Today, August 14th, brings us the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, one of the two “martyrs of Auschwitz” along with St. Edith Stein. Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan who was interned in the infamous death camp for publishing anti-Nazi material during the German occupation of Poland; he volunteered himself to be murdered in the stead of an interned husband and father, who would later champion his cause for canonization.
Kolbe, whom John Paul II declared a saint in 1982, has many patronages of importance to modern Catholic life, including amateur radio operators, drug addicts, political prisoners, journalists, and the pro-life movement. However, there is a controversial aspect to him as well, since—ironically for a saint martyred by the Nazis—early in his career he had indulged in many of the antisemitic canards common in his time and place. His writing in the 1920s and 1930s includes material about Freemasons being an “organized clique of fanatical Jews” and names “international Zionism” as the hand guiding Masonry and communism. Jewish historians and theologians are not always comfortable with Kolbe. In graduate school I took a seminar on Holocaust theology with a noted Jewish scholar who had mixed feelings on the martyr, feelings that most of my classmates came to share.
In spite of this I write to support Kolbe and his stature as a saint and martyr, not to lambast him. The Nazi occupation of his country, and the propaganda that turned so many Poles like Kolbe to collaboration (or worse) with that regime, did not ratify or intensify Kolbe’s antisemitism, but instead inspired him to change. Sources vary on whether Yad Vashem, the official Israeli Holocaust memorial, classifies Kolbe as a Righteous among the Nations—a Gentile who risked his life to save Jews from extermination. What is known, however, is that the anti-Jewish overtones in his writing ceased after the Nazi invasion and that his monastery sheltered over a thousand Jewish refugees early in the war. Nor is Kolbe unusual in this trajectory; many Holocaust rescuers and anti-Nazi operators harbored, or had harbored, prejudices against Jews themselves.
In many ways Kolbe reminds me of another modern martyr, St. Óscar Romero. Both men underwent changes in their attitudes towards the oppressed late in their lives, and were martyred in connection with those changes. Both were martyred by far-right regimes despite being political and theological conservatives themselves. Both have their feast days on the anniversary of their martyrdom, as is customary. Interestingly, each falls on the day before a major Marian solemnity—Romero on the day before the Annunciation and Kolbe, the Assumption. Both led exemplary personal lives marred by association—Kolbe through his early antisemitic and conspiratorial writings, Romero through his close relationship with El Salvador’s political elite before his late-in-life transformation into a champion of the poor. Both of these saints’ stories are thus ones of permanently ongoing conversion, that is, of an imperfect witness nonetheless characterized by constant striving for God to the point of martyrdom.
Unlike other saints, Catholic martyrs need not have led especially admirable lives to be canonized. The Chinese Martyrs include at least one figure, St. Mark Ki-T’ien-Siang, who had been away from the sacraments for decades due to a drug addiction that his confessor refused to absolve. (Of course, we now know that an addiction, once it has formed, is an illness rather than a sin, but that was not yet understood at the time.) St. Thomas Becket was a conniving wheeler and dealer who spent the majority of his life as a dissolute secular statesman before being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury for political reasons. For that matter, even St. John Paul II, who was not a martyr, distrusted abuse accusations against priests and bishops and made numerous poor decisions as Pope because of this distrust. These respective stories demonstrate the lifelong, ongoing process of conversion that all of us are called to undergo. The reassuring aspect of this is that everybody, having his or her own sins and weaknesses, can continuously work to overcome them with God’s grace. Also, since God knows all hearts, only He can judge whether one person’s sins are worse than another’s and whether that is a true impediment to sanctity or not.
The world of the early twentieth century was not divided cleanly between philosemites and Nazis. The fact that Maximilian Kolbe is not immediately identifiable as the former does not, in my belief, make him less admirable, but rather more approachable. This is not to minimize the unacceptability of some of his views and writings; quite the contrary. How comforting that those who are “raised to the altars” are those who we can know with certainty have been imperfect but also forgiven, who “see face to face” for eternity, in the presence of the God Who has redeemed them.
On this feast day of St. Maximilian, let’s give thanks for the gift of the example of saints with rocky beginnings and questionable associations—in their lives, deaths, and—in so many cases—the conversion and the experience of grace that leads them from one to the other. Those who have gone before us in faith were mortal, fallible people just as we are; the communion of saints, like the communion of the living in the Eucharist here on earth, is “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” In the presence of God in that communion, the saints are fed and healed.