Homily for the Memorial of St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe
Fr. P. Francis Piro
"Greater Love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13).
"From today on, the Church desires to address as "Saint" a man who was granted the grace of carrying out these words of the Redeemer in an absolutely literal manner." For towards the end of July, 1941, when the camp commander ordered the prisoners destined to die of starvation to fall in line, this man-Maximilian Mary Kolbe spontaneously came forward and declared himself ready to go to death in the place of one of them. This readiness was accepted and, after more than two weeks of torment caused by starvation, Father Maximilian's life was ended with a lethal injection on August 14, 1941."
Taken from the homily of Pope John Paul II at the canonization of Maximilian Mary Kolbe, on October 10, 1982, these words give us just a glimpse into the character and steadfastness of a man who believed in the supreme value of human life, not just of his own, but everybody's life. And he proved it by offering his own life so that someone else, who was in greater need, could live.
Christian heroism, even unto death, reminds us Pope John Paul II, is a Scriptural idea commanded by Christ Himself. Yet modern attitudes about man shy away from martyrdom, and even from heroism itself The Pope calls us to give witness heroically to God and his law, even unto death.
Maximilian Mary Kolbe did not shy away from martyrdom. His heroism went echoing through the concentration camp of Auschwitz. In that desert of hatred he had sown love. Joseph Stemler, former director of a cultural institute in Poland, comments:" In those conditions, in the midst of a brutalization of thought and feeling and words such as had never before been known, man indeed became a raging wolf in his relations with other men. And into this state of affairs came the heroic self-sacrifice of Fr. Maximilian. The atmosphere grew lighter, as this thunderbolt provoked its profound and salutary shock." Jerry Bielecki declared that Fr. Kolbe's death was "a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength... .It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp." Fr. Kolbe's reputation spread far and wide, through the Nazi camps and beyond. After the war newspapers all over the world were deluged with articles about this "saint for our times", a "giant of holiness", who like his master Jesus had loved his fellow-men to the point of sacrificing his life for them.
What is the message of this exalted saint for our new generations?
St. Maximilian Kolbe's message to us is a message of life for he himself had made the ultimate sacrifice to save somebody else's life. That is why he is the patron saint, not only of families, of imprisoned people and prisoners, but also of the pro-life movement. In the concentration camp, Fr. Kolbe witnessed the worst cases of cruelty and of man's inhumanity to man. An entire race, the Jewish race, was almost wiped off the face of the earth. Six million-plus of them were exterminated. Countless more, regardless of nationality, race or religion, were destroyed. After the war, when the full reality of this horror came to light, the whole world was appalled, almost in disbelief, and rightly so.
Nowadays, a new genocide is going on, genocide of much greater proportions than the atrocities perpetrated in the name of a sick and distorted ideology in the Nazi's concentration camps and elsewhere. Where is the world's indignation today when millions of innocent human beings are destroyed in the mother's womb? Every human life is sacred and priceless. Even one single human life deserves respect and protection. When civilians are innocent victims of conflicts or of acts of terrorism, we vent our indignation and condemnation, and rightly so. When soldiers die, regardless of their number, we are terribly saddened and disturbed and ask ourselves why so much waste of human life. Our reaction is a positive sign because it is a testimony to the value we place on every single human life. And yet, so many in the Unites States and elsewhere don't even blink an eye at the destruction of not a few hundreds or a few thousands, but of millions and millions of the most defenseless and innocent human beings. If what happens in our country and the world today through abortion is not genocide, we have then to redefine the word genocide. Let me give you a few statistics to prove my point. Worldwide, the number of abortions per year is approximately 46 million. The number of abortions per day: approximately 126,000.
In the United States alone, the number of abortions per year is 1.37 million (for the year 1996) and the number of abortions per day is approximately 3,700. One interesting statistic tells why women have abortions. 1% of all abortions in the United States occur because of rape or incest; 6% occur because of potential health problems regarding either mother or child, and 93% of all abortions occur for social reasons, namely if the child is unwanted or inconvenient.
