When one speaks of St. Maximilian one spontaneously thinks of his martyrdom in Auschwitz and his unlimited love for the Immaculate. However, it must be underscored that his martyrdom and Marian devotion were lived out in the context of a priestly vocation. “St. Maximilian, Priest”—this is the official title given him by Holy Mother Church. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II proclaimed Fr. Kolbe to be a luminous “example” and “glory” to the priesthood, a ministerial priest to be numbered among the great priest-saints such as Saints Ignatius of Loyola, Alphonsus M. de Liguori, Louis M. Grignon de Montfort, Vincent de Paul, John M. Vianney, and John Bosco.
St. Maximilian reflected a great deal on the revelatory statement of God to Moses on Mount Horeb: “I am who am,” and that of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette at Lourdes: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” It is deeply significant, then, that the last words recorded from Maximilian’s lips were those pronounced to the question posed by the Nazi Commandant Fritsch: “Who are you?” His answer too was a self-revelation: “I am a Catholic priest.” He identified himself as a priest of Jesus Christ and offered himself as a victim of love.
Priest and Victim in the Shadow of the Tabernacle
St. Maximilian knew well that to be a Catholic priest is to be alter Christus—another Christ. In fact, the week before his ordination he wrote: “The concerns of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are your concerns.” Thus he lived out his priesthood ablaze with the very flames of love burning in the divine and priestly Heart of Jesus. He knew no limit and never counted the cost. Bad health, inclement weather, fraternal misunderstandings, foreign cultures and languages, unspeakable dangers, violence, hatred and maltreatment—all these served only to conform him all the more to Jesus, Priest and Victim. “There is no love without sacrifice,” he would often say. And so he tirelessly spent himself for “the maximum glory of God” and “the salvation and sanctification of souls.”
What sustained his supernatural zeal in his twenty-three years as a priest? It was the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. As Fr. Jerzy Domanski, O.F.M. Conv., points out, “throughout his life, the priestly spirit, nurtured over the years in the shadow of the tabernacle and kept warm by the Immaculate Heart of Mary, shone brightly.” (1) His incessant union with the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary enabled him to radiate the Gospel in his life and ministry.
The Holy Mass was the center of the Saint’s spirituality. This was evident from his preparation for Mass, his reverence and recollection in celebrating the Sacred Mysteries, and his thanksgiving after Mass (in his retreat before being ordained a deacon he resolved to spend half his day in preparation for Holy Mass and the other half in thanksgiving!). Moreover, he made many spiritual communions throughout the day (every fifteen minutes) and was frequently found on his knees in the Chapel making a short or prolonged visit to the Blessed Sacrament.
As a priest he was a man of prayer and sacrifice, that is to say he lived the Sacred Mysteries he celebrated. In all his many activities he never ceased to place prayer in the primary place. “The fruitfulness of work,” he once wrote, “solely and exclusively depends on the degree of one’s union with God.” Furthermore, he made of his life a continual union of sacrificial love with Jesus the Divine Victim. As a result, the end of his life in the concentration camp was but the flowering of a life lived in perennial sacrifice. He became, as it were, an extension of Jesus the great high Priest and royal Paschal Victim; he became an extension of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in this world. It was to this end that the Saint offered a Mass during his first year as a priest with the intention pro amore usque ad victimam (for love unto victimhood) and that he would ask his mother to pray that he might die a martyr.
Kept Warm by the Immaculate Heart of Mary
As Jesus was anointed Priest by the Holy Spirit at the very moment of His virginal conception in the womb of Mary, so too, by way of analogy, every priest is anointed such by the Holy Spirit through the maternal mediation of the Immaculate at the moment the Bishop imposes hands. St. Maximilian actually states this explicitly about his own priesthood in the opening words of his Mass register: “By the mercy of God through the Immaculate… I was ordained a priest of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Saint had a special love for and understanding of the Immaculate as the Mediatrix of all graces. In the act of consecration he composed for the Militia Immaculatae as a seminarian he concludes, “… because every grace flows through your hands, from the most sweet Heart of Jesus, to us.” Certainly his priesthood was a supreme grace that he received through her maternal mediation.
It is no wonder, then, that as a priest he turned to her Immaculate Heart in everything with an unlimited trust. In a world grown cold, he was able to sustain his priesthood with the warmth of divine charity that dwells in her tender Heart. He did not hesitate to attribute every good that he accomplished to her omnipotent intercession. Among his written resolutions he wrote, “all the fruits of your activities depend on union with Her…” His was a priesthood entirely united and consecrated to the Immaculate. For her he would “live, work, suffer, be consumed and die” as a priest of Jesus Christ.
Zeal for Souls
From the Most Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary flowed his apostolic zeal. This fervor was fruitful in many efforts, whether one considers the two cities of the Immaculate themselves or the many publications they produced. He was an “itinerant” preacher in sermons and conferences, but perhaps more so through the mass media, the press, and his letters. Of course, his most eloquent sermon was that of his life.
He was also a confessor and spiritual director who knew how to direct souls to Jesus through the Immaculate. And finally he was a leader who guarded and guided his subjects with prudence and order—”Preserve order and order will preserve you,” he would say.
St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe was a priest par excellence—a humble and obedient son of the Church who sought to live in union with his Eucharistic Lord in the deep recesses of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As a priest on earth he said he could only work with “one hand” because he had to clasp his Immaculate Mother with the other; however, as an eternal priest he now labors with “both hands” in Heaven because he is forever secure and abandoned in her heavenly embrace.
We conclude with a quote from Pope Paul VI’s beatification discourse: “Is not a priest ‘another Christ’? And was not Christ the Priest redemptive Victim of the human race? What a glory, what an example for us priests to behold in this new Blessed a spokesman for our consecration and for our mission!” (2)
Fr. Maximilian Mary Dean, F.I. is a member of the Franciscans of the Immaculate and author of several Mariological publications which include his recent book, In Pursuit of Immortal Souls.
(1) For the Life of the World, p. 32.
(2) Oct. 17, 1971.