up at the entrance of this unique city to welcome whoever would go there. Maximilian introduced the custom of greeting one another by the name of Mary. Years before, when speaking to another friar about his dream-project of an all-Marian friary, he had said, "What a beautiful community. It is one where 'Mary' is heard everywhere. 'Mary' is the greeting. 'Mary' is the response to the greeting. She is Patroness and Protector of the Madonna's house."
Saint Maximilian, a Franciscan, wanted to truly imitate the seraphic Saint of Assisi. From the very start Maximilian had wanted for himself and his friars a loyalty to St. Francis, a religious life worth ranking with the first Franciscan communities, a perfect observance of the Rule and Constitutions, obeyed to the point of heroism. Maximilian admitted no compromises. He stood for unmeasured generosity. He could not establish so great a work on anything but a foundation in which men offer up their whole lives in sacrifice and pass every test. Before leaving Grodno he had said to his friars, "In the new friary our sacrifice must be complete. Religious life there must flourish in the most perfect observance. The Rule and Constitutions must be vigorously observed; for Niepokalanow must be a model of religious life for all."
It was the religious life heroically lived that fed and supported the remarkably zealous apostolic activity of the City of the Immaculata.
Friars with well-tonsured heads, in sandals and patched habits, who gathered at prayer before sunrise for several hours and at intervals thereafter until night, who put in hours of feverish work in perfect silence, who endured the cold weather and an austerity in diet and rest, without complaining - these men, by their daily sacrificing of self were paying the price of winning souls over to the love of the Immaculate Virgin.
An enlightening passage from Maximilian's writings reads: "A member of the Niepokalanow community, limits his personal demands to what is strictly necessary seeking neither comfort nor entertainment. In this way he makes it possible to print more and more copies of the Knight of the Immaculate and circulate them more widely, as he pays for it by giving up comfort and amusement."
Saint Maximilian wanted only friars who would be of such a spirit as this. Therefore, just before leaving Grodno to go to Niepokalanow, he told them plainly, "Whoever feels he does not have the strength or does not have the will to go there, let him say so sincerely and frankly."
The City of the Immaculata was founded on two things — poverty and the Immaculate Virgin. So declared Saint Maximilian.
We do not know how to describe Saint Kolbe's love of poverty. It was a love worthy of his seraphic Father Saint Francis. Saint Maximilian's pages on poverty could serve beautifully as a compendium of the writings of early Franciscanism, and the example of the poverty of the City of the Immaculata takes us back to that of the first Franciscan communities.
In great things as in little, Saint Maximilian proved himself to be always a faithful follower of the Poverello of Assisi, detached in heart and in body from all the goods of this world, content with what is strictly needed in order to live like a poor man who wants to possess nothing, so that he becomes entirely God's possession, as property unconditionally entrusted to the Immaculate Virgin.
Kolbe never wanted ownership of any land for the City of the Immaculata, neither in Poland nor in Japan. "Why have the ownership?" he said. "The use is enough. Be like St. Francis. Own nothing. We will stay in the place as long as the owner consents to our staying. When he tells us we cannot stay any longer, we will go elsewhere."
A fellow friar, Father Dominic Stella of Assisi, made this comment on the above words of St. Kolbe: "This conveyed his definite ideas and firm persuasion. It was evident that uppermost in Maximilian's mind was the pure ideal of a poverty in perfect agreement with the mind of the Seraphic Father."
Also, when he was in India the Bishop of Ernaculam wanted to give him some land, a house and a chapel. But Saint Maximilian would accept "only the usufruct" — that is, the use of the property and a right to its produce, "because we want no ownership," he explained.
Continued in next issue