The Eucharistic Dimension in St. Maximilian Kolbe
Raffaele Di Muro , OFM Conv
The Eucharistic mystery is a dimension of fundamental importance in the spiritual journey of the martyr of Auschwitz. This article will try to demonstrate this point and bring to light the connection between his adoration of the Eucharist and his mission and martyrdom. The first part treats the importance of the celebration of the Eucharist in the life of Father Kolbe. The second section tries to present him as one who tirelessly adored the Lord through his devotion to the Eucharist. The final part highlights the close rapport between St. Maximilian’s love for the Blessed Sacrament and his mission that became martyrdom in the final stage of his life.
The primary objective of this article is to examine the writings of the martyr of Auschwitz that contain the fundamental elements of his thought, the contents of the beatification process, and finally, studies treating his Eucharistic spirituality. There is also the hope that the reader will come to a clearer understanding of Eucharistic devotion in his own life, inasmuch as this article intends to stimulate reflection on this very topic.
Moreover, this article can be seen as polishing and completing the work of the late Fr. Antonio Di Mondo that was published in Miles Immaculatae in 2005 on the occasion of the “Year of the Eucharist” inaugurated by the Venerable Pope John Paul II.
1. The Eucharist: the Heart of St. Maximilian’s Spiritual Life
During the spiritual exercises in preparation for his diaconal ordination on 25 October 1917, the young Friar Maximilian Mary Kolbe wrote:
Holy Communion is nourishment. Only one Holy Communion suffices to make us saints. Everything depends upon our interior disposition and upon preparation. The first half of the day is dedicated to preparing for it; the second half to giving thanks for it.
In light of the path his life would eventually take and of his consecration, what is operative here is a very real spiritual program. The Eucharist was truly the source of his interior journey, the foundation of his prayer, and the secret of his immensely fruitful apostolate. It was no simple coincidence that Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, would propose him as a priestly model during the “Year of Priests,” inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI. The Cardinal pointed out a strict rapport between the holiness of St. Maximilian’s ministry and the centrality of the Eucharistic mystery in his spiritual life.
With respect to the concept of nourishment, the Polish martyr, while referring to Holy Communion, expressed himself in this way:
Now come to me and unite yourself intimately to me under the form of nourishment. Your blood is already flowing in mine, your soul . . . fills my soul, you give it strength, and you feed it.
The union brought about with Christ in the Eucharist is the most important food for the spiritual life; it is strength for a journey of conversion and sanctification that is founded in the mutual penetration of God and one’s soul.
Kolbe understood and experienced this great mystery with considerable faith and continuity. It was a miracle of God’s love that he entered into profoundly and with conviction.
Returning above to the first citation from the writings of St. Maximilian, it is interesting to note how the young Kolbe, on the eve of his diaconal and priestly ordination, affirmed the importance of the fervent participation in Holy Mass throughout one’s entire spiritual journey and how this encounter with Christ must be the center of the day. The first half of the day would be given to preparation for the Eucharist, and the second half given to thanksgiving. Holy Communion was the indispensable food that reinforces the soul in view of a journey of constant interior transformation. However, for this to happen it is necessary that this decisive moment in one’s own personal sanctification be prepared for to the maximal degree, be regarded as an absolutely indispensable appointment to be experienced with the utmost love that the human heart can give.
There are, indeed, many testimonies that portray Fr. Kolbe filled with love as he celebrated the holy sacrifice and animated by the desire to make its celebration the foundation of his day, his plan for perfection, and his mission. Moreover, he sought to make this a priority for his confreres as is clear from an article written in 1934 regarding the meaning and purpose of the minor seminary and Niepokalanow.
To prepare these legions of humble and poor friar-priests well in advance [for the Immaculate and to be at her side], to prepare them for everything: sufferings, humiliations, even the most difficult missions, total exhaustion and death. Here, then, is the point of the minor seminary at Niepokalanow.
According to Maximilian the priest is he who, interiorly strengthened by the grace communicated by the celebration of Holy Mass, is capable of offering his life to God without reserve together with the Immaculate and of working most generously in a missionary spirit that knows no bounds.
