Work leads to freedom.
This unassuming phrase, visible to all who would come to work in the Auschwitz concentration camp, advertised mockingly the restoration of life and autonomy to those who contributed their share of labor. In reality, those absorbed into the land behind the gate were lost in its totalizing “work,” which destroyed their bodies, their memories, and, for almost all, their lives. St. Maximilian Kolbe, Franciscan priest and founder of the Marian organization called the Militia Immaculata, met his own earthly end in the very camp which touted this slogan. Yet the quality of Kolbe’s life and death cannot be accounted for by this quippy motto of Auschwitz. Kolbe, often called the “Saint of Auschwitz,” achieved an undoubtedly remarkable interior freedom, but we can be certain that it was not the humiliating work of the camp which allowed his soul to soar, blessing his fellow prisoners with the lasting peace of Jesus Christ. Torture did not elicit the surrender of his life; love did.
In his introduction to the life of this saint, Fr. Giuseppe Simbula, OFM recalls instructions Kolbe gave to his Franciscan brothers,
Love God for God Himself and suffer and work for Him in peacefulness and love . . . Study the Crucified Christ . . . Make yourself like Him’ . . . [in any situation it is better to think] more about loving than about working.
Here, Kolbe identifies love as the motivation for all good labor. It is love which shapes an authentic and holy life, for such love renders one a student of the Lord Jesus. Kolbe recognized that such love can only be realized by entering into the dynamic life of the Holy Spirit. Fr. Manteau-Bonamy explains Kolbe’s understanding of the Holy Spirit:
It was the Holy Spirit who came to Mary from the Father by the Son, to make of her the Immaculate Conception, the Gift of Love . . . just as he himself draws his origin from the Father through the Son in the bosom of the Trinity, where he is from all eternity their mutual Love, their primary Gift to each other, the divine motherhood of love.
Embrace of this dynamic love of the Spirit purifies human love, freeing it from self-interest and personal preference, for “genuine love rises above the creature and plunges into God . . . It offers a helping hand, full of love to everyone; it prays for all, suffers for all, wishes good to all, wishes happiness to all, because that is God’s will!”
Shaped by the Spirit
Maximilian Kolbe’s participation in the life and love of the Holy Spirit, a participation which enabled him to lead an effervescent life of poverty and evangelization, culminating in a final act of sacrificial martyrdom, began in early childhood. His embrace of such a life sprung from a mystical conversation with the Blessed Virgin Mary. After receiving a reprimand from his mother, who had asked him, with exasperation, “What will become of you?” Kolbe remembers:
I prayed very hard to our Lady to tell me what would become of me. And later in Church I prayed again. Then the Virgin Mother appeared to me holding in her hands two crowns, one white and one red. She looked at me with love and she asked me if I would like to have them. The white meant that I would remain pure and the red that I would be a martyr. I answered yes, I wanted them. Then the Virgin looked at me tenderly and disappeared.
This was the start of a dynamic relationship between the Blessed Mother and Kolbe that would expand and develop for the rest of Kolbe’s life. It was his relationship with Mary which granted Kolbe access to the divine love of the Spirit, for “The Holy Spirit acts only by the Most Blessed Virgin, his Spouse.” Kolbe explains:
The Holy Spirit manifests his share in the work of the Redemption through the Immaculate Virgin who, although she is a person entirely distinct from him, is so intimately associated with him that our minds cannot understand it . . . Mary’s action is the very action of the Holy Spirit . . . She accomplishes in everything the will of the Holy Spirit who dwelt in her from the first instant of her conception.
Through his life-long commitment to loving Mary and entrusting himself to her, Kolbe consents to receive into his own body the overflowing love present in the third person of the Trinity, who passes this infinite deposit of grace through the hands of Mary, his spouse. In this, Kolbe assents to being formed, stretched, and strengthened by the hands of Mary, who seeks to lead each of her children to heightened and sanctified humanity, allowing them to truly “become who they are,” the image and likeness of God. Of Mary, Kolbe writes, “All are her children. She strives to shape them after the model, Jesus, her first-born, the archetype of all sanctity.” Like a ball of clay which willfully bounces into the hands of a potter, Kolbe gave over his body, mind, and soul to Mary’s care, entrusting his own hope for holiness to the woman who gave life to the Son of God.
By entrusting himself to Mary—the one who freely consented to the “overshadowing” of the Holy Spirit at the moment of the Incarnation—Kolbe allows himself to be “worked over” by the Spirit, who shapes him into the likeness of Jesus. While Auschwitz sought to deform its prisoners through death-dealing and meaningless labor, Kolbe surrendered himself to an entirely different sort of work, choosing the life-giving formation of God. While the work imposed in Auschwitz denied the dignity of human life, the spirit of sacrifice which Kolbe cultivated throughout his life proclaimed the weightiest of truths: that by offering our love to another, we reverence the other’s being, making room for the recognition of his or her dignity. We thereby come to resemble God, who humbled himself through the act of creation that brought life to the universe. While the “freedom” offered by Auschwitz sought to enslave, Kolbe practiced the only freedom which endures—freedom to love throughout life, through one’s death, and into the eternal love of the Trinity.
