I have a small figurine of a monk on my desk at work that I purchased over a year ago at my local Catholic bookstore. It is a figurine of one of my greatest heroes, a Catholic saint and priest. It wasn’t long ago that someone asked me who it is. It was a sincere question, differing from a few that I’ve received that are of the more snide or snickering variety that ask who the cute little action figure is supposed to be.
I explained that this man, Prisoner #16670, died on August 14, 1941, in cell block 13, the worst of all punishments handed out by the National Socialists in Auschwitz prior to the employment of the ovens and gas chambers that would later follow with malicious efficiency.
Maximilian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest, had been taken prisoner by the Nazis, as had been vast numbers of his fellow men, Poles, Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans. He was captured by the Nazis in 1941 and was sent to the concentration camp Auschwitz on the 17th of February of that year. The Catholic priests in this camp were singled out for cruel treatment and Maximilian Kolbe was no exception. He was horse-whipped by a guard 50 times and was left for dead. Father Kolbe survived the beating and returned to comforting those suffering and dying.
On the last day of July, 1941, a prisoner had attempted to escape the terror camp. As punishment, and to discourage any future escape attempts, the commandant called out ten names—the names of those to be starved to death in retribution for the one man trying to escape. One of the names called had belonged to a husband and father named Francis Gajowniczek. As Gajowniczek pleaded his case, Father Kolbe came forward and offered his life for that man. The commandant, probably rather shocked, agreed, and Kolbe, along with nine others, stripped naked and entered the 3-foot high concrete bunker. Deprived of food, water, light, and toilets, the men died one at a time. Kolbe survived the longest, comforting the other nine men during their torture and death. When the commandant had the room searched two weeks later and found Father Kolbe alive, he furiously ordered him to be injected with carbolic acid. And thus he died.
The man who removed Kolbe’s body offered a wondrous testimony under oath. Kolbe, he said, had been in a state of definite ecstasy, his eyes focused on something far beyond the bunker, his arm outstretched, ready to accept the death by the chemicals to be injected into him.
That’s no mere action figure sitting on my desk. It is a representation of the saint of the twentieth century: patron to over 200 million men, women, and children murdered by their governments because they were each an unrepeatable center for dignity and freedom, made for beauty and eternity, not for the whim of a governor, bureaucrat, commandant or ideologue.
Seventy years ago yesterday, August 14, my adopted patron was murdered by fanatics. Father Kolbe was a pioneer in the art of communications and publishing. He also promoted the wearing of the Miraculous Medal. I’ve written of it before.
I’ve worn my medal faithfully around my neck for ten years. Or at least I did. Yesterday, on the 70th anniversary of St. Max’s martyrdom, I lost my medal. I’ve lost it several times before as it persisted in falling off the 30 inch sterling silver chain that held it around my neck. But it was never lost for long and always came back. And once again I’d attempt to repair the ring that kept it on the chain. Alas, this time it appears it’s gone for good as I lost it last night at a picnic celebrating my oldest son’s baseball team and their achievements this summer. I didn’t discover it was missing until I removed the chain before bed to place it on my dresser.
I have several more medals however, several of them are sent to me each year by this or that charity appeal. I plan on attaching a new one this week. And I still have the rosary I made by hand six years ago this month (see photo below). I used garnet stones (my birthstone) for the Our Father beads, and silver rose petal beads for the Hail Marys. The centerpiece is a St. Max medal, and the crucifix is what’s known as a “penal” cross. Since St. Max was martyred in the prison of Auschwitz, I thought it appropriate.
I’m not superstitious. The lost medal held no powers. It was not a “good luck charm”. It was a reminder to me of Mary’s message to St. Catherine Laboure in 1830. It was a reminder of Father Kolbe’s life and death. It was a reminder of the power of prayer and contained the following prayer on the front of the medal:
“Oh Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
And so on the anniversary of St. Max’s greatest triumph, I lost a treasured possession. But we are taught by Jesus not to be tied to our possessions aren’t we? It will be replaced, and I will continue to remember my friend Max. I will also continue to pray, as it seems to me that in these times we need it more than ever.