The famous icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa – the Black Madonna revered as the patroness and queen of Poland – is scarred by two slash marks on her face, reportedly from the sword of a Hussite invader in 1430.
In this past century, Poland and its people were scarred by the Nazi occupation, an evil epitomized by the Auschwitz concentration camp where more than 1.1 million people were exterminated. Yet in the midst of that evil, another icon emerged to inspire the Polish people – a frail priest, Father Maximilian Kolbe – prisoner 16670 – who stepped forth from a line and volunteered to take the place of a young father who had been one of 10 inmates marked for execution in retribution for the escape of a prisoner.
Placed underground in a bunker with the other prisoners to starve to death, Father Kolbe prayed and recited the psalms with them, giving them hope. Two weeks later, he was given a lethal injection and died on Aug. 14, 1941. The next day his remains were cremated and spread in the fields of Auschwitz on the feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven.
From his youth, he had been devoted to Mary, and as a Conventual Franciscan, Father Maximilian Kolbe took the middle name Maria and dedicated his priesthood to spreading devotion to the Blessed Mother through a Catholic magazine and newspaper he founded and in mission work in Japan. In Poland, he sheltered Jewish refugees in his monastery. Later, the Nazis arrested him as a journalist, after his publications had criticized the Third Reich. His last words were reportedly the beginning of the Hail Mary.
At the canonization Mass for Saint Maximilian Kolbe in 1982, Pope John Paul II began his homily by quoting John 15:13: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Blessed John Paul II said Saint Maximilian “bore witness to Christ” and “to the dignity of man, to the sanctity of his life, and to the saving power of death in which the power of love is made manifest.”
His death, the pope said, bore an “authentic witness of the Church in the modern world” and reflected the victory of Christ whose cross and resurrection redeemed the world and defeated sin and death.
The author George Weigel, in his authoritative 1999 book, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, noted, “No martyr of the twentieth century has been, for John Paul, a more luminous icon of the call to holiness through radical, self-giving love than Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe was the ‘saint of the abyss’ – the man who looked straight into the modern heart of darkness and remained faithful to Christ…”
As Pope John Paul II canonized Saint Maximilian Kolbe, the quarter million people in Saint Peter’s Square included Franciszek Gajowniczek, who watched with tears in his eyes. Forty-one years earlier, he was the father for whom the saint sacrificed his life.
One year after the saint’s canonization, Our Lady Queen of Poland and Saint Maximilian Kolbe Parish for Polish-speaking Catholics was established in the Archdiocese of Washington – in Silver Spring, Maryland – honoring two icons of faith who continue to inspire Catholics in Poland and around the world.