Considering the importance of the Eucharist in the spiritual life, Maximilian offered his own preparation and thanksgiving to the Immaculate. He addressed this point, first in a letter written in Nagasaki in 1935, and subsequently in an article for the Polish edition of the Knight of the Immaculate written in 1938.
There is no better preparation for Holy Communion other than offering it to the Immaculate…She will prepare our heart in the best way possible, and we will be sure to give Jesus the greatest of joys and to show him the greatest of loves.
After Holy Communion let us pray to the Immaculate once more, so that she herself may welcome Jesus into our soul and make him happy as no one ever before has been able to do.
These citations reveal the Polish martyr’s attention to prepare himself to the utmost for the celebration of the Mass and follow it with a serious and devout act of thanksgiving. All of this is done with the help of the Immaculate, whose loving presence guarantees a fervent and fruitful participation in the liturgy through which the believer is called to give maximum glory to God. Love for the Immaculate also has a Eucharistic purpose, since through drawing close to her and thanks to her example and intercession, the believer can experience the mystery of the Lord’s real presence in the sacrament with greater attention and, therefore, with greater freedom, conviction and concentration.
The very existence of the City of the Immaculate finds an essential point of reference in the Eucharistic mystery. Even before the official inauguration of Niepokalanow, as soon as he received ecclesiastical authorization, Maximilian celebrated Holy Mass there. He was aware that the celebration of the Eucharist in the City of the Immaculate was vital for its growth. Moreover, despite his poor health, he did not cease celebrating mass, even when it meant a considerable sacrifice or in a place that was difficult to reach. Maximilian was saddened when he had to admit that his confreres who were priests participated in the holy sacrifice superficially or carelessly.
What is more, to celebrate the mass with sentiments of love and with concentration puts the priest and the believer in a state that is more receptive and responsive to the will of God. It is this participation, marked by concentration and fervor, that allows the priest to imitate Christ, to be like him, and to offer his love for humanity once again, since it is the Eucharist itself which is the memorial of the passion and death of the Lord. Maximilian’s love for the Eucharistic Jesus was so great that even in the concentration camp he celebrated the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ by way of sermons and exhortations.
The love that Father Kolbe had for Holy Mass is testified to in an imminent way in the witness accounts used in the beatification and canonization processes. De Louvencourt has thoroughly studied them and used them to describe Maximilian’s intense concentration and absorption while celebrating the sacred rites. His recollected focus and immersion in the mystery are truly impressive, and these qualities are attested to throughout nearly his entire priestly life. Maximilian’s great love for the Eucharist, which is evident in him from his early days as a priest to his later years, demonstrates that it truly was the central and decisive moment in his day and in his spiritual life altogether.
Fr. Maximilian Kolbe’s participation in the Eucharistic banquet strengthened his desire to be conformed to Christ. Being the memorial of the passion and death of the Lord, it afforded him the opportunity to reflect on the mystery that he intended to live out daily in his spiritual life. The time he spent at Zakopane, which was characterized by sickness and the uncertainty of his future life as a priest and apostle, gave him the possibility to reflect deeply upon the Eucharistic mystery and the way to celebrate it with the utmost concentration and love. It was in this “desert” that he meditated at length on the value and centrality of the Holy Mass in his life as a religious, priest and missionary. Moreover, the Eucharist is the prayer that benefits one’s neighbor and those most in need of prayer; it was really and truly an exercise of charity. St. Maximilian recommended to the Lord his family, friends, enemies, those who had asked him for prayers, the catholic faithful, the entire Church, and even those in opposition to it. His communion with God enabled him to deepen his communion with his neighbor. Conformity to the Lord and love for him and his neighbor were the most beautiful fruits that he derived from celebrating the mass with extraordinary fervor and recollection.
Maximilian was so convinced of the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the believer that he did not allow the sick or prisoners at Auschwitz to be deprived of this great consolation and help. While in Japan he went daily to bring communion to a confrere in hospital, and while in the prison camps he risked severe punishments for the sole purpose of guaranteeing the Eucharistic presence to those who were imprisoned together with him. He did his very best to bring the Eucharistic Jesus to his friars and the faithful, certain that they could find in him the basic necessities for responding to the call to holiness.
