The Marian piety of St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) has also been criticized as supposedly placing Mary above Jesus. One shocked Protestant correspondent asked me why Fr. Kolbe desired to “praise and glorify Mary and die for her alone.”
Catholic devotional language involving Mary is often misunderstood, because it is usually read out of context, and in isolation from what the same person elsewhere expressed about God. One must understand that it is not to be — should never be — interpreted in exclusion of Jesus and God the Father.
As so often in these discussions with critics of Catholic Mariology, a prayer or other writing is cited that was picked up from a second-hand source, often without any documentation, so that a person could check out the entire context. Passages in isolation often seem to imply a great many things that in fact they were not intended to imply, but out of context, we cannot fully understand them. Here, for example, is the saint’s Act of Consecration to Mary:
Allow me to praise You, O most holy Virgin, with my personal commitment and sacrifice.
Allow me to live, work, suffer, be consumed and die for You, just for You.
Allow me to bring the whole world to you.
Allow me to contribute to Your ever greater exaltation, to Your greatest possible exaltation.
Allow me to give You such glory that no one else has ever given You up to now.
Allow others to surpass me in zeal for Your exaltation, and me to surpass them, so that by means of such noble rivalry Your glory may increase ever more profoundly, ever more rapidly, ever more intensely as He Who has exalted You so indescribably above all other beings Himself desires.
In You alone has God been adored beyond compare, more than in all His saints.
For You God has created the world. For You God has also called me to existence. For what reason have I merited this fortune?
Oh, allow me to praise You, O most holy Virgin!
Now, of course, this is horrifying to Protestant ears because Protestants are quite unaccustomed to Catholic Marian devotional language, and thus tend to project the very worst notions onto it. It could hardly be otherwise, in a theological system that forbids the communion and veneration of saints altogether. In such a system, if an adherent sees language like this attributed to a creature, they will immediately assume that it is meant in an idolatrous fashion, in a way that is deliberately meant to exclude or denigrate God.
But that is the false assumption. St. Maximilian Kolbe, in line with all orthodox Catholics, does not intend at all to usurp God’s unique role and replace it with Mary. We see that in the mentions of God in this very prayer (“He Who has exalted You,” “In You alone has God been adored beyond compare, more than in all His saints”).
In Catholic thought, the saint is not placed in opposition to God, but rather, is seen as an “exhibit” or “”product” of the glory and grace of God, through whom God is to be adored.
I understand that the language of prayers like the one above will be thought by most Protestants to be extreme and excessive. There isn’t much anyone can do about that, because it is fully to be expected, due to the different premises with which Catholics and Protestants approach the topic of Mary. But what we can do is examine the larger context and also show what St. Maximilian Kolbe says about God elsewhere in his writings, just as he mentions God here, and gives the key perspective of how his words are to be properly interpreted.
My Protestant friend had cited the last part only, of St. Maximilian’s Prayer to the Immaculate. Here is a longer excerpt:
Who are you, my Queen? Who are you, Immaculate? I cannot understand what it means to be a creature of God.
Immaculate… I turn to you in a humble prayer: Grant me the gift to praise you, Blessed Virgin… Help me understand and express what God prepared in you and through you.
Immaculate, Queen of heaven and earth, I know I am unworthy to approach you, to fall on my knees in front of you, but since I love you so much, let me ask you, you who are so good, to tell me who you are, because I have the desire to know you more
and more, without limits, and to love you with increasing fervor.
Grant me the gift to praise you, Blessed Virgin.
Let me glorify you by my sacrifice.
May I live, work, suffer, be consumed and die for you and you alone!
(Quoted in the Revue du Rosaire, February 1973)
But because the entire first part wasn’t cited in the excerpt, one would miss the mention of God: “Help me understand and express what God prepared in you and through you.”
This places the emphasis squarely on God, as the source of Mary’s holiness, so that it is not an idolatrous statement (which means, by definition, putting something in place of God, or above God). The statement above is not unlike (in theme or concept) several in the Bible:
Acts 14:26 (RSV) and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had fulfilled.
Acts 20:24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
1 Corinthians 1:4 I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus,
1 Corinthians 3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it.
1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.
2 Corinthians 1:12 For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world, and still more toward you, with holiness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God.
2 Corinthians 6:1 Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.
Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
That describes Mary: who was hailed by an angel and described as “full of grace” (Luke 1:28).
