Saturday, November 13, 2010

A habit of love

SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Karl Fritzsch was furious.

It appeared that one of his prisoners, his prisoners was missing and presumably had escaped. So he ordered that ten other prisoners must die by starvation in reprisal.

One of the ten condemned was Polish army sergeant Franciszek Gajowniczek.

"My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?" cried out Franciszek Gajowniczek.

No one expected an answer. Auschwitz in 1941 was a dark place where mercy had no role and only cruelty and death appeared to dominate.

Suddenly in this darkest of places - a single light shone forth.

While his exact words are lost to us today, one version tells how Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe offered himself by saying, "I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children."

The switch was agreed to and Kolbe was led off with the others to be locked in a cell in the basement of the Bunker (the camp prison in Block 11 or 13) until they all died of starvation.

The man who had initially disappeared was later found. He had not escaped but had drowned in the camp latrine but the condemned men remained in their cell to die.

In the starvation cell, Kolbe celebrated Mass each day for as long as he was able and gave Holy Communion to the prisoners covertly during the course of the day; the bread given to prisoners was unleavened and so could be used in the Eucharist, and sympathetic guards gave him materials, including wine, that he could use.

Kolbe led the other condemned men in song and prayer. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe and three others remained alive. He encouraged others by telling them that they would soon be with Mary in Heaven. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered.

Finally Kolbe was the last survivor. Tired of waiting for his death, Kolbe was ordered killed with an injection of carbolic acid. Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection. His remains were cremated on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary.

I am sure that Maximilian Kolbe never thought this was the way his life on earth would end. Even as he saw the evil of the Nazi's rise around him and accepted the risk to his life by saving over 2,000 Jews by hiding them in his friary in Niepokalanów - I don't think he ever thought of the moment when he stepped forward and offered his life for Gajowniczek.

How can anyone truly think of anything so horrible?

What I think is that he acted out of habit - out of an instinct of love. A habit of faith and holiness that he had cultivated throughout his life that culminated in this single moment. A reflexive, moral muscle memory that kicked in automatically as naturally for him as our hearts beat for us.

Our reading this week from Luke 21:5-19 reminds me of this story.

The Gospel or "Good News" seems anything but good news.

It is downright grim.

Jesus speaks in apocalyptic language that is the furthest from encouraging that you can imagine. Jesus tells us that wars and insurrections are coming, nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, every manner of earthquake, famine and plague will come.

Perhaps worse of all, we will be betrayed by our parents, brothers, relatives and friends to be persecuted for our faith and some of us will be put to death.

And how are we to face all of this? What are we supposed to say when we stand before kings and governors accusing us because of our faith?

Characteristically, Christ tells us not to worry. In the same breath that he tells us that we will be persecuted and some of us put to death - he tells us that we should not worry. That He will give us "a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute." That "By your perseverance you will secure your lives."

What sense does that make?

Physically - none. But spiritually - it is the only answer that makes sense.

Jesus is not talking about our physical lives but our spiritual one - our soul. That by persevering in our faith that we will secure our eternal life even if our physical life ends - which it must eventually.

The chances are good that we will not be turned over for our faith. Instead it is likely that our trials will be lesser ones. Awkward social moments where our Catholic faith is challenged. "Why don't you support a woman's choice for abortion? Why are you against contraception? What do you have against homosexuals? What do you have against women?..."

And in those moments, our reflexive movement must be towards love. Like Maximilian Kolbe.

The world will expect you to cave in on your faith in order to get along. Or to come out swinging and to meet force with force - hate with hate. A scorched earth policy rather than give in.

But Christ says give him the floor to speak through you. And He says meet hate with love and embrace those that hate you. Explain our faith with love and understanding and patience and especially with love.

If we speak from love and act from love then our adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute because love conquers all - even death.

It won't be easy but we can do it. Kolbe proves we can. But it must be something we work on until it is a habit. A habit of love.


Gajowniczek was released from Auschwitz after spending five years, five months and nine days in the camp. Though his wife, Helena, survived the war, his sons were killed in a Soviet bombardment in 1945, before his release.

Pope Paul VI beatified Maximilian Kolbe in 1971; for the occasion, Gajowniczek was a guest of the Pope. In 1972, Time magazine reported that over 150,000 made a pilgrimage to Auschwitz to honor the anniversary of Maximilian's beatification. One of the first to speak was Gajowniczek, who declared "I want to express my thanks, for the gift of life." His wife, Helena, died in 1977. Gajowniczek was again a guest of the Pope when Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by John Paul II on October 10, 1982.

In 1994, Gajowniczek visited the St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church of Houston, where he told his translator Chaplain Thaddeus Horbowy that "so long as he ... has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe." Gajowniczek died in the Polish city of Brzeg (formerly Brieg in German Silesia) on March 13, 1995, slightly more than fifty-three years after having his life spared by Kolbe. He was survived by his second wife Janina

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