There is no greater love than this, than to lay down one's life for one's friends. –John 15:13The above quote from today's gospel reading from the memorial mass for St. Maximilian Kolbe not only sums up the life of today's martyr saint, but the life of another "knight" (and perhaps soon-to-be saint), Fr. Michael McGivney, who also died on the eve of the Blessed Virgin Mary's Assumption, and whose feast will no doubt be honored on this date in the future. And since they are both Our Lady's "Knights" (Kolbe founding the Knights of the Immaculata, McGivney the Knights of Columbus), it seems even more FIT-ting that they both be celebrated on this day as well.
For reasons of chronology, we'll start with McGivney. Born in Connecticut in 1852, Michael experienced firsthand the difficulties of a large immigrant Catholic family living in America, working in the hellishly hot local spoon factory from the age of thirteen. Although McGivney went to Canada to study for the priesthood four years later and was on course to be ordained in 1872, he instead took four years off to help raise his siblings when his father died, and wasn't ordained (appropriately enough at the National Shrine of the Assumption) until December 1877. As a young associate pastor, McGivney witnessed again and again how prejudice against Irish and other Catholic immigrants forced most of his male parishioners into the low-paying dangerous life of the factory. Here, many a family, due to the loss of the breadwinner from work-related death or alcoholism, was left destitute and homeless. To combat this tragedy, in 1881 McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, whose dues and donations not only took care of fatherless families financially, but kept the remaining fathers strong morally through a spiritual fraternity away from the bars and the bottle. Ironically the energetic McGivney himself was to be called home to heaven at the early age of thirty-eight, a victim of the ravages of tuberculosis. But his Knights of Columbus remain strong today, boasting over 1.7 million members (who in 2004-05 raised over 134 million charitable dollars) worldwide.
Fr. Kolbe, one of the first of many saints to be named by John Paul the Great, was born just after Fr. McGivney's passing, on January 8, 1894. A wild lad as a youth growing up in Poland, Raymond's (his birth name) perspective changed when the Blessed Mother appeared to him in a vision bearing two crowns, one colored red (representing martyrdom), the other white (symbolizing purity). She then asked him to choose, and prophetically, Kolbe chose both.
Ordained a Franciscan priest in 1918, young Fr. Max fought not against the anti-Catholicism of American Protestants, but that of European Masons. In fact, even before his ordination, Maximilian was active in countering the Masonic anti-papal demonstrations through the Militia of the Immaculata, a group founded by several Polish priests, on October 16, 1917. But Max was soon to be its leader, and with Kolbe at the helm, the amount of friars (which all wore the Miraculous Medal as their armor against heresy) increased from 18 to 650; even more importantly, Kolbe was the first to use modern technology to spread the Church's teachings, as by 1938, his daily newspaper had a circulation of 230,000, his monthly magazine reached a million and his radio station millions more. Unfortunately, with those holy statistics, it didn't take the Nazis long to attempt to shut Fr. Kolbe down.
Of course, many of you know the rest of the story, involving Kolbe's arrests and eventually his ending up at Auschwitz. Here Fr. Kolbe reminded his fellow prisoners that "Hate is not creative. Use your suffering to make others happy," and eventually offered to take the place of a married man (Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek) when the Nazis picked ten men to die of starvation. Despite the pain of disease and dehydration, the baffled Nazis heard not the demonic cries of death and despair from Kolbe's bunker, but hopeful hymns to Our Lady supplemented by the peaceful recitation of the Rosary. Unable to take the heavenly music any longer, after two weeks the Nazis injected Kolbe and the remaining four prisoners with cabolic acid, killing them on the eve of the Assumption. Kolbe was canonized on October 19, 1982, and his Knights of the Immaculata remain a vital fighting force against the evils of the adversary.
My hope on this day is that the followers of these two holy men will unite into one massive Marian militia, to elect a Christian president, outlaw abortion (if any of Michael's or Max's Knights wish to join us in the Aurora Abortion Mill protest, let me know) and turn the hearts of this country back to Our Lady. Fr. Michael McGivney and St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!