Let’s face it: We live in a world that doesn’t really understand the meaning of love. We hear this word “love” thrown around a lot. There are any number of things we can say that we love in a day: our latest tv show binge, a favorite food, or place that we have travelled. We use this word with such inconsistency that it has begun to lose its meaning.
How often do we succeed at recognizing and paying accolades to these “lesser loves” while failing to acknowledge the people and moments that actually deserve our recognition? All the while we are too easily forgetting Jesus, who is Love made flesh.
The Gospel of John says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” While the world proposes time and time again that we settle for lesser loves, the Gospel promises us that if we want to find our lives - if we want to find love - we must lay ourselves down.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast we celebrate today, exhibited this in a way that was truly heroic. Not only did he defend and promulgate the faith during the height of World War II, but he, in a final act of heroic love, also laid down his life for a man randomly selected to die in a starvation chamber at Auschwitz. When St. Maximilian Kolbe was asked who he was by the Nazi guards, he simply responded: “I am a Catholic priest.”
Maximillian Kolbe’s sacrifice is what the Church calls an act of “redemptive suffering” – suffering which allows and invites us to participate in Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and make manifest the love of God. The Catechism states:
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the "one mediator between God and men". But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, "the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery" is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to "take up [their] cross and follow (him)",[Mt.16:24] for "Christ also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example so that (we) should follow in his steps."[1Pet.2:21] In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering.
Because St. Maximilian knew and loved the truth of the Gospels, he was found ministering to others and singing praises to God even as he was being starved to death. Maximilian used his suffering to show his fellow prisoners a God who loves us so much that he gave His life to us on the Cross. His own life provides a powerful example of someone who, even in the midst of horrific circumstances, has so much confidence in Christ that he is able to sing out, “For my yoke is easy, my burden light.”
As Christians in the 21st century, it is our privilege to live lives of heroic love. Although most of us won’t be called to the sufferings of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we are ALL called to show and share love in a way that points others to the love of the Cross.
St. Maximillian Kolbe, pray for us.
Pope John Paul II, in his homily at the Mass he celebrated at the site of the Brzezinka (Auschwitz II) Concentration Camp in 1979; called St. Maximilian Kolbe “the patron of our difficult century.” Although the dawn of a new century has since come, St. Maximilian remains a strong symbol of Christian charity today. Seventy-four years ago tomorrow, he offered up an ultimate act of charity while knowing it would cost him his own life to save another.
While Maximilian Kolbe was a prisoner at Auschwitz, several men escaped from the camp. In an attempt to deter other prisoners from trying to escape, the officers chose ten men to starve to death. When one of the men chosen expressed his anguish because he had a wife and children, St. Maximilian willingly volunteered to take his place. After two weeks without food or water, St. Maximilian was the only one of the ten still alive. At that point, he was killed by a lethal injection. Although we cannot know for certain what happened while the ten men were held in the bunker, there are reports that St. Maximilian spent much of the two weeks leading the other nine in prayer to the Blessed Mother.
Most of us will not be called to make the same sacrifice as St. Maximilian did for a stranger, but God calls each of us to works of charity and mercy. The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are simple ways to love God and to love our neighbor. This might mean sacrificing your Saturday afternoon to drive an elderly neighbor to her doctor’s appointment or to volunteer at a food pantry. Mercy might take the form of comforting a coworker or classmate (regardless of whether or not you are friends) when you notice them grieving. Mercy means not honking or cursing, but instead offering up a prayer when someone cuts you off in traffic. Mercy could mean not buying another sweater when you already have ten hanging in your closet and instead donating the money to a charity for the homeless. Every act of mercy requires some sacrifice--whether you are giving up time, money, or a bit of yourself--but there is no simpler way to tell God that you love Him.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!
Jennifer Beckmann is an Administrative Secretary for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.