Friday, June 11, 2010

Year For Priests

The Year for Priests draws to a close today. Coincidentally, I came across an address that New York City’s own Archbishop Dolan gave in Ireland about two weeks ago in which he discussed the priesthood and mentioned a famous priest and saint, Father Maximilian Kolbe.

When the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz snickered, “Who is the Polish swine,” at the prisoner who had raised his hand asking to take the place of the married man and father who had been chosen at random to be executed, the “Polish swine” did not reply, “I am Maximilian Kolbe,” nor “I am prisoner number 1408,” nor “I am a friend and would like to take his place in execution.” No. He simply replied, “I am a Catholic priest.”
I read about Fr. Kolbe late one night about ten years ago. The more I read, the colder and darker the night became and the more incredulous I grew at what I was reading. I thought, rather arrogantly, that, certainly, if this story were true I would have heard of it before! Fr. Kolbe's story is, of course, completely true.

As Dolan says in the short passage above , Fr. Kolbe, a Roman Catholic, Polish priest and a prisoner at Auschwitz, was among those rounded up to be starved to death as punishment for a prisoner having attempted to escape from the camp. As lots were drawn, a man was chosen who had still enough hope and humanity left in him to exclaim that he had a wife and family to care for, that he couldn’t die, that he had responsibilities. Fr. Kolbe stepped forward to take the man’s place. One may go on to read the account of how Fr. Kolbe ministered to all those in the starvation cell, how they sang and prayed and how Kolbe was finally put to death with an injection. Another powerful punch to the account of Fr. Kolbe's sacrifice is that the man whose place he took, Franciszek Gajowniczek, did survive Auschwitz, was reunited with his wife and lived to be 94 years old.

My disbelief of ten years ago about Fr. Kolbe, resurfaced recently when, just after reading Archbishop Dolan's address, another Polish priest was in the news. Do Polish Catholic priests have a lock on sacrifice and suffering?Father Jerzy Popieluszko whose affiliation with the Solidarity movement in Poland earned him the hatred of the communists, was apparently inspired by Kolbe’s lesson of “spiritual freedom amidst physical enslavement.” I read these words about Fr. Popieluszko here from Fr. Rosica.
Father Popieluszko was neither a social nor a political activist, but a Catholic priest faithful to the Gospel. He wasn't a forceful speaker, but someone of deep conviction and integrity. His sanctity lay in fundamental righteousness that gave people hope even in horrendous situations. On Oct. 19, 1984, the young priest was kidnapped by security agents on his way back to Warsaw after a visit to a parish in the neighboring town of Bydgoszcz. He was savagely beaten until he lost consciousness, and his body was tied up in such a way that he would strangle himself by moving. His weighted body was then thrown into a deep reservoir. His killers carried out their task with unprecedented brutality, which shows their hatred of the faith that the priest embodied. Jerzy's driver, who managed to escape, told what had happened to the press. On Oct. 30, Popieluszko's bound and gagged body was found in the freezing waters of a reservoir near Wloclawek. Fr. Jerzy's brutal murder was widely believed to have hastened the collapse of communist rule in Poland.
How to comprehend such deep suffering and sacrifice. Speaking for all priests in this Year For Priests, Archbishop Dolan said:

In answer to a literal life-or-death question, Maximilian Kolbe identified himself as a priest. Priesthood is not, first and foremost, something we do,but someone we are.

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