Ezekiel 2:8- 3:4
Matthew 18: 1-5, 10, 12-14
Feast of Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941)
When he was a small boy in 1898, Maximilian Kolbe experienced a vision of Our Lady. This child was not prone to supernatural phenomena. He was, therefore, quite startled when the Madonna statue in his church came alive. Mary offered the boy two crowns. Holding one in each hand, she asked him: “Which do you choose? One is for purity, one is for martyrdom.” He replied: “My Lady, I chose both.” Such was to be his destiny.
Born on January 8, 1894, the youth entered the Conventual Franciscan Friars. He was ordained a priest at the Lateran Basilica in 1918. He immediately entered into the apostolate of social media. He vigorously undertook the use of the radio and the printing press as a means of uniting Poland after more than a century of partition. His work enabled him to establish a sodality dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. During the 1920s and 1930s he established his ministry in a large compound. It continued to function when he was assigned as a missionary to Japan.
As the winds of war blew across Europe, his superiors summoned him back to Poland in order to stabilize the large number of vocations he had attracted through his communication endeavors. When the Nazis arrived, they arrested him. They labeled him a subversive, despite the protests of the Bishops and civil authorities who pointed out that his work was purely religious. He ended up in Auschwitz, but his fate was not sealed. He was assigned to heavy labor and, unlike many priests; he did not succumb to the hardships of deprivation and beating. One night in July 1941, some prisoners escaped the Concentration Camp. In retaliation, the Kommandant chose several innocent men to die by starvation. One of these was a husband and father. Father Maximilian stepped forward and declared, “Choose me instead of this man. I do not have a wife and children waiting for me at home.” Calmly he descended, in all his dignity, into the cellars where no food or water would pass. He declared to his fellow sufferers: “Let us show them that we are men of hope.” He organized them into a choir. For days the prisoners above ground heard classic songs and hymns sung in four-part harmony. “Even here,” he said, “we can make something beautiful.” On August 14, 1941, when no more sound was heard from the pit, the guards entered the chamber and found three or four people barely breathing. Father Maximilian was among them. These were injected with an acid solution. They perished immediately. There was no body to be a relic of this act of heroism, for all were disposed of in the ovens. But there was one living relic, Franz Gajowniczek, the man whom Maximilian had replaced. He was present at the beatification in 1971 and the canonization in 1982. “He is known as the Great Martyr of Charity who stands along side the known and the unnamed of whatever faith whose love has challenged the darkness of our times.”
Today’s liturgical readings elucidate his feast. The prophet Ezekiel is instructed to open his mouth in order to eat the scroll, i.e. the Word of the Lord. The scroll is written, yet it is as honey to be given back to the people of God. Ezekiel indicates across all these centuries that God is present in the scholarship that comprises Sacred Scripture. This passage enables us to observe the presence of God in devotion to Holy Writ. In the patristic era, the scrolls were kept in a tabernacle, not to hide them away from memorization and study by the faithful, but because God’s deeds and commandments are recorded there. Scripture was kept in a special tabernacle in the sanctuary of the church. Priests genuflected before it as they did before the reserved sacrament.
Maximilian Kolbe uniquely understood the presence of God in the Bible and the need to interpret it through the press. This passage from the prophet Ezekiel is a profoundly poetic form which, in turn, lets us know that God’s word lives among us and possesses the same importance as the Eucharist itself, for it is a component thereof.
The Gospel passage is another synoptic reiteration of the theme of “the child.” Jesus teaches us that the reverence of children is of the essence of the concept of the kingdom of heaven. The child is simple. The child is trusting. The child is humble. The child is full of wonder. The child is innocent. It was to the child Maximilian that Mary offered the double crown. Because of his enthusiasm for Mary’s promise he became every bit as zealous as the Good Shepherd whose concern for his flock is outlined in the second part of this pericope. When he canonized Maximilian Kolbe, Blessed John Paul II declared him to be a witness of charity forever. This heritage of spirituality entails heroism. To it we are all called.
Lord God, you endowed the religious, the priest and the martyr, Maximilian with a zeal for souls and a love of neighbor. Grant, we pray, that by imitating his daily efforts to place your holy plan first, we may, like him, be conformed to the pattern of Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
- Father Jerome Vereb, C.P.