Moreover, St. Maximilian saw the close relationship between the moments of the consecration and communion during the liturgy. The former represented the most precious moment of the day in which the Lord’s real presence was confected in the sacrament; the latter was the Mass’s culminating point that offered the believer the most important food for his soul. It goes without saying that the Polish saint insisted on the need for an adequate and satisfactory preparation before celebrating mass as well as a prolonged act of thanksgiving after mass.
The following table offers a summary of a person’s dispositions before mass and the fruits flowing from the Eucharist according to the thought of Fr. Kolbe.
· prayerful preparation
· conformity – divinization
For the martyr of Auschwitz, as clearly seen in this table, the Holy Mass was never an expression of improvisation. Rather, the mass was prepared for in a spirit of recollection and silence precisely because it was the essential moment of the day that brought abundant fruits that became visible in fraternal charity, personal conversion, and conformity to the poor Christ who gave himself for the salvation of humanity. Recollection before mass should take place by adoring the mystery of Jesus’ sacramental presence with deep gratitude and the desire for union. Communion opens up the way to continual sanctification thanks to the divine presence in one’s soul. The recipient assumes an active part in a kind of “divinization,” to use an expression dear to St. Maximilian. Moreover, the grace that takes root in the believer makes him capable of a greater charity and union in his dealings with fellow Christians and with all people. So too, the apostolate is born and nourished by the Holy Mass that offers the grace and strength that are needed to accomplish one’s own mission.
2. Father Kolbe: Untiringly Adoring the Eucharist
The testimonials from the beatification and canonization processes confirm Fr. Kolbe’s love for Eucharistic adoration. What filled St. Maximilian with immense joy was being aware that he was living under the same roof as the Lord who was calling him to visit him, adore him, and make known to him his gratitude for so great a gift. This dimension of prayer was clearly seen to be a value for him at every stage in his life. From his years of formation as a young friar, he would frequently make fervent and extended visits to the Blessed Sacrament that accompanied and prolonged his participation in daily mass. As an experienced priest and an expert in pastoral activity, Maximilian would still feel the need to recollect himself in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament to strengthen his motivation and his inner energies. It was this very love for the Eucharist that gave him the strength to offer himself his neighbor in the dreadful concentration camp of Auschwitz. He never ceased to exhort his friars to turn to the Blessed Sacrament and to the statue of the Immaculate Conception when faced with problems or difficulties. Experience showed him the importance of Eucharistic adoration, and thus he recommended it also to his confreres as an expression of sublime and effective prayer.
The beatification and canonization testimonials portray Fr. Kolbe as a faithful worshiper of Jesus in the Eucharist. As a young student, newly-ordained priest, and then as an apostle, several times a day he would recollect himself before the Blessed Sacrament, and in this way he would find the necessary strength to fulfill his vocation and mission. He especially favored prayer at night before the Blessed Sacrament for which his continual visits throughout the day prepared the way. Fr. Kolbe would usually plan his day to allow for abundant time for Eucharistic adoration. In this way every activity he carried out was preceded, followed and supported by such prayer. His amazement at the presence of the Lord in the house where he lived and worked lasted throughout each phase of his life, and this gave him joy and enthusiasm to persevere in a quasi-continuous adoration, which, at the same time, reflected the strength of his response to God’s call and mission. Therefore, it is clear that adoration was a staple in the spiritual life of the Polish martyr, and it featured in every phase of his life and occupied an important part in his daily schedule and in the virtues of his spiritual life.
In the following passage Fr. Kolbe revealed his contemplative spirit and the faith he had in the Lord’s real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. It is taken from an article published in 1924 in the Polish edition of the Knight of the Immaculate:
From the moment the sacrifice of the mass was first celebrated on this earth…the priest, the successor of the apostles, in obedience to the command of God-made-man and in his memory, repeats the emotional scene of the Last Supper. The bread becomes the living Body of Christ and the wine his most Holy Blood. And he, the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of souls, carried in the hands of the priest, walks along the roadways and streets of his children.
