On August 14, we celebrate the feast of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, patron of the Franciscans of Life, and the 75th anniversary of his martyrdom. The next day, August 15th, is the solemnity of the Assumption, also known as the Feast of the Dormition of Mary in the Eastern Churches. For the moment, let’s put the Assumption on the side. By the end of this article, we’ll see how it all fits together. Let’s begin with Maximilian Kolbe.
- We must get past the end of the story in order to understand any saint and his or her journey into the mind of God. All too often we look at the finished product, who the person was at the time of death or in the later years of their life, completely missing a life journey that should inspire us to do better. Such is the case with St. Maximilian Kolbe. When you mention his name, everyone remembers him as the priest who traded places with a condemned man Auschwitz and whom the Nazis starved and killed by lethal injection. This heroic act of faith and charity did not spring up on the spur of the moment. There was a lifetime that led to Maximilian’s ultimate sacrifice where he unites his life and death to that of the Crucified Christ to give man a chance at new life.
- According to his parents’ and brother’s memories, Maximilian was typical pre-adolescent who had the ability to get under people’s skin like most kids in that age group. His mother often cried out in despair, “What’s to become of you Raymond? Note: He was born Raymond Kolbe. But there was something special about this apparent little magnet for trouble. His parents had taught him to pray. As a child, he knelt before Our Lady and asked her, “What is to become of me?” Our Lady gave him a choice between a crown of martyrdom and a crown of purity. Raymond chose both.
Here is a learning moment for those who are parents. As important as it is to reign in your restless children and protect them from getting into trouble, as seemed to be Mrs Kolbe’s daily task with Raymond, it is imperative that we never forget that even those little mischievous creatures that we love and call children were given to us to form so that they can return to God. The school that any child must attend is the school of prayer.
Raymond, despite the grief that he caused his mother, learned to go to prayer when he didn’t know where else to turn. This is not something that comes built into a child. This is the work of actual grace given by God to the parent, which the parent passes on to the child as he promised at the child’s baptism. In other words, Raymond prayed because his parents had fulfilled the covenant they made when they baptized him, “to bring him up in the faith.” A child who is brought up in the faith may be derailed, but can find his way back more easily than those who have not grown up in the Catholic faith. We should pay special attention to those parents who raise saints. Often, they serve as good models for parenting.
- At the age of 15, Raymond decided to join the Franciscans. He enters that branch of the Franciscans known as the Friars Minor Conventual or simply the Conventual Franciscans. Upon entering the novitiate, he is invested in the Franciscan habit and given the name Maximilian Maria. From that point until his death he will be known as Friar or Brother Maximilian Maria. There is much to be learned here.
First for youth – St. John Paul told the youth of the world, “Do not be afraid of Jesus Christ.” When Our Lady offered Raymond a choice between martyrdom and purity, he chose both. We think of this story and we swoon over this wonderful little boy who was so pious and so holy. We completely miss what God wants to teach us. Those who struggle, as did Raymond, are also called to a life of virtue and sacrifice. Prefabricated saints don’t need to practice heroic virtue or make heroic sacrifices. Sinners do.
Raymond admitted that he was a sinner. He also trusted Christ. He was not afraid of Him. If Christ used his Immaculate Mother to guide Raymond to Himself, Raymond was willing to take that step into the unknown and follow her lead. He didn’t become a Franciscan Friar because this was what he wanted to do. He may have wished to be a friar. But he examined his attraction to the Franciscan life in light of the call that Christ made to him through the Immaculate. Raymond entered the Franciscans because the Immaculate said to him, “Do whatever he tells you.” She promised to be by his side along the journey. There was no reason to fear Christ, no reason to fear embracing a life of uncertainty, sacrifice, long days and short nights, penances and many humiliations. Maximilian teaches us that Christ calls us down paths that he has paved specially for each of us. Christ never calls you where you cannot walk.
The question for the young person should be, “What is to become of me, Lord?” This was Raymond Kolbe’s question and the Immaculate responded, “Do whatever he tells you.” Life is not about what I want to do, but about God’s plan for me.
Second for parents: The Kolbe parents were committed to raising their children in the Catholic faith, as they had promised at their baptism. They were also conscious that their children were not their special project, but they were a temporary gift from God that they would have to return when God asked. However, they had no idea what God would ask of their children, when or how. They remained open to the God of surprises rather than planning out their children’s lives in advance and trying to steer them into careers and marriages without consulting God’s plan for them. They educated their children in the faith, provided the academic education available to them and offered them guidance along the way. But they never owned their children. Their children belonged to God. When Christ called Raymond to become Brother Maximilian, it may have not been what Mr and Mrs Kolbe expected or planned, but they trusted. If this was truly the voice of God calling their son, he would be safe and they could offer him no better assurance of his happiness and salvation. If it was simply an illusion of youth, God would open their son’s eyes to the folly of his choice in life. Again, they trusted.
The lesson to be learned is that even when we are unsure what God wants from our children, if the choice is not a sinful one or a danger to to self or others, we can stand back and let the Immaculate guide. She can only guide our children to her Son. Her GPS is locked on Christ as the compass is locked on the North Pole. There is nothing to fear and much to be gained.
This year, during the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, let us focus less on the end product, the martyr and more on the boy, the man and his parents. Let us learn to follow the guidance of the Immaculate and to trust her Son as they did. When we commit to following the guidance of the Immaculate, which leads to her son, then the Assumption needs very little if any explanation. She who leads others to her Son was also called to follow Him in body and soul and will lead all men to the same end.
Shrine to the Immaculate Conception and St. Maximilian Kolbe at the FFV Motherhouse.