GREATER LOVE HAS NO MAN SHOWN TO THE IMMACULATA THAN THIS MARTYR OF LOVE.”
A VERY LIVELY BOY
St Maximilian Kolbe was born on January 7, 1894 in the village of Pabianice. His parents were the factory worker Julius Kolbe and his wife Maria. The second of three sons (the first was called Franciszek, the last Jozef), St Maximilian Kolbe received the baptismal name Raymond. The brothers were brought up rather strictly. Raymond was a very lively boy who gave his mother plenty to worry about. Mrs Kolbe wanted to raise her children for God’s glory, yet she could scarcely restrain Raymond. One day, when he had once again caused her serious trouble, she looked at him sadly and sighed, “Ah, my poor boy, what will become of you?” This thought bothered ten-year-old Raymond and didn’t let go of him for a long time.
His mother related later that, following this incident, Raymond changed. She noticed that henceforth he obeyed, and it was remarkable how calm and sensible he was becoming. Raymond would quite often vanish behind a cupboard in the room where a picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa stood on the home altar. One day he tearfully confessed to his mother: “Do you know, Mama, when you said the other day you wondered what will become of me, I felt very sorry, and I prayed to the Mother of God to ask her what will happen to me in future. Then she appeared to me, in her hands she held two crowns, one white and the other red. She looked at me kindly and asked me, ‘Which one do you want? The white crown means you will preserve your purity; the red one that you will die as a martyr.’ So I answered the Blessed Mother: I choose both of them, whereupon she smiled at me and then disappeared.” He chose both crowns.
HELPING AT HOME
Such great love for Mary had probably been instilled in him by his mother. From then on during his entire life he wanted to do everything for Mary and, through her, for her Divine Son and to win every heart for her. Raymond was a clever lad who was particularly interested in practical applications of technology. In the beginning, though, he was not able to go to school – not because he was not intelligent enough, but because there was no money to pay school fees for him. He learned reading and writing at home, from his parents. Only the oldest boy, Franciszek, was supposed to have the opportunity to study. In order to finance this, Mrs Kolbe took charge of a small grocery shop. Since she also helped out as a midwife, Raymond had to help out in the shop and with household tasks, too.
Still, the Mother of God helped Raymond by an unusual path to an education. One day he had to go to Mr Kotowski, the pharmacist, who was a friendly chap. He was quite surprised when Raymond mentioned, without hesitation, the Latin name of the medicine he had been sent to fetch. The pharmacist enquired what school Raymond was attending. He replied, though, “I don’t. I have to stay home and assist my parents. But my brother goes to school and may become a priest. My parents are just too poor to let us both study.” The pharmacist Mr Kotowski then said that he would be willing to give Raymond Latin lessons and to help in other ways, so that not only Franciszek but also Raymond could study.
In 1907 the Franciscans held a parish mission in Pabianice and on this occasion sought to inspire young people to consider religious life. Franciszek and Raymond were accepted into the Franciscan minor seminary in Lemberg, the capital of Galicia, a province of Austria at the time.
OFF TO ROME
In the novitiate, which Raymond began as Brother Maximilian, he was not spared a struggle about the religious and priestly vocations; dreadful doubts tormented him. At the age of seventeen, on September 11, 1911, Brother Maximilian Kolbe took temporary vows. His superiors had discovered his extraordinary talents, and therefore they sent him to study in Rome.
On the feast of All Saints in the year 1914 Brother Maximilian Kolbe made his perpetual vows and consecrated his entire life to the Lord Jesus Christ and his immaculately conceived Virgin Mother Mary. The brilliant Brother finished his studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University (1912-1915) with a doctorate in philosophy and his studies at the St Bonaventure Theological Faculty (1915-1919) with a doctorate in theology.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HUMBLE PRAYER
More than academic achievements, however, he was intent on acquiring true sanctity and an ever growing appreciation of the exalted dignity of his heavenly Mother, to whom he had consecrated his life. About this he said later on: “It is an excellent thing to study Mariology, but let us always bear in mind that we become better acquainted with the Immaculata by humble prayer and the loving experience of everyday life than through wise definitions, argumentation, and subtle distinctions, even though these are not to be despised by any means.”
