The Greatest Sacrifice

Friar Rajmund Kolbe lived his life in service to God and man, and gave his life to God for man.

June 21, 2021

What is your definition of a hero? Whenever you think of a hero, it will usually be someone in the military. The courageous warrior soldier, who fought sacrificed and saved the life or lives of his or her fellow comrades in arms. This select group will usually receive a commendation, and if the act is proven worthy, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Of course, there are also heroes among ordinary people, we don't usually hear much about them, like an occasional report in the news, but I'm certain there are many heroes among the American people who have had profound effects on the lives of others.

History is replete with stories of heroic acts, and one of the most profound and famous I believe would be Jesus Christ - He was crucified and died for the sins of all mankind. Heroes can come in all sizes, shapes, and colors; the will to show the courage and fortitude to act on behalf of another, makes no distinction, it could be a soldier, police officer, a clergyman, or a carpenter.  I'd like to tell you a story about a true hero who made the ultimate sacrifice for the life of another, was not heralded or given a medal, but in the end I believe received an even greater reward in heaven.

Rajmund Kolbe was born in Zdunska Wola Poland in January 1894 into a modest family. He was one of five sons, his father Julius was a weaver, and his mother Maria was a midwife. In 1907 he entered the Franciscan minor seminary, and in 1910 entered the novitiate. He professed his vows as a Franciscan in 1911, and final vows in 1914, and chose the name Maximilian Maria Kolbe.

Friar Kolbe tells a story of how at the age of 12 he became spiritually influenced by a vision of the Virgin Mary. The Mother of God showed him two crowns, one white and one red. Each crown meant that the life he chose would be to either persevere in purity, or become a martyr; he chose both. And that decision would one day come to pass.

In 1912 Kolbe was sent to Rome to attend the Pontifical Gregorian University where he earned a doctorate in philosophy. He continued his studies, and in 1915 entered the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventura where he earned a doctorate in Theology in 1919.

In the midst of World War I, while still studying for his degrees, a traumatic event affected Kolbe. His father Julius joined the Polish military and fought against the Russians for an independent Poland, which had been subjugated, and was divided among Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Eventually, he was captured by the enemy and hanged as a traitor.

In 1915 while still in the seminary Friar Kolbe became active, along with several other seminarians, and published a magazine devoted to the Blessed Mother. During this time he witnessed unrest and demonstrations against Popes Pius X and Benedict XV, which was prompted by the Freemasons that were celebrating an anniversary while marching through the streets.

Friar Kolbe continued his priestly duties and worked towards the conversion of sinners and enemies of the Catholic Church. In 1941, the monastery was shut down by German authorities, and Kolbe and other friars were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Pawiak prison. Soon thereafter he was transferred to Auschwitz - prisoner 16670.

While in this living hell of the concentration camp, Friar Kolbe continued his priestly duties and ministered to other prisoners. He was subjected to constant harassment, was beaten violently, and lashed with anything his captors could lay their hands on. On many occasions, he had to be taken to the prison infirmary, but only secretly by other prisoners.

In July of 1941, a prisoner escaped, and the deputy camp commander SS Fritzsch ordered as a deterrent to further attempts at escape that ten prisoners be singled out and starved to death in an underground bunker. One of those chosen, Fransciszek Gajowniczek, pleaded for the sake of his family that he be spared. According to eyewitnesses, without hesitation, Friar Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to take his place.

Each day Friar Kolbe led the others in prayer. It was told that he would stand or kneel in the center of the bunker death chamber each day with a look of calm and serenity as the guards entered to check on the condemned ten. After two weeks of starvation and deprived of water, Friar Kolbe was the only one of the prisoners to remain alive.

The camp commandant wanted the bunker cleared, so they administered through lethal injection a dose of carbolic acid, all the while Friar Kolbe remained calm and raised his arm and took the deadly poison. Friar Kolbe's remains were cremated on August 15, 1941, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary.

On May 12, 1955, Friar Kolbe was recognized by the Holy See as a Servant of God. He was declared venerable by Pope Paul VI on January 30, 1969, and beatified in 1971. In October 1982 Friar Kolbe was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II. Several miracles involving the curing of people with life-threatening diseases were attributed to the Friar's elevation. Rest in peace Friar Kolbe, you are a true hero.

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