The following reflection was written by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy.
The story of St. Maximilian Kolbe is fairly well known. He was a Franciscan priest with an intense spiritual relationship with Jesus’ mother, Mary, who founded a monastery in Nagasaki that survived completely intact the August 9, 1945 atomic bombing of that city, and who on August 14, 1941, at Auschwitz, freely offered to lay down his life for a Jewish man with a family, Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had been selected to be killed in retaliation for the escape of some prisoners. The man and his family were at Maximilian Kolbe’s canonization by John Paul II in 1982.
St. Maximilian Kolbe in this act of nonviolent, dying to self-love at Auschwitz on behalf of that man is an excellent witness to defending others in a Way utterly consistent with the Way of Jesus and with the Will of the Father of all as revealed by Jesus. His is a witness to Christlike, nonviolent, self-sacrificial love (agape) of a neighbor, even if one does not even know him or her personally. So, St. Maximilian Kolbe has been officially designated by the Church as a Martyr of Charity.
Charity is the English translation of the Latin word, caritas, which is the Latin translation of the Greek word agape, which in the New Testament is used 318 times out of the 338 times that love appears as a noun, verb or adjective. (The other 18 times the Greek word for love that is employed is philia, as in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia.) The word martyr derives from the Greek word for witness, martys.
In its original meaning, the word martyr, meaning witness, was used in the secular sphere as well as in the New Testament. The process of bearing witness was not necessarily intended to lead to the death of the witness, although this could be a consequence. During the early Christiancenturies, the term acquired the extended meaning of a believer in Jesus Christ, who is called to witness to his or her belief, and on account of this witness, may have to suffer and/or die. In Christianity a martyr, in accordance with the meaning of the original Greek martys in the New Testament, is one who gives testimony, usually written, verbal or incarnational. In particular, the testimony is that the Gospel is theWord of God, is true and is worthy in every way of total trust.
Eusebius, the first Church historian (c.337), wrote of these first three centuries of Christians: “They were so eager to imitate Christ … they gladly yielded the title of martyr to Christ, the true Martyr.” The early Christians who first began to use the term martyr in its new sense, saw Jesus as the first and greatest martyr, on account of His crucifixion in fidelity to the Word of God. For them He was seen as the archetypal martyr. A Christian witness, whether written, spoken or lived, is a witness to Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of all humanity, whether or not death follows. But, regardless whether death ensues, the Christian witness follows the example of Jesusin offering up his or her life in nonviolent, suffering love of God through loving others, as well as, in order to communicate to others the truth and trustworthinessof God as revealed in the Person, words and deeds of the Nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels.
One of the aspects of Maximilian Kolbe’s Christlike martyrdom in Christ, with Christ and for Christ and for those whom Christ came to save is that he did not know if it was going to work or make any difference for the man. Nazis starting, with their leader, did not have much of a track record for keeping their word or telling the truth. Kolbe was told the man would be spared if he took his place. But he certainly knew the odds that the SS, who ran Auschwitz, would be faithful to a promise were not promising, as well as, the odds of the man for whom he was giving his life could survive in such place until the war was over. Maximilian Kolbe, like the Nonviolent, merciful Jesus of Nazareth on the cross at Golgotha, had no human assurance that what he was doing would make any difference at all. All he knew was, what St. Edith Stein knew almost exactly a year later when confronted with Jewish children bedraggled, dirty, terrified and confused because they were separated from their parents, she began to wash them, comb their hair and comfort them. “Here is a human being,” they both would have said to themselves, “ who needs help and love and I have the power to offer some help and love in a way that is in totals conformity with the will of the Father of all as revealed by Jesus Christ. So, Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein did just that without the slightest earthly guarantee that the Christlike love they gave in the midst of the madness of war would make the slightest difference or be known to any one but God.
From the perspective of seventy years after their choices, we know the difference those Christlike acts have made. A Christian never has to worry about being a socially responsible person towards other or meeting his or her obligation to defend others from evil, if he or she is as creative and courageous following the Way of the Word of God Incarnate, as were St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein. As Dorothy Day often said, “It is our faith that the good deed will ultimately produce good results.” Human beings never define good. Only God is good and therefore only God knows what is good. Therefore what the good, but invisible, God says in His visible image, Jesus Christ, is good. Anything that contradicts that good is evil.
If St. Maximilian Kolbe could have saved a hundred lives or ten thousand lives by an act of nonviolent self-sacrificial love for others, without knowledge that it would alter anything, but simply because a person or people needed that act of Christlike love, solidarity and hope now, needed that witness to the truth and trustworthiness of Jesus now, would he have done it?
There was a time when one man on earth had an opportunity to possibly prevent a war from starting, that has since killed and maimed millions upon millions of people. The choice he had to make was to go to the country that was about to be invaded by a military juggernaut a thousand time more powerful that that of the country to be invaded, and sit with the poor people of that country and say to the invading country, “If you want to kill these brothers and sisters of mine, you’ll have to kill me along with them.” He didn’t, and the carnage of that war goes on in full force to this very hour.
Christlike, nonviolent, agapic creativity, courage, truthfulness and fidelity in presenting the spoken Word, the written Word and the lived Word is what the Church needs now from its popes, cardinals, bishops priests, ministers and pastors. It does not need any more of the travesty of expanding that deceitful illusion of Jesus’ moral teaching, Catholic Just War Theory, into where it had never gone before, namely, into the wide open spaces of selectively chosen cross-border interventionist “humanitarian” military slaughter to stop selectively defined and interpreted crimes against humanity. Continuing to pass-off such thinking as morally compatible with the teachings of Jesus simply opens the doors wide for government-corporate empire builders, like the Project for a New American Century, to recruit Christians to murderously steamroll their agenda across the face of the earth. The works of war, regardless of the grandiose reasons given for choosing them, are never the works of Christlike love, which are the exclusive means by which God saves the individual and all humanity. And, such love is the power that vanquishes all other power, believe it or not. There are many things in this world that cannot be done with Christlike love, and therefore cannot be done by Christians. The intentional destruction of human beings, regardless of how lofty the cause, is one of them. It is in the Christian’s and Christian community’s resolute commitment to that truth, that hitherto unseen possibilities reveal themselves.
Nevertheless, as the late Rev. John L. McKenzie succinctly focuses the issue, “The thing about following Jesus is that you don’t do the right thing because it works; you do it because it’s the right thing. If it doesn’t work, nothing works because the wrong thing doesn’t work either. I think we have proven that.”