It’s a very heroic thing when a person gives up his or her life for another. It usually makes the news, books are written and movies are made.
The greatest example we have of this is described by St. Paul in Romans 5 when he refers to Jesus Christ:
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath.Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life (5:7-10 NABRE).
St. Peter tells us in his first letter “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (2:21 NABRE). So just as Christ suffered and gave up his life, it will come to us to suffer, and maybe even fully follow in his steps to surrender our life.
Today is the feast day of the Polish Franciscan martyr, St. Maximilian Kolbe. In 1941 at the German concentration camp of Auschwitz, one prisoner disappeared which prompted the deputy camp commander to pick ten men to be starved to death to discourage further escapes. One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, had a wife and children and cried out for mercy. Fr. Kolbe volunteered to take his place. In their underground bunker Kolbe led the men in constant prayers and after two weeks he was the only left alive. He was given a lethal injection of carbolic acid and died on August 14, 1941.
At his canonization in 1982 the verse from John 15:13 was read: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (NABRE). Ellyn von Huben writes about that special day.
There was one extraordinary man in attendance at St. Maximilian’s canonization: Franciszek Gajowniczek. Though spared the torture of the starvation bunker, Gajowniczek had still suffered greatly. He was in Auschwitz for over five years and his sons did not live to see the day of his release. Those prisoners who had grown so fond of Fr. Kolbe were particularly cruel to Gajowniczek, as they blamed him for the loss of their beloved friend and priest. But he received consolation in 1982, in St. Peter’s Square, when the man who offered his life for Franciszek’s was declared a saint.
As Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story!” St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!