A survey of St. Maximilian Kolbe’s Mariology shows how it is not opposed to God and His proper place as the exalted Creator, alone to be adored, at all. For example, his Novena in Honor of the Immaculate Conception contains the following portions about God (I haven’t indicated all text breaks with ellipses; these are lengthy excerpts):
Intercede for us with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Because you bore his Son, pray to the Father for us. Through the spotless conception of the Virgin, 0 God, you made ready a dwelling place worthy of your Son. In anticipation of your Son’s death you preserved her from every stain. Please purify us by her intercession, so that we might find our way to you. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Day 1: The Immaculata’s Relationship to the Trinity
Reading: From all eternity the Father begets the Son, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. This life of the most Holy Trinity is re-echoed in numberless and various ways by the creatures that issue from God’s hands.… Every act of love in God comes forth from the Father through the Son and the Holy Spirit. God creates, maintains in existence, gives life and growth in the natural as well as in the supernatural order. In his love God supports in existence all his innumerable limited created resemblances; and the love-reaction that is provoked in the creature can return to the Father only through the Holy Spirit and the Son… Among creatures, the summit of this love that goes back to God is the Immaculata, the one being totally with-out any stain of sin, all beautiful, all divine. At no time did her will ever deviate from God’s will. With all its strength, her will was always at one with his. In her there came about the marvelous union of God with creation (Kolbe’s “Sketches for a Book,” 1940).
Meditation: Cultivating a personal relationship with each member of the Holy Trinity is an obligation for every individual. May the Immaculata’s love-response to each of the Three Divine Persons serve as a model and stimulus for each of us.
Day 2: The Immaculata as Spouse of the Holy Spirit
Reading: United to the Holy Spirit as his Spouse, the Immaculata is one with God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be predicated of any other creature. What sort of union is this? It is above all an interior union, a union of her essence with the “essence” of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells in her, lives in her. This was true from the first instant of her existence. It was always true; it will always be true. In what does this life of the Spirit in Mary consist? He himself is uncreated Love in her; the Love of the Father and of the Son, the Love by which God loves himself, the very love of the most Holy Trinity. He is a fruitful love, a “Conception.” Among creatures made in God’s image the union brought about by married love is the most intimate of all (cf. Mt 19:6). In a much more precise, more interior, more essential manner, the Holy Spirit lives in the soul of the Immaculata, in the depths of her very being. He makes her fruitful, from the very first instant of her existence, all during her life, and for all eternity (“Sketches for a book,” 17 February 1941).
Meditation: To grow in daily awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us is a constant challenge that God gives to each and all of us. May the Immaculata’s perfect life in the Holy Spirit cause a sharpening of our own attentiveness to his presence at the core of our inner selves.
Day 3: The Immaculata’s Place in God’s Plan of Creation and Salvation
Reading: The Immaculata appears in this world, without the least stain of sin, the masterpiece of God’s hands, full of grace. God, the most Holy Trinity, beholds the lowliness (i.e., the humility, the root of all her other virtues) of his handmaid, and “does great things” for her (cf. Lk 1:49). God the Father gives her his own Son to be her Son; God the Son descends into her womb; and God the Holy Spirit forms the body of Christ in the womb of this most pure virgin. “And the Word was made flesh” (Jn 1:14). The Immaculata becomes the Mother of God. The fruit of the love of God in his Trinitarian life and of Mary the Immaculata, is Christ, the God-man. Hence forth all the other sons of God must be modeled after this first Son of God, the God-man, the infinite One. They must reproduce his traits; by imitating Christ souls reach sanctity.… This is the union brought about by the spousal love of the soul for Christ, through its re-semblance to him, and by God’s action. But if anyone does not wish to have Mary Immaculate for his Mother, he will not have Christ for his Brother.… Since the firstborn Son, the God-man was conceived only with the specific consent of the most Blessed Virgin, the same must hold true for all men, who must be conformed to their first model in all things (“Sketches for a book,” 1940).
Meditation: From all eternity, God has designed a unique plan for each one of us, no two being identical. His ultimate aim is that we all be fully united to the Lord. May the Immaculata, from her unique position in God’s plan, foster our growing conformity to Christ.
The Immaculate Virgin, of course, was created by God; she is a creature; she is a conception; still, she is the Immaculate Conception!
