While the Pope was at Auschwitz, he visited the cell of Maximillian Kolbe. Father Kolbe had a vision for using the mass media to reach Poland with the message of Jesus. He built a friary just west of Warsaw, which eventually housed 762 Franciscans and printed eleven periodicals, one with a circulation of over a million, including a daily newspaper. Here is more of his story...and the link between Kolbe and why we were at World Youth Day...*
In 1930 he went to Asia, where he founded friaries in Nagasaki and in India. In 1936 he was recalled to supervise the original friary near Warsaw. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he knew that the friary would be seized, and sent most of the friars home. He was imprisoned briefly and then released, and returned to the friary, where he and the other friars began to organize a shelter for 3,000 Polish refugees, among whom were 2,000 Jews.
The friars shared everything they had with the refugees. They housed, fed and clothed them, and brought all their machinery into use in their service. Inevitably, the community came under suspicion and was watched closely. Then in May 1941 the friary was closed down and Maximilian and four companions were taken to the death camp Auschwitz, where they worked with the other prisoners.
“n the harshness of the slaughterhouse Father Kolbe maintained the gentleness of Christ. At night he seldom would lie down to rest. He moved from bunk to bunk, saying: "I am a Catholic priest. Can I do anything for you?" A prisoner later recalled how he and several others often crawled across the floor at night to be near the bed of Father Kolbe, to make their confessions and ask for consolation. Father Kolbe pleaded with his fellow prisoners to forgive their persecutors and to overcome evil with good. When he was beaten by the guards, he never cried out. Instead, he prayed for his tormentors.
“In order to discourage escapes, Auschwitz had a rule that if a man escaped, ten men would be killed in retaliation. In July 1941 a man from Kolbe's bunker escaped. The ten were selected, including Franciszek Gajowniczek, imprisoned for helping the Polish Resistance. He couldn't help a cry of anguish. 'My poor wife!' he sobbed. 'My poor children! What will they do?' When he uttered this cry of dismay, Maximilian stepped silently forward, took off his cap, and stood before the commandant and said, 'I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.
Astounded, the icy-faced Nazi commandant asked, 'What does this Polish pig want?'
Father kolbe pointed with his hand to the condemned Franciszek Gajowniczek and repeated 'I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.' Amazingly, he acceded to the request. Franciszek Gajowniczek was returned to the ranks, and the priest took his place …
Father Kolbe was thrown down the stairs of Building 13 along with the other victims and simply left there to starve. Maximilian Kolbe encouraged the others with prayers, psalms, and meditations on the Passion of Christ. After two weeks, only four were alive. The cell was needed for more victims, and the camp executioner, a common criminal called Bock, came in and injected a lethal dose of carbolic acid into the left arm of each of the four dying men. Kolbe was the only one still fully conscious and with a prayer on his lips, the last prisoner raised his arm for the executioner. His wait was over …
One witness of this was a young resistance fighter named Franciszek Blachnicki. When he saw what Kolbe did, he wondered “why would a man give his life for someone he doesn’t even know? That question led him to put his faith in Jesus. He survived Auschwitz and became a Catholic priest. Like Father Kolbe, Father B was a visionary. He started a movement among young people which by 1980 had about 80,000 young people coming to camps every summer. Like Father Kolbe, Father B had a vision for what he called “The Great Evangelization” - “to reach out with the gospel to every person in Poland.”
When he met Joe, an American student who had been a leader in Campus Crusade, he asked if Campus Crusade would send people and materials. When he saw the Jesus film, he determined to have it shown in every parish in Poland through his network of priests and volunteers. Films, projectors and a complete printing press were smuggled into Poland. It is estimated that 7 million people saw the film, shown in parishes, on university campuses, and even in the Gdansk shipyards during the Solidarity strikes. The vitality and personal faith we witnessed in the Polish church is largely due to Father B and to his friend, Pope John Paul II. **
Father B. was in on a trip to Germany when martial law was declared and he was not allowed to return to Poland. He died in Germany in 1987.
When Father Kolbe offered to give his life in exchange for another, he had no idea that watching him was a man who would take up his vision. He simply followed his Master in laying down his life. That is how the gospel works. When we follow Jesus, we have no idea of the implications, no idea of how God may use our obedience, large of small to fulfill his dream - and ours.
|Teams from Russia and the Northwest at World Youth Day, Krakow2016|
** See also The Pope We Never Knew: The unknown story of how John Paul II ushered Campus Crusade into Catholic Poland. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/may/13.34.html