The Polish saint wrote these words in reference to the procession of the Blessed Sacrament during the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, and they disclose a deep faith in the Lord’s presence in the Eucharistic species. He contemplated the mystery of the Eucharist through which the Lord dwells among men. It was a wonder of love perpetuated through mass and in virtue of the action of the priest. St. Maximilian came to a profound understanding of this extraordinary reality through his prayer, the attention with which he celebrated the Eucharist, his meditation, and the confidence he had in the Word of God. Without a doubt prayer was a fundamental dimension of the spirituality of St. Maximilian. Indeed, Eucharistic adoration represented as essential element of his prayer life.
What is more, Maximilian practiced Eucharistic adoration from a Marian perspective in a coherent and harmonious way.
Whenever a person goes to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament – even though he is completely consecrated to the Immaculate without reserve and knows that he belongs entirely to her – he explicitly offers the entire visit to the Immaculate…He does it in this way because he knows that Jesus will be especially pleased, and that when it is done in this way, it is she who completes the visit in him and through him and that he will complete the visit in her and through her.
Consecration to the Immaculate greatly facilitates Eucharistic adoration: the person dedicated to Mary prays with her help and support. The presence of the Mother of God purifies and enriches the prayer by which it gives greater glory and honor to the Lord. The Virgin Mary adds beauty to the Eucharistic worship; praying in communion with her makes the request more fervent, effective and fruitful. The Polish saint emphasized the valuable role of the Virgin Mary also when a Christian who is consecrated to her is in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. It is the Immaculate who prays in him and through him, and thus makes the prayer more pleasing to her Son. St. Maximilian recommended for himself and for his friars frequent visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, because everything is contained in its mystery: creation, incarnation, grace and liturgy. Spiritual communion cannot be forgotten, for is has great value as interior nourishment. It is operative when it is physically impossible to receive communion sacramentally. All of St. Maximilian’s activity as God’s minister, friar, and missionary, from his days in initial formation to when he was a seasoned priest, revolved around the Eucharistic mystery. In the apostolic life of the City of the Immaculate the friars were often called to huddle around the Blessed Sacrament.
3. St. Maximilian’s Mission: Fruit of Eucharistic Adoration
St. Maximilian saw the close connection between the love for the Eucharist and mission. His “spectacular” apostolate is the result of his consecration to the Immaculate as well as his awareness of the call to offer himself in accord with Jesus’ example that is presented anew each day in Holy Mass. From the sacrifice of the mass and Eucharistic adoration he learned the logic of the gift, that is, conformity to Christ who gave his life on the cross to save others. This is what he tried to relive in every celebration and attempted to replicate in his life. In light of this, one can come to understand the birth of the City of the Immaculate, his imprisonment in the concentration camp that was so filled with acts of love, and his consecration to the Immaculate that enriched his identity as a Conventual Franciscan friar with a strong emphasis on self-giving.
His martyrdom and mission flow from the springs of Eucharistic devotion as a result of his love for this kind of prayer and his strong desire to be conformed to Christ that fed and sustained him. The martyrdom of the Polish saint is the expression and result of a life-long journey in love for Christ in his Eucharistic presence and for the Immaculate to whom he consecrated his entire life. In his most recent message addressed to priests throughout the world, Cardinal Hummes emphasized the connection of Eucharist, apostolate and martyrdom, and described their interrelatedness as a very significant dynamic in the lives of priests today.
In the words of Cardinal Hummes: “Giving one’s life in this way is always a Eucharistic and redemptive act…This is the way God loved us and loves us. Priests should love every human being in the same way.”
The liturgical moment was especially important for St. Maximilian. It was his food, his encounter with the divine presence, and, of course, a principal source of his spirituality. From this context he derived the categories of sacrifice and conformity that he endeavored to make alive through the witness of his own life patterned after the gospel in the service of others.