Day 5: The Immaculata’s Dignity as a Human Person
Reading: The Mother of God is a creature. It follows that all she is, she has from God. But she is God’s most perfect creature. For this reason, the homage paid to her is, by the very nature of the case, paid to God him-self. If we admire a statue, we honor the artist who created this masterpiece. If we honor Mary most holy we honor God. The more we pay homage to the divine perfections found in Mary, the more perfect is our homage to God; this is perfectly in order, since God created her in the highest state of perfection (Conference, 9 April 1938).
Meditation: The greatness of every work of art is directly proportionate to the mastery of the artist who forms it. Accordingly, the dignity of every human person derives from God who has created each of us in his image. May the Immaculata teach us always to mirror, as she did, the dignity and perfection of our God.
Day 7: The Immaculata’s Discipleship
Reading: The Immaculata is God’s instrument. With full consciousness and total willingness she allows God to govern her; she consents to his will, desires only what he desires, and acts according to his will in the most perfect manner, without failing, without ever turning aside from his will. She makes perfect use of the powers and privileges God has given her, so as to fulfill always and in everything whatever God wants of her, purely for love of God, One and Three. This love of God reaches such a peak that it bears the divine fruits proper to God’s own love. Her love for God brings her to such a level of union with him that she becomes the Mother of God. The Father confides to her his Son; the Son descends into her womb; and the Holy Spirit fashions out of her perfectly pure body the very body of Jesus (“Sketches for a book,” 1940).
Meditation: The only way to guarantee that we are on the “right track” in our everyday activities is to listen to God’s Word and live it out. That’s discipleship! May the Immaculata’s discipleship of total conformity to God’s Word inspire us to be similar instruments of his will.
She is, then, God’s creature, God’s image, God’s child, and in all these respects she is all this in the most perfect manner possible among the ranks of mere creatures (“Sketches for a book,” 1940). Intelligent creatures love God in a conscious manner; through this love they unite themselves more and more closely with him, and so find their way back to him. The creature most completely filled with this love, filled with God himself, was the Immaculata.
Teach, lead and guide me to Jesus.
The overwhelming emphasis on God is clear. Here is a Novena to the Holy Spirit by St. Maximilian:
O my God, my only happiness — how can I come to know you more perfectly? I see your creatures and I am enchanted; I give thanks and I love you, but these do not suffice for me, as you know so well; but I do not see or hear you. I desire to become like you according to your will, but how? You are most pure Spirit, and I am flesh. Make known to me how I, a person of flesh, must perfect myself and become like you, most Holy Spirit, to be raised to the divine life.
I don’t expect that the arguments above and fuller documentation could immediately make a Protestant comfortable with some of the most explicit expressions of Catholic Marian devotion. But I do think it is quite sufficient to dispel any notion that Mary is being idolatrously placed in God’s position and that God is neglected. To the contrary, I see God being praised, honored, and exalted as much, if not much more so, than any Protestant praises I have ever encountered or read about.
But Catholics do not cease all veneration of saints, because we have a fuller, more biblical theology, and understand that God is praised through His creatures, just as when a painting is praised, it is really the painter who receives the praise.
In fact, it is little known that the Bible repeatedly states that God’s creatures would even share in His glory:
Psalm 149:4-5, 9 For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory.  Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches.… … This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the LORD!
Isaiah 60:1-2 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.  For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.
Daniel 5:18 O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnez’zar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty;
Mark 10:37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
John 5:44 How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
John 17:22 The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,
Romans 2:6-7, 9-10 For he will render to every man according to his works:  to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;…  There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,  but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
Romans 5:2 Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
Romans 9:22-23 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction,  in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory,
2 Corinthians 3:18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
1 Thessalonians 2:12 to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
2 Thessalonians 2:14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 4:14 If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.
1 Peter 5:1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. (cf. 5:4)
2 Peter 1:3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,
“Glorifying Mary,” then, as seen in Catholic Marian piety and devotional literature, must be understood in the framework of this backdrop of Scripture. It is not separate from or “other than” or “besides” God (which would be idolatry); it is precisely because of Him, and His work from beginning to end.
If every Christian believer partakes of God’s glory (Jn 17:22; Rom 2:10; 2 Cor 3:18; 1 Thess 2:12; 1 Pet 4:14), what is wrong in noting that the Blessed Virgin Mary has an extraordinary amount of this same glory (and grace), and extolling that as a supreme example of what God’s grace makes possible in His creatures?
(originally from 2010)
Photo credit: St. Maximilian Kolbe, 1939 [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]