St. Maximilian Kolbe, ‘Apostle of Mary’

The martyr’s Marian theology offers insights worth pondering.

This painting of St. Maximilian Kolbe and Our Lady of Lourdes by A. Girardi (1984) hangs in Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi in Brescia, Italy.
This painting of St. Maximilian Kolbe and Our Lady of Lourdes by A. Girardi (1984) hangs in Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi in Brescia, Italy. (photo: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock)

Every Catholic should know the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who gave his life to save a condemned prisoner at Auschwitz. He lived out Christ’s words to the fullest: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

This I knew. But what I didn’t fully understand was the depth and beauty of his Marian theology. It also made me aware of why so many Catholics consecrate themselves to Mary every year.

His teachings are so profound he is called the “Apostle of Mary.”

The more I understand what he wanted the world to know, the more my love for the Blessed Virgin Mary soars.

One of his greatest achievements was the creation of the “Militia of the Immaculata” in Rome in 1917, while studying as a young Franciscan. The MI, as it’s called, remains a strong force in the world today. He believed that the best way to Jesus was through total devotion to Mary. It meant to give up ourselves to Our Lady totally. He set up Marian centers and created a newspaper and radio stations to spread the word. He even brought his message to Japan, based on a calling from God.

He was a master of mass media before the term was coined.

Father Kolbe was sent to Auschwitz in 1941, two years after the Germans invaded his native country. The Nazis had a particular hatred of Catholic priests, especially influential priests. Also, Father Kolbe sheltered 2,000 Jews, another “flaw” in the Nazi worldview.

As the story goes, a group of prisoners escaped Auschwitz, and the Germans, as a reprisal, chose 10 men to die in a starvation bunker. The idea was to make prisoners understand that when they escaped others would pay with their lives. 

One prisoner, Franciszek Gajowniczek, was chosen to be among the 10. He begged the German guards not to take his life. He had a wife and children who needed him, he pleaded. Father Kolbe volunteered to take the man’s place. His wish was granted. He lasted two weeks and was eventually killed with an injection of poison. His body was then incinerated.

Gajowniczek not only survived Auschwitz — he attended Father Kolbe’s canonization in 1982 and lived to age 94. That in itself was a miracle.

Father Kolbe was one of the rare souls who have, throughout history, looked evil in the eye and let their nobility and love of Christ guide their actions, regardless of the cost.

A few weeks ago, I began reading a wonderful little book called Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit: The Marian Teachings of St. Maximilian Kolbe by a Dominican priest, H.M. Manteau-Bonamy. He breaks down Father Kolbe’s Mariology into small pieces that for the patient reader creates a mural of divine teaching.

The love of God is a two-way path that is always in motion, wrote Father Manteau-Bonamy, summarizing Father Kolbe’s teaching:

The path of creation (love) goes from the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit; this return trail goes from the Spirit through the Son back to the Father; in other words, by the Spirit the Son becomes incarnate in the womb of the Immaculata; and through this Son love returns to the Father.

And this is where my heart leapt and my head lit up in understanding.

And she (the Immaculata), grafted into the Love of the Blessed Trinity, becomes from the first moment of her existence and forever thereafter the complement of the Blessed Trinity.

Another way of saying it is that Mary became the Spouse of the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit, Father Kolbe wrote, was the “flowering of the Love between the Father and the Son.” 

So this is what I began to understand more about Mary Immaculate’s nature: Her sinlessness meant that there was unlimited room for the Holy Spirit to reside.

The Holy Spirit didn’t have to compete with sin, as the Advocate does in the rest of humanity. Indeed, Father Kolbe said Mary was a kind of incarnation of the Spirit. 

Father Kolbe continued:

The creature most completely filled with this love, filled with God himself, is the Immaculata, who never contracted the slightest stain of sin, who never departed in the least from God’s will.

After reading all this, and meditating on these words, something that should have been obvious came to me: It explained why we as creatures born with original sin find it so hard to obey God. Our sins push out the Holy Spirit. In Mary, such a battle never existed.

Read what Paul says in Romans 7:15, frustrated by the fact that original sin trips him up despite good intentions:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Mary tells us a lot about who we are and why we struggle. She’s also a good mother who understands we are fragile and how desperate we are for divine love. For those of us who have consecrated ourselves to Mary, St. Maximilian’s work makes it even more clear why we trust her with all we have, including the graces past, present and future. 

But here’s the main reason we should trust her.

“United to the Holy Spirit as His spouse, she is one with God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be predicated of any other creature” is Father Kolbe’s central idea.

Given that closeness to God, why wouldn’t we trust her with our lives? She is the bridge to our salvation.