by Father Stefano Manelli, O.F.M., Conv., S.T.D.

On October 10, 1982, at Rome, Blessed Maximilian Kolbe was canonized. It is just forty-six years ago that Maximilian was martyred in the Nazi prison camp of Auschwitz. Pope John Paul II has declared him "the patron of our difficult century". We are happy to publish this article to enable more people to know Saint Maximilian, whom God has raised up in our times as a model of deep faith. The key to this Saint's holiness is his ever-increasing love towards Mary Our Mother. Saint Maximilian set no limits to his love for God's Mother and in practice he showed his magnificent devotion towards Her by an intense prayer life which bore fruit in a marvelous Marian apostolate during his lifetime. He used the mass media to bring people to a greater knowledge and love of Jesus and Mary.

"If St. Francis Returned…"

Saint Maximilian wanted the friars' dwellings to sparkle with such poverty that "if St. Francis were to return, he would pick them for his own quarters." He also wrote, "We religious are able to live in barracks, go about in patched clothing, and forego sumptuous eating…"

In the proceedings for Beatification we read: "Living conditions at Niepokalanow were a matter of particular attention and copied after those of St. Francis' times. Dwellings, having been made of straw and clay, looked like temporary shelters from the elements.

Elsewhere these documents read: "Everything built by him sparkles with poverty - the simple cells, with bedding of straw mattresses, backless stools for chairs, a single table, unpainted plastered walls. In the dining room the tables were of wood that had not been sanded, dishware was of tin, and each one had his own single bowl for all courses."

And yet these austere conditions not only failed to grieve the friars, but, on the contrary, it produced within them and among them that perfect Franciscan joy that is experienced during rough austerity.

The friars grew in number and continued to grow both at Niepokalanow and at a second City of the Immaculate in Japan called Mugenzai No Sono (whose history we will give further on).

But they could not always increase their provisions quickly enough to keep pace with growth. So then they would end up joyfully dividing again the already small portions of food and sharing their articles of clothing. Thus Saint Maximilian could one time write a friar who wanted to Join him in Japan, "Do come join us, that you may go to your grave from hunger, from fatigue, from humiliations and from suffering for the sake of the Immaculate Virgin."

Kneeling To Bathe

Here is another testimony about those days of heroism. Friar Podwapinski tells us: "Father Maximilian shared a pair of shoes and a coat with Friar Zeno so that we might cut down on expenses. He often said that a Franciscan friar should be happy with one pair of patched shoes and a mended habit, but that he should not be stingy about service to the Immaculata, even if it called for the latest model airplane. When friars wanted to paint his wooden bed to make it a little nicer for him, he firmly opposed them."

In order to put on some overalls, Friar Alberic had to wait until Father Melchiorre finished using them. Father Gabriel wore Friar Pasquale's cloak and — as we already noted — Father Maximilian got back his shoes whenever he had to wear them to Warsaw and twice in the week when he went to Lososna to hold religion classes.

Friar Mansueto Marezeski, speaking of Father Kolbe, tells us that "his, was the most outworn of all the habits, and his room was very frugally furnished, with a plain wooden bed and with a wash pan underneath with which he bathed himself on his knees. There was a table and one chair. His overcoat hung on a nail sunk into the wall. He never touched the offerings that reach Niepokalanow, and urged everyone to regard them as belonging to the Immaculate Virgin and therefore ear-marked as only to be spent for the kingdom of God."

Stanley Wasowicz, a physician, testifies: "At Niepokalanow the poverty so deeply impressed me… It bordered on the primitive with regard to the personal needs of Father Maximilian Kolbe and of all the friars."

Not Even A Penny

Saint Maximilian wanted to be perfectly detached from money and completely without any.

We know that large sums would pass through his hands without his letting a cent remain in his pocket, without his even taking anything out for what he needed. Would he have wanted to buy himself a pair of shoes, a coat, an umbrella? They were all needed items. But he did not consider them to be as indispensable as we do. By example and by word he taught "the greatest possible limitation of personal needs," reducing them to what are "extremely necessary."

If the Rule forbids one from keeping even a cent, Saint Maximilian was faithful even to the fine points.

Once he was about to set out for the Far East he passed through Rome and was a guest at the International College. A witness reports this episode: "I was in Father Rector's room when Father Maximilian knocked at the door. He entered, cheerful and smiling, and went straight to Father Rector to turn over his wallet to him, saying, 'Father Rector, this money is the change left from buying my ticket from Poland to Rome.'

"But do you not have to set out again?" the rector asked.

"Yes, but we will be in Rome three days, and the holy Constitutions do not allow me this."

"I know, but you can keep it," replied the rector. "I am not sure," Father Maximilian answered with a smile.

"As the rector did not want to accept the money, Father Maximilian left it on a chair and went out."

Ashes On The Table

His love for holy poverty moved Maximilian to be particularly firm against drinking and more so against the smoking habit. His exhortations on these points were firm and insistent:

"Dear sons, grant me this pleasure: Even after my death, do not smoke nor drink hard liquor. Decline when people offer you these things. I earnestly exhort you and desire that there not be smoking in any Niepokalanow; for that would be the beginning of relaxation and of a weakening of the foundation of these communities, which are founded on holy poverty."

Something interesting happened one time when he was passing through Padua. "One evening in February 1937," writes the Master of Novices at St. Anthony's Friary, Padua, "he sat at my table, where we were surrounded by sixteen of our novices. Before we started speaking he looked at me as he pointed a finger to the table surface and said, 'Are there ever any cigarette ashes here?'

"Thinking it was some kind of a joke, I answered, 'No.'

"Then he repeated, 'I ask whether there are ever any ashes here on the table.'

"Not understanding what he meant, I answered that if he wanted a bit of ashes I would have them brought to him from the dormitory where there was a stove.

"Then he said a third time, 'No, no! I am asking if there are ever any ashes here on the table.'

"'Ah, you scoundrel!' I answered. I now understood that this was his way of asking me if I smoked; and I said 'No, no ' There are never any ashes on this table.'

"Then he took this opportunity to speak to the novices about the desirability of not ever acquiring the smoking habit, and he exhorted us all to make a promise to the Immaculate Virgin to always abstain from that unhappy practice."

Smoking and poverty cannot co-exist. Cigarettes send poverty up in smoke. Saint Maximilian used to say that the mere idea of St. Francis with a cigarette between his lips is a profanation.

Continued in Issue 25