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Fr Billy Swan

Opposite is a photo taken from the prison cell of Maximillian Kolbe at Auschwitz where he died from starvation on 14th August 1941.

Maximillian was born on 8 January 1894 in occupied Poland: he joined the Franciscans in 1910, and was ordained eight years later, as his country became free and independent for the first time in over 120 years.

He believed that the world was passing through a time of intense spiritual crisis, and that Christians must fight for the world’s salvation with all the means of modern communication. He founded a newspaper, and a sodality called the Knights of Mary Immaculate, which spread widely both in Poland and abroad.

In 1927 he founded a community, a “city of Mary”: centred round the Franciscan friary, it attracted many lay people, and became self-supporting, publishing many periodicals and running its own radio station.

In 1930 he went to Japan, studied Buddhism and Shintoism, and through the Japanese edition of his newspaper spread the Christian message in a way that was in harmony with Japanese culture. In Nagasaki, he set up a “Garden of the Immaculate,” which survived the atomic bomb. He also travelled to Malabar and to Moscow, but was recalled to Poland in 1936 for reasons of health.

When the Germans invaded in 1939, the community sheltered thousands of refugees, most of them Jews. In 1941 he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where he helped and encouraged the inmates. In August of that year a prisoner escaped, and in reprisal the authorities were choosing ten people to die by starvation. One of the men had a family, and Maximilian Kolbe offered to take his place. The offer was accepted, and he spent his last days comforting his fellow prisoners.

The man he saved was present at his canonization.

The candle you see that stands in his prison cell today was put there by St John Paul II during a visit. It is a paschal candle – the main symbol of the risen Christ whose light pierces the darkness of his prison cell. How appropriate this is – that the power of Christ who overcame the brutality of the cross with love and forgiveness should enter into the darkness and suffering of what Maximillian endured out of love for a man who was saved because of him.

On this feast day, we think and pray for all prisoners and those deprived of their freedom. For the guilty that they might know God and turn back to him; for the innocent, that they might find strength in the passion of the Lord and the witness of St Maximillian Kolbe.

I conclude with a wonderful extract from Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation to young people where he asks if we have lost the ability to weep. It is a powerful teaching. Today we weep for prisoners of conscience and those denied their dignity and rights:

‘Perhaps those of us who have a reasonably comfortable life don’t know how to weep. Some realities in life are only seen with eyes cleansed by tears. I would like each of you to ask yourself this question: Can I weep? Can I weep when I see a child who is starving, on drugs or on the street, homeless, abandoned, mistreated or exploited as a slave by society? Or is my weeping only the self-centered whining of those who cry because they want something else? Try to learn to weep for all those young people less fortunate than yourselves. Weeping is also an expression of mercy and compassion. If tears do not come, ask the Lord to give you the grace to weep for the sufferings of others. Once you can weep, then you will be able to help others from the heart’.

St Maximillian Kolbe, Pray for us.


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