Today was the feast day of Saint Maximilian Mary Kolbe, and I spent a lot of time thinking about him. When Maximilian was canonized by Pope John Paul II, the pope proclaimed him The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century. He was a great evangelizer and defender of the faith, as well as a protector of Jews and a fierce critic of Nazism – a witness which eventually landed him in Auschwitz as a prisoner.
It was there that his legend was cemented. In retribution for an attempted prisoner escape, the deputy commander of the death camp ordered ten men from Maximilian’s barracks to be sent away to be starved to death. One of the men cried out in grief over his family, and Maximilian stepped forward to take his place. The man survived to personally see Maximilian canonized 41 years later.
The 20th century was nothing if not the stage for the full flowering of Enlightenment deism into outright atheism, and its attendant religiously-flavored inanities. Maximilian’s sensibilities were very much shaped by his experience of the hostility of Europe’s public order toward the Church. As waves of nationalism, socialism, and finally National Socialism, reverberated through the remnants of Christendom, sweeping away traditional meanings of community, the vacuity of the “Enlightenment” project was once for all exposed in the unimaginable darkness of abject brutalities, culminating in the misanthropic hell holes of places like Auschwitz.
Maximilian, in the very midst of the madness, responded in the only way the Church can. He followed his Lord in offering his life, not only for his neighbor, but for his neighbor’s family.
It’s no accident of history that the descent of civilization into various barbarisms in the 20th century has left the 21st century with a legacy of broken families, the destigmatization and social embrace of fornication, a view of sex even within marriage that is radically divorced from its organic meaning in fatherhood and motherhood, the utter collapse of nature’s most fundamental bond of love in the unspeakable crime of abortion, and now, even the attempt to erase the memory of marriage from the consciousness of humanity by perverting its meaning, so that future generations will not even possess a word by which to distinguish marriage from other, non-covenantal, and even explicitly self-centered, domestic arrangements. There will be no thread binding the family together that is left unrepudiated, except the duty of children towards parents – and the wheels of “progress” are already moving to dismantle what remains of that, as society prepares to implement the mirror-image function of abortion in Kevorkianism.
It turns out, it seems, that the family and civilization do not so much support each other, as reflect each other in different historical permutations of the same reality. The family is to civilization as the fetus is to the adult. You cannot destroy one without destroying the other. This is the true crisis of our age, as John Paul II (and his successor) understood as well as anyone. And that Maximilian of Auschwitz is also the patron saint of families is no coincidence.
We need more men like Saint Maximilian with the courage, and the prudence, to offer their lives for the sake the family. The truth is that the world is not so much saved one soul at a time, as one family at a time.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.”
Acts 16:31 (NAB)