Retracing My Footsteps in the City of Saints #5: He Makes All Things New: St. Maximilian Kolbe, Martyr of Auschwitz – Eugenia Geisel

Retracing My Footsteps in the City of Saints #5: He Makes All Things New: St. Maximilian Kolbe, Martyr of Auschwitz – Eugenia Geisel February 20, 2017
Maximilian Kolbe in 1936 - PD-Japan
Maximilian Kolbe in 1936 – PD-Japan

This is the fifth in a series of posts entitled Retracing My Footsteps in the City of Saints by Eugenia Geisel for Eastern Catholic Person on her experience of encountering the saints in Kraków as part of the ordinary supernatural during World Youth Day. There are four previous posts, one on the Black Madonna, a second on Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, a third on Holy Faustyna and the Divine Mercy Devotion, and a fourth on St. Albert Chmielowski.

Eugenia is an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle, majoring in Korean and minoring in Comparative Religion and Russian and Slavic Literatures; she took my course on Trans-Pacific Christianities, a class to which I recently had to issue a public retraction. Because Eugenia is a cradle Latin with Byzantine sympathies, I consider her for the purposes of this blog to be our Latin Catholic Person.

But there is another more compelling reason for Eugenia to post here. While Chris Altieri has criticized the participants at World Youth Day who are nearing age thirty for extended adulthood, Eugenia fits even his criterion for what ‘youth’ are. This is not to take a position on ‘youth’ – we can only be persons – but it is to say that this is an account of how one young Latin Catholic Person encountered the saints in the city of Kraków and cared enough about communion to tell an Eastern Catholic Person about it. The term ‘City of Saints’ is admittedly from George Weigel’s newest book, but it was also used widely during the festivities in Kraków, so any convergences with Weigel’s text is (unless noted) genuinely incidental.

It is important to note that this is a Latin Catholic reflection on an Eastern Catholic Person’s blog. Eugenia makes some interesting claims about Byzantine practice while describing Latin devotions. This means that in the future, I will have to reflect more deeply on these items as well.

Once again much time has passed since my last reflection. With the recent passing of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I found myself allowing my mind to go back to my experience in Poland surrounding World Youth Day, and think about the things I tucked away in my heart. It feels right, to be honest, that this took much more time for me to properly process through, because it was a particularly difficult to face. For in a rather direct sense, it meant facing the rubble of evil. But what it also meant, which may have been an even more bitter pill to swallow, was having to come to terms with the reality we are already in this invisible battle day after day, and have been age after age.

On July 29, 2016, the Patriarch of the West (Justin still prefers this title for him), the Holy Father Francis made a poignant visit to the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau during his visit to Poland for World Youth Day. There of course was live coverage of this, which some of you may have seen. A particularly powerful moment for me was when he visited the cell in which St. Maximilian Kolbe was martyred. There he sat, in prayerful, unbroken silence, for about six minutes.

Silence.

Divine mercy colored sunset over Birkenau (credit: Eugenia Geisel)
Divine mercy colored sunset over Birkenau (credit: Eugenia Geisel)

That same day, I venerated Father Kolbe’s relics for a second time at the Mercy Centre, or the English-language catechesis site for WYD 2016 in Kraków. He has always been a particular important saint in my life, but even more so in the last five years as he is my youngest brother’s patron saint. Though he’s probably one of the more popular and well known Polish saints that were with us at the Mercy Centre, his story is important for all to remember-not because his heroism was so great, but because it was so simple-and its simplicity is where its true greatness lies.

He was born as Raymund Kolbe in a part of Poland that at the time was under the Tsarist Russian Empire. He was pious from his youth, having had a vision of the Theotokos when he was only twelve years old. According to Kolbe:

That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.

This led young Raymund, who would go on to enter the novitiate with the Conventional Franciscans and take the name Maximilian only a few years later, to have a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary. In fact, he is often called the “Apostle of Consecration to Mary,” and he found the Militia Immaculata (Army of the Immaculate). He utilized and became well versed in the new media of his time: namely printing and radio, such as his periodical Rycerz Niepokalanej, promoting Mary and Marian devotion throughout Poland. He even traveled as a missionary to Japan and India, founding monasteries in both locations.

For all these achievements for the Church, he was still a simple friar. It would be in facing the evil of his day that would lead him to be not only a saintly hero, but a national hero for Poland, and a hero for humanity. Upon his return to Poland from Asia in 1936, it was only few year before the Nazi invasion of Poland. However, he continued to publish his periodicals, printed anti-Nazi publications, and his monastery sheltered 2,000 Jews from persecution.

Eventually, Kolbe was arrested, and sent to Auschwitz. While the Dachau Camp was famous for being where most of his fellow priests were sent, he was sent there because his arrest was on the grounds of political dissent and his anti-Nazi materials. There he was with the masses, laboring beside other men of many backgrounds. Yet he still embraced his priesthood, which as we would later see in the figure of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko almost forty years, meant embracing sacrifice. When men were selected to be made examples of by being selected to starve to death, one man cried out for mercy because he had a wife and children. Fr. Kolbe volunteered to take the place of this man. He led the others in their starvation cell in prayers til their end, and yet Fr. Kolbe did not die even after two weeks of dehydration and starvation. Eventually, the guards decided to give him a lethal injection, and he peacefully awaited death.