Moreover, the very act of consecration to the Immaculate, and the concepts of boundless love and human divinization are bound together through intimate communion with the Redeemer in Holy Mass. The desire to love and give absolutely everything for the Kingdom find their origin in Jesus’ sacrifice that the mass makes present again, and this did not leave Fr. Kolbe indifferent. His being “heart to heart” with the Lord intersects with his fervent participation in the Eucharist and being nourished by it. This had repercussions on his missionary work for the Church and for the spreading of the Kingdom.
Maximilian expressed these views in a letter written in 1936:
With such a desire to participate in holy masses, it is clear that the interior life prospers, notwithstanding the multiplication of activities. The Eucharist is the strength of the soul.
These words of the mature Fr. Kolbe speak to the importance of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist for him and for all of his activities. The Lord gives strength to the heart and soul, moreover it holds the secret to an interior peace that can be maintained even while engaged in the most challenging of apostolic activities. Fervent participation in mass bears two fruits: deep and intimate communion with the Lord, and grace to do one’s apostolic activities better, even though they may be exhausting and difficult.
Everything springs from the Eucharist, which is the representation of the mystery of the Incarnation in which the Immaculate is an integral part. Once this is understood, one can also understand that consecration to the Immaculate and fostering devotion to her do not clash with the mystery of the Eucharist precisely because she plays an essential role in the mystery of the presence of Jesus among men.
According to Fr. Kolbe it is Mary who begot and nurtured Jesus for us. To approach Jeus in the Eucharist is a grace, and:
all graces come to us through her, just as Jesus came among us through her.
The following illustration offers a clear diagram of the thought and spirituality of St. Maximilian with respect to the relationship between the Eucharist, Marian devotion, and apostolic activity.
These three elements relate in a circular fashion. Eucharistic and Marian devotion are not opposed to one another. Eucharistic devotion is an expression of the Incarnation (the foundational mystery) in which the Immaculate played a most important role. Both Eucharistic worship and Marian devotion contribute in a particular way to apostolic activity that is grounded, strengthened and fruitful in them. Holy Mass and prayer to Mary are in no way opposed, rather they make a decisive contribution to the goals of apostolic activity done in a spirit of sacrifice and with efficacy.
For Maximilian prayer in general, and consequently, prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, was the indispensable condition for an apostle to remain in a state of inner peace, and for him to promote, through word and deed, the conversion and restoration of heart of those he meets. This is a wonderful achievement that can only be attained through a life of prayer and a solid Eucharistic spirituality.
By way of conclusion to this study, noted first and foremost is the marked association of the holiness of Fr. Kolbe to the Eucharist. Holy Mass is at the heart of his day, his every activity, and his spiritual life altogether. His writings and the testimonies of those who knew him indicate his love for the sacred rites, his recollected demeanor, and the concentration and fervor that allowed him to find all the spiritual energy he needed for an extraordinary journey as a consecrated religious and apostle.
St. Maximilian’s desire to be conformed to the poor and crucified Christ was nurtured by the Eucharistic sacrifice, as was his love for others, friends or foes, who benefited from his profound communion with God which made him an efficacious intercessor in their behalf. St. Maximilian clearly saw the inseparable and intimate link between the consecration and communion at mass: the first makes Christ present, while the second allows him to dwell in the hearts of the faithful. Consequently, every celebration of the Eucharist was to be preceded by an intense preparation and followed by heartfelt thanksgiving enabling the faithful recipient access to the fruits of charity that flow from the Eucharist.
In addition to St. Maximilian’s fervent participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, one must add his love for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament that he practiced with particular frequency and devotion. This practice was united with his pious and devout celebration of the Eucharistic rites, for the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist was an essential reference point for Fr. Kolbe. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament was a regular component of his day throughout his lifetime. Each day and every apostolic undertaking was a mixture of his own hard work interspersed with frequent visits to the tabernacle.
Thus, St. Maximilian Kolbe appears to be a genuine contemplative of the Eucharistic mystery through prayer, meditation, and his unshakable faith in the real presence.
