77 years ago last week (August 14, 1941) a man died by lethal injection in a prison cell. The guards at Auschwitz had stuffed ten men into a “starvation cell” in Block 11, but one of the condemned went into that dark pit a free man. Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was not initially chosen to die, but he had stepped forward to ask the camp commander if he could take the place of one of the doomed men, who had a wife and seven children. His sacrifice was accepted. John Paul II canonized Fr. Maximilian in 1983 as a martyr because he “witnessed” to Christ by dying in another man’s place, just like Christ. Fr. Maximilian’s sacrifice sent shock waves throughout the concentration camps. Auschwitz survivor Jerzy Bielecki described it as “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength…it was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.”
I called my mother on St. Maximilian’s day last week to wish her a happy feast. We got to talking about the darkness being uncovered even in the lives of our most trusted Catholic prelates. In the weakness and simplicity of her advanced age, my mother said “God is stronger than any evil,” and I was greatly consoled. Yesterday another shock wave came my way, though: a grand jury reported over 1000 cases of abuse over a 70-year period in the Catholic churches across the entire state of Pennsylvania. This latest scandal reveals two things: first, the Church contains corruption from top to bottom and will always need radical reform. Second, the government contains corruption from top to bottom, and this corrupt element wants to destroy the Church. I have no doubt that if a grand jury closely examined the Pennsylvania State School System over a comparable period, it would uncover even more cases of abuse. And so, Church and State are both riddled with deceit and abuse, but God is greater than our darkness. Our churches and our governments need constant reform, and the way of reform is to make God first in our lives, not second. I dearly hope these latest shocking revelations will motivate our bishops to do what only they can do--to put God first in our Church. St. Maximilian Kolbe witnessed to God's light 77 years ago, and today I witness the love of God in my parish every day. It is beautiful to see so many praying quietly before the Blessed Sacrament at all hours in my church; it is beautiful to witness the kindness with which our office volunteers feed the poor who daily come to our front door.
Fr. Kolbe wanted to die on a feast of Our Lady. In 1941, August 14 was not the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe. It was the Vigil of the Assumption, a Feast of Our Lady. I realized that when, after singing morning prayer for the martyrs yesterday, I saw that the Latin Mass would be for Our Lady’s Vigil. On August 14, 1941, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe followed our Lady to Jesus and so find a shaft of light leading out of his prison cell. As a prisoner of Auschwitz he was a free man, and now, as one of God's inspiring saints, he shows us how to be free of this present darkness.