Eugenia praying outside the cell where Fr. Kolbe died (credit: Lawrence Lam)
Eugenia praying outside the cell where Fr. Kolbe died (credit: Lawrence Lam)

One of my last days in Poland, just a few days after Pope Francis walked its grounds, I myself visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. The victims suffering along with Father were largely Jews of course, and there were also countless Poles and other Slavs, Romani groups from throughout Europe (commonly although inaccurately referred to as “Gypsies”), Soviet POWs, and gay men. But the first taken were the mentally and physically disabled, targeted by Nazi eugenics policies, which it is vital to note were originally taken from American eugenic resources and movements of the Twentieth Century. My brother named for Fr. Kolbe would have been among those first taken and exterminated. My visit there was the first time the reality of this truly sunk into me, as he is only five years old, and I had already internalized the cleanly compartmentalized history class version by the time he was even born. Facing the building which held Fr. Kolbe’s cell it hit me. Unlike the Holy Father, I was unable to go inside. The usual tours of the camps were slightly amended during WYD to accommodate the anticipated crowds, and so the buildings that are usually part of it were closed off. So I just stood there, right up to the brick walls, i lowered my head and touched the very real bricks. I prayed silently, and part of my prayer was this silence. I felt as if Fr. Kolbe was right there, like an old friend consoling my trembling heart that didn’t even know what to pray for anymore.

It was such an odd feeling there. Here were the remnants of the Holocaust, a glaring reminder of the tangible battles of ongoing spiritual warfare. I wanted to break the silence, I wanted to think it out, to talk it out, to not leave my thoughts facing such a place to resounding nothingness. I had no chance to witness Pope Francis’ examples from a few days before until I had returned home. But there it was.

Silence.

The Gates of Auschwitz (Credit: Eugenia Geisel)
The Gates of Auschwitz (Credit: Eugenia Geisel)

That is really the best response one can have to such a place. You can’t explain it, you can’t understand it, you can’t represent it. The Holocaust is its own great tragedy, trauma, and sobering result of highly systematized sin. This can not be forgotten nor can it be ignored. Yet it is not mine or any of our places to appropriate this trauma of so many victims to the messages I want to pronounce to the world. Instead I can only sit and face it, with silence. My only place is silence. The good news is this kind of silence demonstrated by Holy Father Francis is not in vain, nor is it passive. This kind of powerful, prayerful, silence, is own that can partake in the supernatural.

The suffering that humanity has inflicted, inflicts, and will continue to inflict upon itself is awful, horrible, unimaginable, irrepresentable. But time and time again we are remind: No suffering does not bear fruit. Even the sufferings inflicted by other people and their deeply sinful choices. Modernity, for all its ills, is not unique in its sins that befall man again and again, age after age. The world is indeed filled with great evils, and has been since sin came into the world. And yet somehow God loves us so much, he allows us to have the free will to break his heart over and over again by choosing to do horrible, horrible things to our fellow humans. The choice of sin is made everyday. That is the price of freedom. But what is also beyond our comprehension is the ability of God in his omnipotence and omnibenevolence-that despite the very real tangible and spiritual effects and consequences of sin- He can still let beauty and goodness come of the darkest hours of both our collective history and individual souls. His mercy is endless, and one of the ways we can see this is through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to move those open to love choose good, and therefore become quiet heroes. We are blessed to know so well St. Maximilian Kolbe’s story of heroism and martyrdom. But how many silent heroes’ stories will never be told? How much blood of the martyrs were sprinkled on that ground I walked? How many joined the communion of saints? How many, regardless of earthly labels the Nazis attempted to further divide humanity with, bore both the white and red crowns offered to the Fr. Kolbe?

Silence.

The freakishly beautiful sun shines over rubble of buildings the Nazis tried to destroy (before soviets arrived) (Credit: Eugenia Geisel)
The freakishly beautiful sun shines over rubble of buildings the Nazis tried to destroy (before soviets arrived) (Credit: Eugenia Geisel)

Countless stories will only be witnessed through silence. But that will never take away the impact of their goodness and their role in the invisible victories of spiritual warfare. Walking through these camps, I was overwhelmed with a very, very odd mix of feelings. Arriving at the second camp of Birkenau, I was struck first with its incomprehensible vastness. It felt as if it had no end. But it did. Secondly, I was struck with a particularly odd sight- an absolutely beautiful sun shining above the trees and the camp itself. It was impossible not to notice this beauty. How could such a thing shine here of all places? And it was then that I was struck with these words: “Behold, I make all things new.”

Later, looking up the verse gave it even more appropriate context:

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people-and God himself will always be with them [as their God]” He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.”

The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new. (Rev. 21:5)

Such beauty was what led me to finally succumb to that silence displayed by Pope Francis. With this silence, or perhaps what inspires this prayerful and reverent silence, is a sense of peace. For evil no longer rules these grounds, but having been sprinkled with the blood and ashes, these countless heroes do. As I was leaving the grounds of Birkenau, I turned and saw the sun setting. Once again, the silence hit me. The rays of the sunset in the sky were shades of blue and red. The ray’s of Christ’s Divine Mercy. “Behold, I make all things new.” Not only places, but people. His mercy is endless, there is room for all of us, even the worst of us, if we open up even the slightest room in our hearts.

While the nature of sin and violence is cyclical- to even borrow Dante’s imagery, hell itself is in the shape of a circle. In every age, in the face of sin, humanity has its heroes and saints that rise up. In Auschwitz, our saints St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Edith Stein, and countless others were these quiet yet bold heroes. As Christians we recognize that the breaking of this cycle is not within our own earthly reach, but broken by the cross. This shouldn’t should leave us in passivity, nor discourage us from actively choosing to love. For in the words of St. Maximilian Kolbe “The cross is the school of love”. Thankfully, in love and mercy, we are also reminded of the reality that sin is not eternal.

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