While the world honours him primarily for his heroic death, two related aspects of St Kolbe’s life warrant further attention: his Franciscan charism and his Marian consecration. Suffice it to say that these two dynamics served as driving forces for his great witness to Christ’s love without limits – the love which impelled Fr Kolbe at the end to lay down his life for a fellow prisoner.
St Maximilian’s combined Franciscan and Marian impulse serves as a key to unlock the love-secret underlying his martyrdom. Both features find common ground in Assisi, Italy. The city of the humble St Francis has served as a ‘Mecca’ to pilgrims for eight centuries. St Maximilian, who professed vows as a Franciscan Friar Conventual in 1912, visited Assisi on various occasions during his days as a student-friar and young priest in Rome.
Assisi continued beckoning him later in life, whenever his apostolic work necessitated stopovers at the Franciscan headquarters in Rome.
Last month, I returned to Assisi to conduct a retreat for friars preparing to profess their final vows. I stayed in the Sacro Convento, built in the 13th century beside the Basilica that holds St Francis’s tomb.
Whilst there, I repaired to one of my favourite spots in Assisi: a hidden garden cloistered between the Convento and the Basilica. The garden has a verdant Lourdes grotto. When I first stumbled upon the grotto a few years ago, a pleasant surprise awaited me there. A marble tablet embedded into the grotto’s stoned wall indicates that none other than St. Maximilian Kolbe himself blessed and dedicated the grotto in 1933!
Assisi’s cloistered Lourdes grotto bespeaks a note in the Franciscan charism which highly resonated with the vocation of Maximilian Kolbe: namely, Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Marian grottoes, like the one in Assisi, replicate the stoned cave in Lourdes, France, where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. In those apparitions, the “beautiful lady” identified herself by using the moniker “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
The supernatural events of Lourdes occurred a mere four years after the Catholic Church had solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Its doctrine that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first instant of her conception in the womb of her mother, was miraculously preserved by Christ from Original Sin.
The Franciscans were the religious Order which had championed, promoted, and defended this teaching for seven centuries. Indeed, St Maximilian Kolbe became utterly fascinated with this so-called “Franciscan thesis” about the Immaculate Conception.
Beginning with his student days in Rome, Maximilian applied his keen mind towards understanding the “Franciscan thesis,” its great proponents like Blessed John Duns Scotus, and its practical implications for the ordinary pastoral work of the Church. He wanted to help people apply dogma to daily life.
He would go on to spend his whole Franciscan life invoking Mary as the “Immaculata” – seeking a spiritual way of relating to her, and promoting a pastoral way of engaging oneself with her and the Holy Spirit in the Church’s mission to build the Kingdom of God.
Just before embarking on a six-year stint as a pioneering missionary in Japan, Maximilian visited Lourdes in 1930. He prayed at the grotto, and entrusted his new mission-apostolate to the Immaculata.
After arriving in Nagasaki, he even oversaw construction of a Lourdes grotto, high on a hill above his new Franciscan compound the “Garden of the Immaculata.” Indeed, it was mid-way during his mission endeavors in Japan that he made the trip to Assisi in 1933 and dedicated the Lourdes grotto in the hidden cloister.
St Maximilian’s “Immaculata spirituality,” drawing upon his Franciscan roots, regarded Mary simply as a real person with whom each of us can enter into a genuine human relationship. Having a person-to-person relationship with Mary helped Maximilian to imitate Jesus Christ.
Even though Christ was God, the Second Person of the Trinity freely chose to have an earthly mother, and he made himself dependent upon her – becoming a helpless unborn child in her womb. Later, from the cross on Calvary, Jesus directed his Beloved Disciple to enter into an interpersonal relationship with Mary:
“Behold your Mother”
St Maximilian called this dynamic “total consecration” to Mary – belonging to her so that she can help us belong totally to Jesus. For St Maximilian, the spirituality of relating to Mary allows the faithful to share in her perfect relationship with Jesus.
In order to put this “Immaculata spirituality” to work for the sake of creating a better world, Fr Maximilian founded a movement known as the “Crusade of Mary Immaculate,” popularly known as the “MI.” 2017 marks the centenary of the founding of the MI. The purpose of the MI was evangelisation – working for the conversion and sanctification of civilisation.
St Maximilian’s Marian spirituality impelled him as a good Franciscan to keep building up the Kingdom of God. He never lost his optimism that this ideal was achievable.
On the morning of 17th February 1941, Fr Kolbe awakened early at his friary, the “City of the Immaculata” in Poland. He hastily dictated to his friar-secretary a profound article about Our Lady, Lourdes, the Immaculate Conception, and hope for the future of the world. A few hours later he was arrested by the Nazi gestapo. The rest is history.
Before he died at Auschwitz six months later, he was allowed to write one brief final letter to his aged mother. In that letter, he affirmed that “…the Good God is everywhere.” His Franciscan charism and Marian consecration had paved a dual carriageway of optimistic love – a Kolbean legacy for modern times.