Alleluia. Tollite jugum meum super vos, et discite a me, quia mitis sum, et humilis corde
Alleuia. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.
In their quest for Lebensraum, or Livingroom, the Nazis invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Since that whole people was devoted to the Catholic Faith, Hitler knew he had only to break the Church in order to take the heart out of the country. He killed or arrested every leader of the Church – clergy or lay – and had them shipped off to concentration camps, along with Polish Jews, communists, homosexuals, and all the other “undesirables” that had been defined by the Nazi state.
Today’s saint, Maksymilian Maria Kolbe, found himself in Auschwitz. At the end of July 1941, ten prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!”, Kolbe volunteered to take his place. Kolbe died 77 years ago today. Gajowniczek survived Auschwitz, and died in 1995. Kolbe’s sacrifice purchase 50 years for that man, a stranger, and won himself a martyr’s crown.
Pope St John Paul II called Kolbe “the Patron Saint of our difficult (20th) century.”
Although the Pro-life movement, political prisoners, Journalists, the family, and addictions all present us with important issues for our time (even in this century) it is his death in the course of a normal, virtuous act that highlights his importance for our time, for our difficult century.
In our day it is possible to deny the personhood of anyone who disagrees with any political point, socially or individually held. We no longer march them off to the concentration camps, for we are more advanced. We publicly shame them, we hound them from all pages of the internet, we use guilt by association, and arcane conspiracies to exclude them public life and even employment.
But we don’t kill them.
I know of a construction company who refused a contract to a temp employee because the temp employee had a union logo on his Facebook page. I know women who feel they have to use male names on Twitter and other social media in order to be able to have opinions, to enter into arguments, etc, without being called crude names in ad feminem attacks. Pardon the neologism, it’s totally needed here. People lose their jobs for “not sharing our company’s values” nowadays.
Showing virtue in this world is risky. Especially since, as Catholics, we believe the definition of virtue is a static one, defined for all time in the death of Christ on Calvary. You cannot love in a better way, you cannot live in a better way, you cannot die in a better way, no better way than the truth, himself, can be practiced. But we must also be careful that we fall not into the same trap, for disagreeing with our teachings does not de-person you. For Christ died for humans as a class. And we must also be on the lookout for those who, claiming to be Catholics, confuse their partisan politics with the teachings of the Church. It’s possible to be politically active and disagree on some things. It is not possible to be Catholic and belittle, make fun of, or de-person our political opponents – although it is certainly fashionable in this day to do so.
There were 6 Popes in my life time, but I have no memory of the first – St John XXIII – and the 3rd Pope – John Paul I – reigned for only 1 month. I am so very thankful for the other four! Paul VI, St John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. These last two who are there now, one with his seemingly cold academia, and the other with his bubbly grandfatherly qualities, can seem like Abbott and Costello, really. But from Humanae Vitae to Laudato Si, the teachings of the church have been brought solidly to bear on our culture and our missteps. And all the Popes have been excoriated – by Catholics and non-Catholics alike – for their rigid adherence to tradition and for daring to call out the modern world on our sins.
To live a life according to the Church’s boundaries in this time and place is heroic virtue.
Yesterday we celebrated the Memorial of another set of Martyrs, and, oddly, sort of, another pair of Popes. Saint Pontian, was made Pope in AD 231. One of his predecessors, Pope St Callistus, was perceived to be too liberal. His detractors elected a better Pope, a priest named Hippolytus, the latter being more conservative. Both Hippolytus and Pontian were sent to work in the mines, and eventually died, but not before being reconciled. This virtue of disagreement and yet reconciling is what makes them a good model for us: we need only to know that we are required to love all and to lay down our lives for those whom we love. These two things, only. And all else will be fine.
It is fitting that St Maximilian, who was in life so devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, should die today, which is the Vigil of her entrance into heaven. We shall talk more of that tomorrow, but (spoiler alert) her body and soul are in heaven now, united. The first of child of Adam and Eve to enjoy in that way the fruit of Baptismal Grace in the Heavenly Kingdom. And as her Assumption is the living embodiment of our promised Resurrection, St Maximilian finds his own death, on the vigil of her death, to be the gateway to everlasting life.