August 14, 2008

A Hero for Our Age

For me, today is an occasion to consider matters of permanent importance, since it is the feast of a hero of mine, St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan priest who volunteered to take the place of a man condemned to death at Auschwitz.  Kolbe’s story is a powerful one, which is why John Paul II proclaimed him “the patron saint of our difficult century” and why Christopher Hitchens dismissed him in his atheist manifesto as a “rather ambivalent priest…who had apparently behaved nobly in Auschwitz,” without even bringing himself to mention Kolbe’s name.  I would invite anyone wondering whether John Paul II or Hitchens is right to read this account of Kolbe’s life, which makes clear that what made Kolbe’s heroic death possible was all that had come before, including numerous prior acts of selflessness in Nazi captivity.

In the final issue of his newspaper, before it was supressed by the Nazis, Kolbe wrote this:  “No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

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