St. Maximilian’s fervent, constant and devout participation in worship of the Eucharistic was the source of energy for an apostolate that was innovative and ever active – one that would end in martyrdom. From the mystery of the Eucharist he learned the logic of giving without reserve that he tried to replicate always and courageously in his daily life. Consecration to the Immaculate, Niepokalanow and martyrdom were but the fruit of the wish to be conformed to Christ that was born and fed by the Eucharist.
 Cf. A. Di Monda, Culto e mistero dell’Eucarestia in P. Kolbe, in Miles Immaculatae 61 (2005) 317-344.
 SK 968. Simbula notes that during his time in the seminary, the young Friar Maximilian Kolbe received a somewhat devotional formation, not historic-systematic in nature, but based on religious ceremonies and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament that was frequently had. This did not detract from the role that the Mass had for Kolbe; rather it explains his attitude toward the liturgy that was also affective in nature. (Cf. G. Simbula, San Massimiliano Kolbe profilo umano e spirituale. Approccio cronologico agli scritti, ENMI, Rome 1998, 79.)
 Cf. J. – F. De Louvencourt, San Massimiliano Kolbe amico e dottore della preghiera, Centro Internazionale “Milizia dell’Immacolata” Rome 2002, 496.
 Cf. Card. Claudio Hummes, San Massimiliano Kolbe “segno” per la Chiesa e i sacerdoti, Centro Internazionale “Milizia dell’Immacolata” Rome 2009, 7-8.
 Cf. A. Di Monda, 323.
 Cf. De Louvencourt, 496.
 Cf. De Louvencourt, 496.
 Cf. R. Di Muro, La preghiera francescana, l’esempio di Francesco e Kolbe, in Miles Immaculatae 65 (2009) 196-197.
 Cf. De Louvencourt, 502-503.
 Cf. S. Ragazzini, San Massimiliano Kolbe. Vita, spiritualità e martirio, Edizioni dell’Immacolata, Borgonuovo di Pontecchio Marconi (Bo) 1982, 36, 63, 265.
 Cf. De Louvencourt, 504-505.
 Cf. SK 715, 1059, 1145; De Louvencourt, 506-507; 512-513.
 Cf. De Louvencourt, 513.
 Cf. SK 1248; De Louvencourt, 516-517.
 Cf. SK 585, 1178; De Louvencourt, 225-226; Hummes, 7-8.
 Cf. De Louvencourt, 223-224.
 Cf. Di Muro, 196; P. Messa, L’eucarestia nella spiritualità francescana e sua attuale rilevanza, in L. Lehmann – P. Martinelli – P. Messa, Eucarestia, vita spirituale e francescanesimo, Edizioni Dehoniane, Bologna 2006, 51-53.
 Cf. F. – M. Lethel, Il linguaggio mistico di San Massimiliano M. Kolbe, in AA.VV., Massimiliano M. Kolbe nel suo tempo e oggi, 464-465.
 Cf. Di Monda, 324-327.
 Cf. Hummes, 7-9; J. McCurry, San Massimiliano Kolbe: spiritualità in azione, in AA.VV., San Massimiliano e la nuova evangelizzazione, Centro Internazionale “Milizia dell’Immacolata,” Rome 1999, 235; SK 965, 903, 634.
 Cf. J. Castelano Cervera, L’itinerario spirituale di San Massimiliano Kolbe, in AA.VV., Massimiliano M. Kolbe nel suo tempo e oggi. Approccio interdisciplinare alla personalità e agli scritti, Centro Internazionale “Milizia dell’Immacolata,” Rome 2003, 406-409.
 Cf. F. – M. Lethel, 424-425, 433.
 Cf. A. Amato, Maria nell’itinerario spirituale di San Massimiliano Maria Kolbe, in AA.VV., Massimiliano M. Kolbe nel suo tempo e oggi, 464.
 Cf. A. Amato, 464-465; Di Monda, 330-331.
 SK 903; S. Lanza, Le idée-forza dell’opera di evangelizzazione di p. Massimiliano M. Kolbe, in AA.VV., Massimiliano M. Kolbe nel suo tempo e oggi, 478-479.