Saint Maximilian Kolbe and the limit of evil

“I am a Catholic Priest”

In his book Memory and Identity Blessed John Paul II ponders the mystery of evil and its ugly concentration by totalitarian powers throughout the twentieth century; by seeking to exclude Christ from history, the totalitarian regimes put to death the Christian martyrs, who thereby gave witness to the limit of evil. Only in Christ can we establish this limit.

In chapter four, entitled “Redemption as divine
limit,” John Paul II wonders whether concentration camps manifest a cruelty more powerful than good; as the Nazi project reduced man to a degraded object, a sub-human slave, did they thereby banish God. Did Satan triumph? Christians understand that there is an “innate
sinfulness” or rather a “congenital moral weakness that goes with the fragility of his being.” (See Gaudium et spes §4) But the rise of the totalitarian persecution of religion and the trampling upon human dignity outstrips what is only described as “a congenital moral weakness.” For this historical and heinous concentration of evil betokens the stranglehold of the devil. What could break this stranglehold of evil?
Christ. The promise of the victory of faith. Saints Kolbe and Stein reveal the victorious presence of the cross. They reveal to the world a divine limit placed upon evil: evil is overcome by good, hate is overcome by love, death is overcome by
resurrection. John Paul II’s speech at Auschwitz opens with these words: “This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith” (1 Jn
5:4); the speech, one of his best, must be read in its entirety. (See it here) It is a remarkable fact that Saint Maximilian, proclaimed a saint for the new millennium, bore witness to faith and love at both Nagasaki, Japan and at Auschwitz, both a ground zero of moral impoverishment from which the earth and its inhabitants were scorched beyond any measure of reason and law, decency or honor — pity and mercy being long banished. See John Paul II’s homily at his canonization here.

In Memory and Identity, John Paul II decries the loss of Christian identity in Europe, and the attempt to erase Christianity from the memory or the history of the world: “So it is impossible to separate Christ from
human history. This is exactly what I said during my first
visit to Poland, in Victory Square, Warsaw. I stated then that it was impossible to separate Christ from my
country’s history. Is it possible to separate him from any other country’s history? Is it
possible to separate him from the history of Europe? Only in him, in fact, can
all nations and all humanity ‘cross the threshold of hope!” St Maximilian Kolbe’s deed at Auschwitz, and his life as a whole, is a sign of hope to Europe and the world. It should not be forgotten. “I am a Catholic priest” St Maximilian testified to camp officer when he offered himself up to the cruel death imposed by the Nazi guard in place of a married man. A Catholic priest would be readily disposed by the protocol of any and all totalitarian systems, Nazi no less than liberal. There is no room for transcendence, nor mercy, in such a total system devoted to the glorification of the volk or Reich, nor room in a regime devoted to an abstract equality or secular humanitarianism. It was an hour of darkness, but the camp masters could not banish the light of faith and love.

In Memory and Identity John Paul II connects the figure of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe with the authentic reading of Vatican II; he responded to the challenge of St Paul,  2 Cor. 6:10, as the council Fathers urge on us in Gaudium et spes at §37:

Sacred Scripture teaches the human family what the experience of the ages
confirms: that while human progress is a great advantage to man, it brings with
it a strong temptation. For when the order of values is jumbled and bad is mixed
with the good, individuals and groups pay heed solely to their own interests,
and not to those of others. Thus it happens that the world ceases to be a place
of true brotherhood. In our own day, the magnified power of humanity threatens
to destroy the race itself. 
For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole
history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and
will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. Caught in this
conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is
good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of
God’s grace. That is why Christ’s Church, trusting in the design of the Creator,
acknowledges that human progress can serve man’s true happiness, yet she cannot
help echoing the Apostle’s warning: “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom.
12:2). Here by the world is meant that spirit of vanity and malice which
transforms into an instrument of sin those human energies intended for the
service of God and man. Hence if anyone wants to know how this unhappy situation can be overcome,
Christians will tell him that all human activity, constantly imperiled by man’s
pride and deranged self-love, must be purified and perfected by the power of
Christ’s cross and resurrection. For redeemed by Christ and made a new creature
in the Holy Spirit, man is able to love the things themselves created by God,
and ought to do so. He can receive them from God and respect and reverence them
as flowing constantly from the hand of God. Grateful to his Benefactor for these
creatures, using and enjoying them in detachment and liberty of spirit, man is
led forward into a true possession of them, as having nothing, yet possessing
all things. (see 2 Cor. 6:10.) “All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1
Cor. 3:22-23).

I note the uncanny affinities between this passage and the significance of the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, Franciscan martyr at Auschwitz. How Franciscan is this line: “For redeemed by Christ and made a new creature
in the Holy Spirit, man is able to love the things themselves created by God,
and ought to do so. He can receive them from God and respect and reverence them
as flowing constantly from the hand of God.” And the
reference to man’s malice, pride and deranged self-love, applies to
Naziism if to any historic manifestation of evil. Did Wojtyla help to
write this passage with Saint Kolbe in mind? If not, he was surely right
to come back to it in 1979 as a reminder of the Franciscan martyr whom
he canonized on 10 October 1982, with Franciszek Gajowniczek, the married man he saved, in attendance.


1 Comment
  1. Gorgeous!

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