Son of Mary, Brother of Jesus
In Luke’s account of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, the Gospel writer describes the beginning of Jesus’ “hidden life,” or the decades of life that preceded his active ministry. The Church understands this period to be one of formation wherein Jesus practiced charity and grew in wisdom through obedience to Mary and Joseph. After reuniting with his parents in the Temple, we read that Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51). As Fr. Kolbe prepared for his own martyrdom, he committed himself to imitation of the “hidden life” of Jesus through obedience to Mary. This is the hidden work of holiness.
Just as children often take on the characteristics of their parents, Kolbe began to take on the maternal qualities of the Blessed Mother. This Marian pattern of life began to manifest itself in the formation of Kolbe’s Franciscan brothers. Br. Pelagius recounts a story of Fr. Kolbe’s disposition when consoling his brothers: “When I found myself in a state of spiritual depression for three months, Father Maximilian was like a mother to me . . . he underlined the necessity for us Christians to hope.” Though Kolbe was his spiritual father, it is interesting to note that Br. Pelagius describes Kolbe as a mother figure. The most poignant evidence of Kolbe’s imitation of the maternal love of Mary comes during his imprisonments in Pawiak and Auschwitz. While speaking of Fr. Kolbe’s facilitation of peaceful discussion amongst prisoners in Pawiak, fellow prisoner Thaddeus Chroscicki writes, “I believe his conduct among us grew out of his love for God and his role as one who somehow bore God within him.” Father Conrad Szweda, a prisoner of Auschwitz who worked in the typhus ward, describes his own experience of receiving Kolbe’s consolation:
In spite of his [Kolbe’s] fevered condition, it was he who comforted me . . . I especially found comfort in his urging, “Take Christ’s hand in one of yours and Mary’s in the other. Now even if you are in darkness you can go forward with the confidence of a child guided by its parents.” I owe a great deal to his motherly heart.
Like the love of Mary, which is universally accessible and yet particular to each individual, Kolbe’s love was neither general nor limited. Sigmund Gorson remembers Kolbe as “an angel to me. Like a mother hen, he took me in his arms. He used to wipe away my tears. I believe in God more since that time . . . He knew I was a Jewish boy. That made no difference . . . He dispensed love and nothing but love.” In the desperate obscurity of the prison camp, Kolbe found another Nazareth, and continually placed himself under the care of Mary in obedience, as he had for all of his life. This “Narazeth” was hidden under the veil of cruelty rather than the nurturing care of family life, but because he had given himself over to Mary, who nurtured him in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, Kolbe created within himself a space for others to receive the life of the Spirit. With an eye always towards the final sacrifice of martyrdom he knew would be asked of him, he placed himself under the care of Mary, becoming mother to the hidden family he found under her mantle.
Kolbe’s Way of the Cross
“Let ourselves be led more and more perfectly by the Immaculata, to any place and in any way she wants to take us, so that, by fulfilling our duties well, we may help to ensure that all souls are won over to her love.” As Kolbe’s time left on earth waned, his confidence in the vivifying accompaniment of Mary increased. This confidence led him to carry out the rest of his days in a manner which embraced the Way of the Cross. When beaten by a prison guard, Kolbe embraced “dignity and calm,” and “took it without a murmur,” calling to mind the silent suffering of Jesus, prophesied through the words of Isaiah, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth” (Isa 53:7). As Jesus denied the vinegar and gall offered to him on the Cross, Kolbe rejected a cup of tea offered to him during a period of illness in the camp. “‘I can’t,’ he said, indicating the other patients. ‘They don’t have any; let’s give it to them.’” After his death, Kolbe’s guards remarked that “this priest is a true gentleman. We have never had anyone like him before.” As Jesus is recognized by his persecutor—“Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matt 27:54)—so is Kolbe’s sanctity announced by the very ones who sought to silence him.
In her biography of Kolbe entitled A Man for Others, Patricia Treece offers a chilling account Fr. Kolbe’s martyrdom:
Auschwitz, 1941. The sergeant . . . has just been fingered by an SS man for one of the cruelest deaths here. He is to be shut up naked in an empty, subterranean cell and left without food and water until he dies . . . He is sobbing over his wife and children . . . Suddenly another prisoner [Kolbe], breaking ranks, asks to take the man’s place . . . “Who are you?” one SS man asks . . . “A Catholic priest,” the prisoner replies. “I have no family.”