In Rome the young religious seminarian contracted tuberculosis of the lungs. No one had given a second thought to his flushed cheeks, his cold hands, and his chillblains because he never complained. After the outbreak of the First World War, though, he started to cough up blood from time to time, and, as his condition worsened, he suffered violent hemorrhages of the lungs. Brother Maximilian still remained cheerful through it all and thought that he would soon bid farewell to this world and be united in heaven with the Immaculata whom he loved so dearly. Nevertheless, his sanctity was full of fighting spirit. For instance, he could no longer bear to look on while the Freemasons in Rome were perpetrating their mischief to celebrate the second centenary of the founding of their Lodge. Now, full of holy indignation, he wanted to act, and on October 16, 1917 – three days after the final appearance of Mary at Fatima – he founded the Militia Immaculatae.
BEGINNINGS OF THE MILITIA IMMACULATAE
Father Maximilian was ordained a priest on April 28, 1918, in Rome, and then, in the Church of San Andrea delle fratte – where the immaculately conceived Mother of God had appeared to Alphonse Marie Ratisbonne, a Jew – he celebrated his first Holy Mass at the altar of Our Lady of Grace. In 1935, at the command of his superior, Father Kolbe wrote down a precise account of how the Militia of the Immaculata had originated.
“I’LL FIGHT FOR THE IMMACULATA”
Since Father Guardian now has made it my duty to give a report about the beginnings of the Militia of the Immaculata (M.I.), I want to write down what I still remember. I recall how as a little boy I bought a statue of the Madonna for a kopek. At the boarding school in Lemberg I threw myself to the ground during Holy Mass and promised the Mother of God, who is enthroned above the altar as Queen, that I would fight for her. I really didn’t know where to start; I was thinking of a battle with real weapons. During the novitiate I took the novice master, Father Dionysius Sowiak, into my confidence and spoke to him about this difficulty. Father Dionysius, who had since passed away, changed my promise into the obligation to pray daily the prayer “We fly to thy patronage…” I still pray it today, although I now know which battle the Immaculata had in mind. Although I had a strong tendency to pride, the Immaculata brought me more and more under her influence. In my cell I had hanging over my prie-dieu the picture of a saint to whom the Mother of God had appeared. I called him often. A religious who noticed it said to me, “You must have a great devotion to this saint!”
As the carryings-on of the Freemasons in Rome increased in arrogance and vulgarity – under the windows of the Vatican they unfurled a satanic banner, a horrible distortion that pictured Lucifer casting the Archangel Michael to the ground, and they distributed to the crowds filthy and demeaning pamphlets against the Holy Father – the thought occurred to me of founding an alliance against the Freemasons and other devilish powers. In order to make sure whether this thought came from the Immaculata, I sought counsel from the Jesuit priest Allessandro Basile, who was the confessor of our college. He commanded me, under obedience, to set aside my fears, and I decided to get to work at once…
Apart from the first members (Brother Glowinski, Brother Antonio Mansi, and Brother Enrico Granata) no one in the college knew anything about the Militia Immaculatae. Only Father Rector, Stefano Ignudi, was in on the secret, since the M.I. undertook nothing without his permission: in obedience the Immaculata makes known her will. So it happened that, with the permission of Father Rector, on October 17, 1917, there was a meeting of the first seven members…
HELP IN HEAVEN
For a whole year after this first meeting the M.I. Made no progress. Even the members were afraid to speak about it. One even tried to persuade the others that it was all pointless. During this time two from our group, who were truly the elect, went to the Immaculata: Brother Anton Glowinski and, thirteen days later, Brother Antonio Mansi, both carried off by influenza. I myself had a serious relapse and was coughing and spitting blood. Excused from attending lectures, I had the time to write down the programme for the Militia Immaculatae that we had worked out, so as to submit a copy to the general of the order, Father Taviani, and ask for his blessing. “Oh, if there were at least twelve of you!” He exclaimed, and gave us his blessing in writing with the request that the Militia Immaculatae be propagated among the youth. From this day on new members continued to join. In the first phase of its existence the Militia Immaculatae had no other duties than to pray and to distribute the Miraculous Medal.
