During the Second World War, Father Maximilian Kolbe gave shelter to thousands of Polish people, both Christians and Jews. He risked his life to help these suffering people. On February 17, 1941, he was caught and sent to a prison in Warsaw. A guard who saw his Franciscan habit and his rosary asked, “Do you believe in Christ?” Father Kolbe answered, “Yes, I do.” The guard struck him in the face and asked again. Father Kolbe kept giving the same answer, and the guard kept beating him.
After that, Father Kolbe was given a striped convict’s uniform and the number 16670. He was sent to a concentration camp, where he endured very hard work and beatings that almost killed him. Even then, he secretly heard confessions and spoke to the other prisoners about God’s love. When food was brought in, he let others take their share first. Sometimes there was nothing left for him.
One day a prisoner escaped from the camp. To punish the rest of the prisoners, the officers said 10 men would be killed. These men would be dropped into a pit and left to slowly and painfully starve to death. The guards chose the 10 men. As the men were gathered, one cried out, “My wife, my children! I shall never see them again!” From the watching crowd, another prisoner stepped forward. “I will take his place,” he said. It was Father Kolbe, prisoner 16670.
While they were in the pit, Father Kolbe led the nine other men in prayer and song. The depths of that pit sounded like a church full of people. No one had heard anything like it in the prison before. Father Kolbe prayed and suffered bravely, as Jesus did. He gave his life for another, and he lifted the spirits of the other nine men who died.
After his death, the news of Father Kolbe’s great love spread to the whole world. In 1982, he was canonized. We celebrate this saint’s feast day on August 14. Pope John Paul II said of Father Kolbe, “He won a victory of love. He loved both his fellow prisoners and those who put him to death. There is no greater love than this.”
Excerpted from Christ Our Life, by Sisters of Notre Dame of Chardon, Ohio