I gave in and watched the Mad Max movie with my seventeen-year-old the other evening. I wish I hadn’t. The Australian post apocalypse road movie was not only a festival of anarchic punk violence, it was also a rather dull movie. The plot line was predictable. The hero was a meathead and the villains were out of the comics. The movie had one redeeming feature: it reminded me of another Max who was mad in his own way. I’m thinking not of Mad Max but of Martyr Max—St Maximilian Kolbe.
Kolbe was mad about Jesus and Mary. From the earliest age he was sold out one hundred percent for the Lord. Many are familiar with the story of Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom in Auschwitz, but they don’t know about the rest of his life. If Mad Max was an anarchic hero of a forgettable film, Martyr Max was a seraphic hero of an unforgettable story. With a sharp intelligence, stellar academic accomplishment, a natural leader of men, and a courageous priest, Fr Maximilian Kolbe was not only mad about Jesus and Mary, but he was also Magnificent Max the Martyr.
Maximilian Kolbe was born on January 8, 1894 in Zduńska Wola, Poland with the name Raymond. One of four brothers, their father was a weaver and their mother a midwife. When Raymond was a boy he had a vision of Mary. She came to him holding two crowns, one white, the other red and asked if he was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that he should persevere in purity, and the red that he should become a martyr. Maximilian said he would accept both.
In 1907 Kolbe and his elder brother Francis left home to join the Franciscans. They enrolled in the Franciscan minor seminary and in 1910 Raymond became a Franciscan novice and took the name Maximilian. He took his final vows in 1914 after studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
No academic slouch, he was avidly interested in science and technology. He earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1915, then continued his studies at the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure where he earned a doctorate in theology. During his time as a student, he witnessed vehement demonstrations by the Freemasons against Popes St. Pius X and Benedict XV. Sensing the need to defend the faith against the attacks of Satanic groups, he started the Militia Immaculata (Army of the Immaculate One).
In 1918, Kolbe was ordained a priest and returned to the newly independent Poland, where he was active in promoting the veneration of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. From 1919 to 1922 he taught at the Kraków seminary. During that time he suffered from tuberculosis, which forced him to take a lengthy leave of absence from his teaching duties. The effect of the disease left him with only one functioning lung.
In January 1922 he founded the monthly periodical named Knight of the Immaculate, and over the next few years his publishing endeavors grew amazingly. Young men flocked to join him, and in 1927 he founded a new Franciscan monastery at Niepokalanów near Warsaw, which became a huge religious publishing center, churning out Catholic literature of all kinds. To cope with the army of men wanting to serve Jesus and Mary, Kolbe founded a junior seminary two years later.
If that wasn’t enough, between 1930 and 1936, Max the Magnificent undertook a series of missions to the far East. At first, he arrived in Shanghai, China, but failing to find a following there, moved to Japan, where by 1931 he founded a monastery at the outskirts of Nagasaki. He and his brothers lived in extreme poverty, overcame incredible opposition and persecution to learn Japanese and eventually publish a Japanese edition of his magazine.
In mid-1932 he left Japan for Malabar, India, where he founded another monastery. With only one lung, living in abject poverty and working tirelessly, Kolbe’s health was failing. After four years of missionary work in India he returned to Poland. Once he was back at Niepokalanów, he started a radio station, and became increasingly involved in giving a Catholic response to the growing troubles with Germany. After the German invasion of Poland his troubles with the Nazis began.
After his town was captured by the Germans, Kolbe was arrested. He refused to sign an agreement which would have given him rights similar to those of German citizens in exchange for recognizing his German ancestry. Instead, once he was released, he continued work at his monastery in Niepokalanów, where he and other monks provided shelter to refugees, including 2,000 Jews whom he hid from German persecution.
Kolbe received permission to continue publishing religious works, but when he began to publish literature critical of the Nazis he was shut down. On 17 February 1941, Kolbe and four others were arrested by the German Gestapo and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison. On 28 May, he was transferred to Auschwitz.
In the prison camp Kolbe served his fellow prisoners as a priest. For this he was subjected to violent harassment, beating, and lashings. Then at the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting the deputy camp commander to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!”, Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
According to a janitor at the prison, Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer to Our Lady. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. “The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. His remains were cremated on August 15th, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary.
Kolbe’s final martyrdom was the culmination of a heroic life. Eschewing the mindless violence of his time—a violence echoed in the crazy Mad Max film—Martyr Max stood instead as a valiant soldier in the Army of the Immaculate—an army of peace in the face of violence, an army of forgiveness in the face of revenge and an army of heroic sacrificial love in the face of the mindless mayhem of demonic destruction.