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Posted by on Aug 14, 2008

Saint of the Day: St. Maximilian Kolbe – August 14

Saint of the Day: St. Maximilian Kolbe – August 14

St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Conventual Franciscan, is widely known as the saint of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, where he voluntered to take the place of a young husband and father who was one of ten innocent men condemned to death by starvation as a reprisal. As courageous as this was, he is also considered a martyr because of the abuse and torture he endured when he affirmed his faith in Christ.

Born Rajmund Kolbe (1894 – 1941), to a working class family in what is now Poland, he took the name of Maximilian when he entered the Conventual Franciscans. He had doctorates in philosophy and theology and founded a thriving monastery at Niepokalanow near Warsaw. St. Maximilian Kolbe was also a missionary to Japan and is remembered for his respect for Japanese culture and tradition as he created a thriving center near Nagasaki.

He lived a life of true Franciscan poverty, often living in very difficult circumstances, but always depending on God for the resources he needed for his apostolate. St. Maximilian Kolbe used publishing and radio to promote the Gospel and to defend the Church. He landed in Japan with a couple of companions and no money. They began their work sleeping on the ground in an improvised hut. Within a month he had a press and was publishing a weekly newspaper. He ventured into India where he wanted to create another foundation, but his superiors recalled him to Poland because of his ill health.

In 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland. St. Maximilian Kolbe and his fellow Franciscans sheltered 3,000 refugees at Niepokalanow including 2,000 Jews. On February 17, 1941 he was arrested by the Gestapo after publishing a defense of truth in the face of Nazi propaganda. In May he was transferred to Auschwitz, where he continued his ministry despite inhuman conditions and beatings. It was in late July that a prisoner from his cell block disappeared and he volunteered to take the place of one of the ten men selected to be executed as a reprisal for the missing prisoner. After three weeks of hunger and thirst, during which he encouraged the other men and led them in prayer, he was murdered by a lethal injection on August 14.

St. Maximilian Kolbe had a powerful effect on a young Polish man, Carol Wotyla, who as Pope John Paul II would declare him a saint.

St. Maximilian Kolbe has also inspired Operation Kolbe, a group in Colombia, to offer themselves in exchange for those who have been kidnapped by rebels. They can be reached at:

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Posted by on Aug 9, 2008

Saint of the Day: St. Maximilian Kolbe – August 14

Saint of the Day: St. Edith Stein – August 9

Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Carmelite nun, was born Edith Stein in 1891in Poland and was killed in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942. Edith and her sister Rosa, along with other Jews who had become Catholics, were arrested by the Nazis occupying the Netherlands in retaliation for the denunciation by the Dutch bishops of Nazi anti-Semitism.

There has often been criticism of the silence of the Church with regard to the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Before he became Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli had been the papal nuncio to Germany during the 1930’s and negotiated a treaty, or concordat, between the Vatican and Nazi Germany. Gerard Noel has published a new book, Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler, which focuses on the crushing conflict the Pope experienced within himself and the deep personal toll it took on him.

Pius XII’s fears for the Church were only increased by the Nazi extermination of Jewish converts to Catholicism in the Netherlands. A broader analysis of the Pope’s situation makes it seem almost impossible. Events were beyond the ability of any one person to change or control. Mary Doria Russell, in A Thread of Grace, portrays the complexity of the Italian resistance to the Holocaust. The sheer caprice of war annihilates and spares individuals and communities at random. Most Italian Jews were saved by their neighbors and complete strangers. Unfortunately, this was not the pattern in the rest of Europe.

St. Edith Stein could not justify the horrendous evil that was to be visited on her people in any theological sense but that of the cross. In her final few days at Auschwitz, Edith and her sister Rosa made an indelible impression on some of the children. As the survivors tell it, many mothers were so traumatized that they collapsed emotionally. Edith and Rosa comforted and held the children and did what they could to meet their needs. Edith Stein’s contribution to the philosophy of experience was the notion that our identity is created not through an Ego that apprehends others. Rather, the Ego arises out of our identification with the needs, desires, and feelings of others. We come to be, as self-conscious beings, through compassion.

In her final days, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross showed that her philosophy of compassion was not just an intellectual construct but the framework of her life and legacy to us.

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Posted by on Sep 19, 2007

Saint of the Day: St. Maximilian Kolbe – August 14

A Thread of Grace – Resisting The Italian Holocaust

Grace is a heavy topic in systematic and historical theology. It has been the center of a longstanding dispute between Catholics and Protestants. In many respects, this dispute that dates to the Reformation is about how much credit we can take for the good we do or whether we have to credit everything to God.

I must say that when I picked up Mary Doria Russell’s, A Thread of Grace, I thought that the title was more of a poetic touch than a solid theological theme. I was attracted to the subject of the Holocaust in Italy. Since we are now between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the timing of this post seems appropriate.

When I picked up A Thread of Grace this summer for some “light” reading on vacation, I was unaware of Mary Doria Russell’s previous books, The Sparrow and Children of God, which are both works of science fiction with theological and philosophical themes. The Sparrow is the story of a Jesuit mission to an alien planet told by the sole survivor, Fr. Emilio Sandoz. In Children of God, Fr. Sandoz is called upon to return to Alpha Centauri.

Even though it is a work of historical fiction, A Thread of Grace reads like a thriller. Italy withdraws from World War II. Nazis come pouring in, along with refugee Jews from areas of southern France that had been controlled by Italy. Italians resist the Nazi extension of the Holocaust and 85% of resident and refugee Jews in Italy survive the 20 months of German occupation. The story takes place in northwestern Italy and presents the complexity and richness of the stories of the major characters. Who lives and who dies and how they die appears to be largely a matter of chance or fate.

The desperate situation of the region, caught between the collapse of their government and military, the German invasion, the relentless Allied bombing, and various partisan factions, provides a relentless cauldron in which the Jews are offered refuge and protection. The plot is very complicated but the characters reveal a great deal about simple truths. Werner Schramm, a Nazi doctor guilty of horrendous crimes, finds a measure of redemption after he is given a place and help to recover from tuberculosis. The man responsible for this help is the main character, Renzo Leoni, a Jewish aviator and veteran of the Abyssinian War, who has his own guilt about war crimes. Fr. Osvaldo Tomitz, who refuses to give absolution to Dr. Schramm, later receives his final Communion and last blessings from the Nazi doctor who is too late to rescue him. Iacopo Soncini, the local rabbi, comforts Fr. Tomitz when the priest comes to warn him and the Jewish community. People act to help others at an unbelievable cost – torture, the loss of their family, friends, and communities.

While this is certainly not a “feel good” book about the Holocaust, it is a resounding testament to people doing the right things in moments of grace. Are they responsible for these heroic actions or is God? The lives of these believers and unbelievers, these saints and sinners all wrapped up in the same complex person, render the academic quarrel over grace moot. God does not overpower free will and free will snatches hope from despair.

“There is a saying in Hebrew… No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there is always a thread of grace.”

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