Return of saints

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served,
but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Mark 10:45

Andrzej Bobola is one of the most popular Polish saints, the Martyr of Poland. He was captured by the Cossacks as a missionary during the Bohdan Khmelnytsky uprising, brutally tortured and finally murdered.

His remains were found miraculously intact in 1701. In October 1853 he was beatified by Pius IX, and in April 1938 canonized by Pius XI. After several adventures, even including some detours to the Soviet Union and Italy, his body was brought back to Poland in June 1938, and – just like the Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen, King of Hungary in the same year, the millennial of his death – carried around Poland in a special train.

In the Catholic Poland this was of course a great social event. The train stopped at many places, and thousands of the faithful made their pilgrimage to the coffin. A film report on the trip was made by the Polska Agenczyja Telegraficzna (PAT).

For the Faith and Fatherland

One cut was made at the station which in 1938 did not mean more than one of the princely titles of the Habsburgs.

Pilgrims at the railway station of Oswięcim (Auschwitz), with Bobola’s coffin in the foreground

Nearly three years later many Polish priests came back to this place, obviously not of their own accord. One of them was the former novice of Lwów/Lemberg and the later prelate, publisher of papers and operating radio stations, Maximilian Kolbe.

Maximilian Kolbe – the bearded figure on the left – in 1938. In the middle, President Ignacy Móscicki

On the first of August 1941, in retaliation for an escape, the camp commander sentenced to death ten captives, including the 40-year old Franciszek Gajowniczek, a former officer with two children. At the declaration of the sentence, Gajowniczek started sobbing: “What will happen to my children and my wife?” Hearing this, Kolbe volunteered to take over the death sentence. The ten prisoners were locked together in a bunker to be starved to death. For two weeks, continuous prayer and singing was heard from the bunker, where the captives gradually died. Two weeks later only the agonizing Father Kolbe was alive, who was finally killed by a lethal injection, on 14 August, just seventy-one years ago. His corpse ended in the crematorium, just like that of millions of others. In his agony, he engraved with his fingernail the crucified Christ on the wall of his cell.

Franciszek Gajowniczek

Maximilian Kolbe was beatified in 1971 by Paul VI, and canonized in 1982 by the Polish pope, John Paul II. Franciszek Gajowniczek took part at both events: he lived a wonderfully great age, and died at the age of 94.

A portrait of Maximilian Kolbe in Szombathely, Hungary