Thursday, August 14, 2014

St. Maximilian Kolbe, Martyr

Many people are at least somewhat familiar with the saint whose feast day the Catholic Church celebrates today — namely, St. Maximilian Kolbe, who voluntarily gave up his life in Auschwitz in 1941 to spare the life of one Franciszek Gajowniczek.

But what is lesser known is that during the canonization process, a controversy arose in the Church as to whether or not Father Kolbe should be regarded as a martyr.

George Weigel writes in Witness to Hope:

The Pope [John Paul II] has regularly reminded the world that the twentieth century is the greatest century of martyrdom – faithful witness unto death – in Christian history. And no martyr of the twentieth century has been, for John Paul, a more luminous icon of the call to holiness through radical, self-giving love than Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe was the "saint of the abyss" – the man who looked straight into the modern heart of darkness and remained faithful to Christ by sacrificing his life for another in the Auschwitz starvation bunker while helping his cellmates die with dignity and hope.

Kolbe’s canonization was set for St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, October 10, 1982. But a question had arisen. Father Kolbe was widely regarded as a martyr, but was he a "martyr" in the technical sense of the term – someone who had died because of odium fidei, "hatred of the faith"? He had not been arrested because of odium fidei, and witnesses to his self-sacrifice had testified that the Auschwitz commandant, Fritsch, had simply accepted Kolbe’s self-substitution for the condemned Franciszek Gajowniczek without evincing any particular satisfaction that he was killing a priest. The theologians and experts of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints… had argued that Kolbe, while undoubtedly a saint, was not a martyr in the traditional sense of the term. At Kolbe’s beatification in 1971, Pope Paul VI had said that Kolbe could be considered a "martyr of charity," but this was a personal gesture and the category lacked standing in theology or canon law. Since then, though, the Polish and German bishops had petitioned the Holy See that Kolbe be canonized as a martyr, rather than as a saintly confessor who happened to have died under extraordinary circumstances.

John Paul II appointed two special judges to consider the question from the theological and historical points of view. Their reports were then submitted to a special advisory commission. The majority of the commission concluded that Blessed Maximilian Kolbe’s self-sacrifice did not satisfy the traditional criteria for martyrdom, heroic as it undoubtedly was. On the day of his canonization, it was unclear whether Kolbe would be given the accolade of a martyr, as many Poles, Germans, and others wished.

On October 10, 1982, a magnificent autumn morning, found a quarter of a million people in St. Peter’s Square, where they saw a great banner, a portrait of Father Kolbe, draped from the central loggia. Still, the question hung in the air: Would Kolbe be recognized as a martyr? The answer came when John Paul II processed out of the basilica and into the square wearing red vestments, the liturgical color of martyrs. He had overridden the counsel of his advisory commission, and in his homily he declared that "in virtue of my apostolic authority, I have decreed that Maximilian Mary Kolbe, who following his beatification was venerated as a confessor, will henceforth be venerated also as a martyr!"

A pope overriding the advice of his advisory commission...shades of Pope Paul VI, methinks.

To those outside the Church — or, for that matter, even many of those within the Church — the question of whether St. Maximilian Kolbe should be regarded as a martyr may seem trivial.

But Weigel goes on to explain why it's so crucial:

John Paul II was making an important theological point in deciding that St. Maximilian Kolbe was indeed a martyr – systematic hatred for the human person (systematic odium hominis, so to speak) was a contemporary equivalent of the traditional criterion for martyrdom, odium fidei. Because Christian faith affirmed the truth about the inalienable dignity of the human person, anyone who hated that truth hated, implicitly, the Christian faith. Modern totalitarianism was an implicit form of odium fidei, because it reduced persons to things.

St. Maximilian Kolbe is the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, families, journalists, prisoners, and the pro-life movement.

St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!