THE PRIORITIES FOR KNIGHTS
The most important points in the programme of the Militia of the Immaculata, which the members or “Knights” were to work and fight for, were: (1) their own sanctification, (2) the conversion of sinners, (3) the reunification of those separated from the Church through heresy or schism, and (4) the battle against the machinery of the Freemasons; all of this under the patronage and with the help of the Immaculata.
BOTH HANDS FREE
Father Maximilian Kolbe attributed the project’s turn for the better to the two founders who had died: “They went on to the Immaculata to promote the cause.” Afterwards, whenever he had to make important decisions, he called on his intercession in heaven, and he was conscious of their help. He said: “When things threaten to go wrong, the Immaculata calls one of us to herself, so as to help more effectively. Here below we can only work with one hand, because we need the other hand to hold fast to the Immaculata so that we don’t fall. In heaven we will have both hands free, and the Mother of God will be our Guardian.”
In July 1919 the young priest Father Maximilian Kolbe returned to Poland. According to the doctor’s prognosis, his tuberculosis was so far advanced that he was given only three more months to live. The young Franciscan became a professor in Krakow. Filled with holy zeal, he tried to promote the Militia of the Immaculata among his confreres, but he met with little understanding. They called him a dreamer and a visionary. Since his confreres could not be won over to the Militia Immaculatae, he turned to the laity. In the Italian Hall in Krakow he conducted a meeting every month. To start with there were only a handful, but on a monthly basis more and more showed up to listen and to be caught up in the enthusiasm of the sickly priest, as he explained the four means that the “Knight off the Immaculata” should apply in battling for the Immaculata: good example, prayer, work and suffering, all for the honour of the Immaculata and in her spirit. He himself set the example, for his personality was radiant with an inner fire that seemed to consume him. He knew that prayer is by far more effective than uninterrupted work, although work, of course, must be done also. He set the highest value on the fourth point, suffering. He said:
When grace inflames our heart, then it brings about in us a true hunger for suffering, for unlimited suffering, for humiliation and disdain, so that through our suffering we can demonstrate our love to our heavenly Father and our beloved Mother, the Immaculata. For suffering is a school of love. And our activity will be the greater when it is carried out in exterior and interior darkness, when we are sad, weary, and desolate as a result of failure and abandoned by all, despised and mocked like Jesus on the Cross; if we only pray with all our might for our persecutors and desire by all means to lead them through the Immaculata to God. We must not feel hurt if we do not see the fruits of our labour. Maybe it is the will of God that they be harvested only after our death.
NO REAL REST
Suffering now hit Father Maximilian Kolbe with its full force. At the end of 1919 he had a serious setback with respect to his health. In January 1920 he was sent to a sanatorium in Zakopane. Yet even here, in his zeal for souls, he gave himself no rest. In December 1920 his superiors allowed him to return to Krakow. Afire with zeal, though he had only half of one lung left, he threw himself into his work again and regularly gave lectures at the meetings of the Knights of the Militia of the Immaculata at the Italian Hall in Krakow.
BEGGING FOR ALMS
Since more and more people came, some from distances, Father Maximilian Kolbe felt a pressing need to publish a small newspaper. He asked his superiors for permission to do so. They allowed it, on the condition that he raise the necessary funds himself. So he began to beg. That was an extremely difficult sacrifice for him, for he could scarcely bring himself to beg for alms. But the sacrifice was rewarded. Thanks to his mendicant visits from door to door through Krakow, and with the help of the Knights of the Militia of the Immaculata, he was able to collect the money to print the first edition of ‘Knights of the Immaculata’ in January 1922. For the subsequent editions the money for the printer was almost never available, but the Immaculata herself miraculously provided it over and over again. By the year 1924 the circulation of the newspaper had grown to twelve thousand, and in 1925 it reached thirty thousand. Father Maximilian Kolbe, who had to write all the articles for the newspaper himself, used clear, simple language to remind the readers of the most important truths of the faith. First and foremost he promoted true devotion to Mary and, with a subtle understanding of their psychology, prepared his compatriots to make the consecration of their lives to the Immaculata, which indeed was supposed to be the purpose and goal of the Militia of the Immaculata.
