Anti-masonic army leader's heroic sacrifice

The Militia Immaculatae was founded by St Maximilian Kolbe after he witnessed demonstrations in Rome against Popes St Pius X and Benedict XV. St Maximilian's saw the Militia Immaculatae as a
"global vision of Catholic life in a new form, consisting of the link with Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, universal mediatrix with Jesus."
He stressed consecration to Mary as a "transformation into her" with the external manifestation particularly of catechesis and mission.

St Maximilian founded a monastery in Japan on the outskirts of Nagasaki. Fortunately, he ignored the Feng Shui experts and built his monastery on the opposite side of the mountain from that advised. Consequently, it survived the atomic bomb.

After his arrest in 1941, he was sent to the Pawiak prison. An SS guard asked him if he believed in Christ. Kolbe replied "I do" and the guard struck him. He asked him many times and, receiving the same answer, continued to beat him. After his transfer to Auschwitz, he was assigned, with other priests, the labour of cutting down trees and carrying heavy planks at a run. On one occasion, he was loaded with planks, ordered to run and, when he fell, was kicked in the stomach and face and then given 50 lashes. His consolation under these beatings was to say "Mary gives me strength. All will be well." He used to stand aside from the food queue so that others could get their ration, sometimes leaving none for him. The food he had, he shared.

As is well-known, he volunteered to take the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had been picked out for execution and cried out that he had a family. St Maximilian is reported to have said
"I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children."
He was put in a cell with 9 others, to be killed slowly by dehydration and starvation, all the time leading his fellow prisoners in praying the rosary and singing hymns. After two weeks six of the others had died. St Maximilian was still to be found kneeling or standing, smiling cheerfully at the SS men who came to check. He and three of his fellow-prisoners were finished off by their tormentors with an injection of carbolic acid. His heroism gave new heart to others. A survivor, Jerzy Bielecki said that Father Kolbe's death was
"a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength ... It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp."
Franciszek Gajowniczek returned to Auschwitz every year on this day to honour the memory of Fr Kolbe and was present at his beatification in 1971 and his canonisation in 1982.

As well as St Maximilian, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and St Titus Brandsma, there were many other Catholic heroes of the holocaust. Jewish people respect their sacrifice too, as well as the "righteous gentiles" such as Pope Pius XII who helped to save so many Jewish lives.

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