Although we often think of saints as people who lived long, long ago, there are lots of saints who lived less than a hundred years ago! In fact, there are over 50 saints and dozens of blesseds who lived in the 20th century (many of them were alive at the same time as your grandparents!). These modern saints can be especially good role models for us because they struggled with many of the same problems and temptations we face today. Be sure to ask for their intercession often!
Saint Maximilian Kolbe is an example of a saint who evangelized even when he was persecuted, even sacrificing his life for someone else. He was born in Poland in 1894, to a very pious Catholic family. Maximilian was a wild child who often got into trouble, but when he was twelve, something happened that changed his life forever.
Maximilian had a vision of the Blessed Virgin, who offered his a choice between a red and a white crown. She told him that the white crown meant he would lead a life of purity, and the red one meant that he would become a martyr. Maximilian chose them both.
He entered the seminary to become a priest, and while he was there, he and some of his friends started a group called the Militia of the Immaculata (“Immaculata” is one of Mary’s titles, referring to her Immaculate Conception). The group was devoted to converting sinners and spreading devotion to Mary and the Miraculous Medal, which they wore and distributed.
In 1922, after he had become a priest, Maximilian bought a printing press and began publishing a newspaper called “Knight of the Immaculate.” Within five years, he was printing 70,000 copies of every issue. Maximilian needed more space to continue his work, so the prince of Poland gave him land to build a new monastery. Maximilian called it “Niepokalanow,” which means “City of the Immaculate.” Soon, the monks were printing more than 750,000 copies of their newspaper every month.
Although he had never had very good health, Maximilian travelled to Nagasaki, Japan to start a monastery there. He didn’t speak any Japanese, but Maximilian found a translator and was able to start publishing a newspaper within a month. The monastery continued operating throughout World War 2 and even survived the atomic bomb blast that destroyed most of the city.
In 1936, Maximilian returned to Poland, where his monastery continued to grow. It even had its own hospital and fire department! When the Nazis came to power, Maximilian and several other brothers were arrested for a short time. Meanwhile, the monastery continued to publish the newspaper, as well as hiding 3,000 people – mostly Jews – who were in danger. In 1941, Nazi soldiers took the printing presses and arrested Maximilian. He had earned the white crown Mary had offered him; now it was time for him to earn the red one.
Maximilian was sent to Auschwitz prison camp, where he was put in a group with other priests. The guards were very cruel and gave the worst jobs to the priests, especially Maximilian, who was always kind to everyone. He continued to hear prisoners’ confessions and celebrate Mass whenever someone could sneak in bread and wine.
One day, a prisoner escaped, and the guards announced that if he did not return, they would kill ten men in his place. When the prisoners were selected, one of them cried out, “What will happen to my family?” Maximilian stepped forward and said that he would take the other man’s place. He and the other men were led to a cell where they were not given any food or water. Instead of complaining and yelling, the guards and other prisoners heard the men singing hymns and praying the rosary. Maximilian died on August 14, 1941, the eve of the feast of the Assumption of Mary.
Francis Gajowniczek, the man whose place Maximilian had taken, survived the war and lived to be 95 years old. Every year on August 14, he returned to the cell where Maximilian had died, and prayed for his intercession. Francis was also there when Pope John Paul II made Maximilian a saint in 1982.
One of Saint Maximilian’s most famous acts is sacrificing his own life for someone else. Following his holy example, your family could declare this to be Sacrifice Day and have fun outdoing each other in acts of sacrifice for one another. Reward your saints-in-the-making with red and a white crowns at the end of the day!