Finally they were even able to buy a printing press to print the newspaper. But now the noise caused by the printing and dispatching of the newspapers became too much for Father Kolbe’s confreres in the Franciscan friary in Krakow. The old priests were accustomed to a quiet life and could not stand the commotion any more. So Father Maximilian Kolbe was transferred to Grodno, where the friary was large enough. There three rooms could be put at his disposal, one for the print shop, one for the dispatch department, and one for the management of the newspaper. The editor’s desk remained in Father Maximilian’s cell.
IN THE SANATORIUM ONCE MORE
The newspaper was thriving. Eventually still more rooms of the friary were made available for his work, and new machines were procured, too. But the director of the whole undertaking had completely worn himself down again. He had to return to Zakopane for another eighteen months in the sanatorium.
“I AM ALL YOURS”
On one occasion Father Maximilian Kolbe placed his eyeglasses and his clock at the foot of Our Lady’s statue and declared: “My glasses stand for my eyes, my thoughts, my work; while the clock stands for the remaining time that I have. It all belongs to her, to her alone; nothing is to belong to me any more. I have given everything to her, she may do with it as she pleases.”
Meanwhile, the number of novices at the community in Grodno increased considerably. By the time the patient in Zakopane had recuperated and returned to Grodno, the friary there was literally overflowing with the lay brothers who had entered so as to dedicate themselves to the work of Father Maximilian. There was no more room. The only solution was a new foundation.
BUYING A PLOT OF LAND
For that the community first needed land on which to build. A suitable piece of land in the vicinity of Warsaw was advertised to be on sale. There was no money, though, to purchase it. In his unbounded confidence in the Immaculata, the friar placed her statue in the middle of the property, silently hoping that the heavenly Mother would help with the purchase. Negotiations began. The provincial found the proposed purchase price much too high and declined. Father Maximilian Kolbe obediently reported to the owner of the property, Prince Drutski-Lubetski, that the community was not in a position to buy the building site. “What will happen to the statue, then?” the prince asked. Father Maximilian answered: “It can stay there.” The prince thought for a moment. Then he said, “Well, in that case, take the property; you can have it for free.” Now the provincial approved also. In the machine room of the friary in Grodno, though, Father Maximilian asked his co-workers, “Get on your knees, my sons, we’re going to thank the dear Blessed Mother.”
Now work began on the building site. Many people from the area volunteered their help. On the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin in 1927, construction had progressed to where the Brothers could leave the friary in Grodno and move into barracks in the newly built city of the Immaculata, Niepokalanow. From that day on, when the Brothers had the chance to work for their city, their heroism knew no bounds. One building after another went up, until the complex looked like a little industrial city. The circulation of the newspaper ‘Knights of the Immaculata’ increased from one year to the next, until in 1939 the number of subscribers reached one million. The driving force behind all this was Father Maximilian Kolbe, with his boundless love for the Immaculata. He explained it this way in one of his written works:
“DRAW CLOSE TO MARY IMMACULATE”
Maria Immaculata: the Immaculate Conception is our ideal. If we draw close to her, we will become more and more like her. Let us allow her to take possession of our hearts and of our whole being, so that she can live and work in us and so that she can love God through us with our hearts; for we belong to her completely and absolutely, she is our ideal. Let us apply ourselves, right where we are, to winning other people for her, so that the hearts of our fellow men, too, will be open to her, so that she can reign in the hearts of all people, whatever corner of the world they may live in, without distinction as to race, nationality, or language, and so too in the hearts of all, at whatever moment in history they will live, until the end of the ages, she is our ideal.
– This is an excerpt from the book “Neue Heilige der katholischen Kirche” by Ferdinand Holboeck (Christiania Verlag, Stein am Rhein, 1991)