Kolbe’s request is granted. In his death, the priest who “has no family” joins his own sacrifice to that of Jesus. As a son of Mary, Kolbe unites himself to the Son of Mary, who is also the Son of God. United to Jesus, Kolbe dies for the other, and binds himself to those who might live as the fruit of his own sacrifice. In a situation where acts of self-preservation and the impulse to take would seem to be most warranted, Kolbe finds the freedom to give. By sacrificing himself for a stranger, Kolbe proclaims the dignity of life and the unity of the human family. In doing so, he participates in yet another dimension of God’s sanctifying “work”: Jesus’s work of unification, “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). In contrast to the work of Auschwitz, which sought to strip prisoners of their individuality and pit them against one another, God’s work orients Kolbe toward a recognition of the blessedness of individual souls in communion with one another. Through this unifying sacrifice which draws the world back to the God who created it, Kolbe testifies to his own prior assertion that “unification is love . . . God creates the universe and this action is in a sense a separation . . . Rational creatures, love Him consciously and unite themselves to Him more and more through such love: they make their way back to Him.” He became a bond of communion amidst the most severe division. This is the work that frees.
Love Leads to Freedom
In a letter written to his mother early in his religious life, Kolbe requests that she “pray that I will love without limits.” In life and death, Kolbe announced the power of a love generated by the Father and the Son, poured out in the Holy Spirit, and nurtured through the care of Mary. As son of Mary and faithful brother of Christ, Kolbe willfully consented to receive God’s unlimited love, and then promptly sprung into action. Because of this love, Kolbe was free to live fully without possessions, and free to share his devotion to Christ and His Mother without any guarantee of worldly success. He was free to nurture and cherish souls in the bleakest of circumstances without fear of punishment, for so long as his soul was free to be united with his good God, his body could go where it may, even to the place of starvation and death. He sought only this love for nourishment, and so became food for others.
For Kolbe, to be free is to love God—the highest good, the purest truth, and the most intense beauty—without limits, and in doing so, love each individual tenderly and bravely. The willingness to love like that was all that God through Our Lady asked of Kolbe, and consequently all that he asked of his mother’s prayer. It is a simple request which can turn our modern sensibilities and priorities upside down, but it is the only request which will lead to true freedom, allowing us to reach our full height as we “become who we are.”
While seeking guidance in our most important decisions, as well as our daily interactions with those we love (as well as those we merely tolerate but someday hope to love), may our prayer be to “love without limits”—that we may be “worked over” by the Love which frees us to love gratuitously, and perhaps even foolishly, “for the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor 1:25). As the divine love of the Trinity works through our own bodies, our lives will begin to resemble that of Jesus, who was held at the beginning and end of life in the arms of his mother. In Mary’s arms, space is set aside for the work of the Holy Spirit, which is always the work of love. This is certainly a tall order, but it is held together in small increments, each one touched by the most intimate companionship of Jesus, in the secret of Nazareth where the slow work of love unfolds. Through little practices of renunciation, prayer, charity, and care for others, let us ask to be free from crippling self-interest, indifference, doubt, and shame, that we may be freed for sacrifice, commitment, celebration, and abundant life. Let us love others into such freedom.
 Jessica Keating, “St. Maximillian Kolbe and the War Against Indifference,” Church Life Journal, August 16, 2017.
 For a comprehensive picture of the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, see Jessica Keating’s article, “St. Maximillian Kolbe and the War Against Indifference.”
 Fr. Giuseppe Simbula, OFM, “Introduction to St. Maximilian’s Life and Works,” in The Writings of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Vol. 1: Letters, ed. by Antonella Di Piazza, (Nerbini International: 2016), 133.
 Fr. H. M. Manteau-Bonamy, O.P., Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit: The Marian Teachings of Fr. Kolbe, trans. by Richard Arnandez, F.S.C. (Kenosha, WI: Franciscan Marytown Press, 1977), 64.
 Simbula (quoting Kolbe), “Introduction to St. Maximilian’s Life and Works,” in The Writings of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Vol. 1, 200.
 Keating, “St. Maximillian Kolbe and the War Against Indifference.”
 Manteau-Bonamy (quoting Kolbe), Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit, 99.
 Ibid., 91.
 Ibid., 99.
 Patricia Treece, A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz, In the Words of Those Who Knew Him, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982), 90.
 Ibid., 121.
 Ibid., 142.
 Ibid., 153.
 Maximilian Kolbe, The Writings of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Vol. 1: Letters, ed. by Antonella Di Piazza, (Nerbini International, 2016), 1513.
 Treece, A Man for Others, 140.
 Ibid., 141.
 Ibid., 141.
 Ibid., 205.
 Ibid., vii.
 Simbula (quoting Kolbe), “Introduction to St. Maximilian’s Life and Works,” in The Writings of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Vol. 1, 225.
 Treece, A Man for Others, viii.