Summary: God has shown His love for us in His Son Jesus who has given His life so that we might know true love as well as salvation.
The Imitation of Love
"Pray that my love will be without limits." --Saint Maximilian Kolbe in his last letter to his mother.
Father Maximilian Kolbe was forty-five years old in the early autumn of 1939 when the Nazis invaded his homeland. He was a Polish monk who founded the Knights of the Immaculate, a Franciscan order whose headquarters was in Niepokalanow, a village near Warsaw. There 762 priests and lay brothers lived in the largest friary in the world. Father Kolbe presided over Niepokalanow with a combination of industry, joy, love, and humor that made him beloved by the plain-spoken brethren there.
On September 1, 1939, the Nazi blitzkrieg broke over Poland. The skies above Niepokalanow were filled with bombers on their way east toward Warsaw. Soon however, Niepokalanow itself was the target. As flames roared in the night and glass shattered, the brothers in the friary prayed.
On September 19, a group of Germans arrived at Niepokalanow on motorcycles and arrested Father Kolbe and all but two of his friars. The monks were loaded into trucks, then into livestock wagons, and two days later arrived in Amtitz, a prison camp.
Within a few weeks the brothers were released from prison and headed back to the friary. Sensing the anxiety of some of the brothers, Father Kolbe gathered a group of them before a chalkboard. "I insist that you become saints," Kolbe said with a smile, "and great saints! Does that surprise you? But remember, my children, that holiness is not a luxury, but a simple duty. It is Jesus who told us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. So do not think it is such a difficult thing, Actually, it is a very simple mathematical problem." On the blackboard he wrote "w = W," grinning widely as he did so. "A very clear formula, don't you agree? The little 'w' stands for my will, the capital 'W' for the will of God. When the two wills run counter to each other, you have the cross. Do you want to get rid of the cross? Then your will be identified with the will of God, who wants you to be saints. Isn't that simple? Now all you must do is obey!"
At nine o'clock on the morning of February 17, Father Kolbe was arrested by the Nazi SS. After being held in Nazi prisons for several months, Father Kolbe was found guilty of the crime of publishing unapproved materials and sentenced to Auschwitz. Upon his arrival at the camp in May 1941, an SS officer informed him that the life expectancy of priests there was about a month.
Years of slim rations and overwork at Niepokalanow had already weakened Kolbe. Now, under the load of wood, he staggered and collapsed. Officers converged on him, kicking him with their shiny leather boots and beating him with whips. He was stretched out on a pile of wood, dealt fifty lashes; then shoved into a ditch, covered with branches, and left for dead. Miraculously Father Kolbe recovered from the beating and was later moved to another barracks and reassigned to different work. All the while he continued to minister to his fellow prisoners. As Father Kolbe would work with the prisoners he would raise his emaciated arm and make the sign of the cross. Each time he thought to himself,
The cross. Christ's cross has triumphed over its enemies in every age. I believe, in the end, even in these darkest days of Poland, the cross will triumph over the swastika. I pray I can be faithful to that end.
One morning when Father Kolbe was roused from bed there was a tension in the air. After the roll call, Camp Commandant Fritsch ordered the dismissal of all but Barracks 14. While the rest of the camp went about its duties, the prisoners from Barracks 14 stood motionless in line. They waited, hours passed. The summer sun beat down. Some fainted and were dragged away. Some swayed in place but held on; those the SS officers beat with the butts of their guns. Father Kolbe, by some miracle, stayed on his feet, his posture as straight as his resolve.
By evening roll call the commandant was ready to levy sentence. The other prisoners had returned from their day of slave labor, now he could make a lesson out of the fate of this miserable barracks. Fritsch began to speak, the veins in his thick neck standing out with rage. "The fugitive has not been found," he screamed. "Ten of you will die for him in the starvation bunker. Next time, twenty will be condemned." The prisoners were terrified. There was nothing worse than the starvation bunker. Anything was better - death on the gallows, a bullet in the head at the Wall of Death, or even the gas chambers. All those were quick, even humane, compared to Nazi starvation, for they denied you water as well as food. The prisoners had heard stories from the starvation bunker in the basement of Barracks 11. They said the condemned didn't even look like human beings after a day or two. They frightened even the guards.