The overwhelming scientific evidence confirms that the fruit of conception in the mother's womb is a human being. And, if so, the willful and deliberate termination of pregnancy through abortion is murder, plain and simple. And if it is murder, nothing in the world can justify it. No one is free to kill. Freedom of choice can make sense when it comes to choosing a car, a restaurant, a store, a profession, etc. To speak of freedom of choice when a human life is involved is not only irresponsible but it is also an insul to our intelligence. In their zeal to pursue their particular agenda, some people make fools out of themselves, as to when they use the word "reproductive" to assert their right to an abortion. How is it possible to reproduce by killing? In their twisted minds they even twist and obfuscate the language itself.
Although abortion is not a religious matter, we Catholics, to be true witnesses to God's gift of life, on the example of St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, must be guided by the teaching of the Catholic Church, which has always condemned abortion as a grave evil. Doing otherwise makes us "cafeteria Catholics", in other words it makes us no Catholics at all.
Christian writers, from the first-century author of the Didache to Pope John Paul II in his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" ("The Gospel of Life), have maintained that the Bible forbids abortion, just as it forbids murder.
In 1995 Pope John Paul H declared that the. Church's teaching on abortion "is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors... I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine, based upon the natural law and upon the written
word of God, is transmitted by the Church's tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make it licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church" (Evangelium Vitae, 62).
In the Didache, written around the year 70 A.D., we read: "You shall not procure an abortion, nor destroy a newborn child."
In the Letter of Barnabas, written in the year 74 A.D. we find this warning:" Thou shall not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shall thou destroy it after it is born." St James: 2:26 tells us that "the body without the spirit is dead": The soul is the lifeprinciple of the human body. Since from the time of conception the child's body is alive, the child's body must already have its spirit.
"In our case, writes Tertullian in Apology, a murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is simply a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. This is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed."
Minucius Felix: "There are some pagan women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their womb and thus commit murder.... To us (Christians) it is not lawful either to see or hear of homicide".
Hippolytus:" Women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly so as to expel what was being conceived, since they would not, on account of relatives and excess wealth, want to have a child by a slave or by any insignificant person. See, then, into what great sin that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time." Refutation of All Heresies).
Basil the Great: "Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years' penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not" (First Canonical Letter)
Jerome: "I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost T the bosom of the Church, their mother. Some go so far as to take potions that they may insure sterility, and thus murder human beings almost before conception." The culture of death has spawned a new kind of pathological disorder by the name of split personality most common among Catholics in public office, who try to hide under the convenient cover of ""I am personally opposed to abortion, but in my capacity as a public official, I must uphold the law of the land." What is basically wrong about this argument is the fact that the divine law, "You shall not kill' supersedes any man-made law. A law, which is a blatant contradiction of the divine and natural law, lacks any intrinsic binding value. Furthermore, as Catholics we should know that "no one can serve two masters", and we can only deceive ourselves into believing that it is possible to have it both ways. Only by keeping our focus on eternity, will we realize that no worldly honor, as prestigious it can be, no glamorous career is worth jeopardizing our eternal salvation. Thomas More knew that he was making the right choice, better yet, the only choice, when he preferred to die rather than obey the king's law, which was at odds with God's law.
Considering that we are all frail human beings, we do reaize that giving up honor and prestige to uphold God's law is not easy. But unless we would rather die than betray Christ and his law, we are at best just disciples in training and are among the weakest of men. If the Roman poet Juvenal considered it "the greatest of crimes to prefer survival to honor," we who believe and love can say, "it is the greatest crime to prefer myself to Christ." Aristotle characterized courage as that which "will make a man face incredibly difficult things for some object. For us, courage is finding the way to do incredibly difficult things for Christ.
St Maximilian Mary Kolbe knew the meaning of Christian courage for he died as a witness to Christ and to God's precious gift of human life. May he intercede for us before the Almighty God so that we, too, find the courage to follow after his footsteps and live by God's law no matter how great and painful our personal cost knowing that nothing in this world can compare with the reward of eternal life.