In 1936, Niepokalanow (the City of the Immaculate) was home to over 900 Franciscan friars and was the largest Catholic media operation in Poland. Its state-of-the-art presses published 1million magazines each month and 125,000 daily newspapers, while its radio station beamed the Gospel to thousands of Poles.
St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe and his friars were so effective at spreading the good news that the Nazis, who invaded Poland in September 1939, determined that they must not be allowed to continue their ministry.
But St. Maximilian was not frightened. He trusted totally in Mary Immaculate to protect him, and at the same time, to make him an instrument of divine mercy in a world whose light seemed to be rapidly dimming. I turn to his example this week because the Church celebrates the “Saint of Auschwitz” on Aug. 14.
The world has not changed much since World War II shook the foundations of Europe 75 years ago. Europe and the rest of the world are still populated by men and women whose hearts need to be healed, whose hearts need to come to know Jesus, and this is what I would like to reflect on in this column.
Jesus reminded the Pharisees throughout his ministry that it is what is in their hearts that matters the most. In Matthew 15:11 he put it this way: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” And in Matthew 15:18 he proclaims, “…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.”
In other words, we must guard our hearts against temptations and be vigilant so that they do not become hardened by sin. This is not easy in today’s world. All too often, instead of letting our hearts be transformed by God’s mercy, we let them become calloused by refusing to help those in need or by not defending the good.
This past week CNN featured a segment on people who did nothing when a person was shot or attacked right in front of them. Instead, they just walked by, and in one case from New York City, several people stepped over a man who had just been shot before their eyes.
Atrocities are also taking place in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. And we are presented with a choice: do we choose mercy or indifference? Do we let our hearts be moved by charity, or do we let them become calloused?
St. Maximilian understood this battle well. Before he was arrested for the second and final time on Feb. 17, 1941, the Nazis permitted him to publish one last edition of his daily newspaper so they could obtain proof that he was aiding the resistance.
In that paper, St. Maximilian wrote: “No one in the world can change truth. What we can do and should do is to seek it and serve it when it is found. The real conflict is inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the catacombs of concentration camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?” This is a question every person needs to ponder in their heart.
St. Maximilian responded to this internal battle by turning to Mary Immaculate, and we should too. She is the perfect spiritual mother and intercessor for all of us, since her heart was wounded by the experience of seeing her son crucified, but instead of choosing hatred, she chose love and mercy.
The Saint of Auschwitz let his heart be transformed with mercy by consecrating himself to the Immaculata, and this became apparent to everyone who stood at attention on the camp’s parade grounds at the end of July 1941.
The prisoners were assembled in the scorching midday sun after it was discovered that a prisoner had escaped. In retaliation, 10 men were selected at random from the group. One man who was chosen, Francis Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife, my children, I shall never see them again!”
St. Maximilian responded by stepping forward and telling the guards, “I am a Catholic priest. I wish to die for that man. I am old; he has a wife and children.” He took the risk of offering his life, not knowing if both of them would be killed. Only he was sent to die in the starvation bunker.
On Aug. 11 I gathered with religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities to pray that God would protect all those who are being pursued in Iraq by the barbaric fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities are being threatened by their campaign of death. Innocent children are being murdered because of their faith, and whole families and communities have been brutally wiped out.
We cannot stand by while our brothers and sisters are persecuted. And we must not let our hearts become calloused. Instead, we should turn to our Mother Mary as St. Maximilian did and ask her to guide our hearts to merciful prayer and action for those in Iraq and Syria. Ask her to also show you those in your family, those at your work, or others in need, so that you can be a channel of God’s mercy and love for them. Pray too, that Jesus will conform your hearts to his, so that like St. Maximilian Kolbe, you can become a martyr of love for your neighbor. St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!