Today we celebrate the feasts of two twentieth-century saints, two twentieth-century martyrs, Father Maximilian Kolbe and Jonathan Myrick Daniels. They both died on behalf of others, protecting others. I usually don’t write about saints later than the tenth century, but these two men took the example of Jesus to heart and their stories are inspiring. This post is based on a sermon I gave last year on this date.
Most loving Father, whose Son Jesus Christ came to give his life as a ransom for many: Give us the grace, as you did to your servant Maximilian Kolbe, to be always ready to come to the aid of those in need or distress, not counting the cost; that so we may follow in the footsteps of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Maximilian Kolbe was born at Zdunska Wola near Lodz in Poland on January 8, 1894. His baptismal name was not Maxmilian, it was Raymond. His parents were devout Christians with a particular devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was a very religious household. His mother told a story of how Raymond was a mischievous little boy, stirring up trouble around the house. One day, after a particularly naughty act, his mother scolded him, and his behaviour took a radical change for the better. A few years later, when asked what had brought about such change, he said, "That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both." This dream affected the decisions he made for the rest of his life.
In 1907, Raymond and his older brother, Francis, entered a Franciscan seminary, seeking ordination and hoping to be accepted as Conventual Franciscans. He enjoyed his studies and discovered that he had a knack for military strategy. He was ready to abandon the idea of seeking ordination and become a military officer so that he could save Poland from the Russian oppressors. Just before he could tell his parents of his decision, his mother announced that, since her sons were in seminary she and her husband had decided to enter religious life. They became Franciscan Tertiaries. He decided not to upset his parents’ plans and gave up the idea of becoming a soldier. He became a noviciate in 1910 and took the name Maximilian. In 1912 he was sent to Rome to study for the priesthood. He was ordained a priest in 1918, and he returned to Poland the next year, where he founded and supervised a monastery near Warsaw, started a radio station and several newspapers and magazines, and also founded a seminary.
Between 1930 through 1936 he made several missionary trips to Japan, where he founded a monastery near Nagasaki, a Japanese newspaper, and a seminary. He had a lot of respect for Buddhism and Shintoism, and looked to find similarities between those faiths and Christianity. However, when he founded the monastery he didn’t build it on the side of the hill which was considered the proper side, according to Shinto beliefs. Many people thought that he had made a big mistake.
When the atomic bomb exploded on Nagasaki, the monastery was saved as the blast of the bomb hit the other side of the mountain.
He returned to the monastery in Niepokalanow in 1936. On September 13, 1936, the Germans had invaded and deported most of the inhabitants to Germany, including Fr. Maximilian, but they were all released by December 8. Fr. Maximilian immediately began to work to shelter some 3,000 Polish refugees, 2,000 of whom were Jews. He said, "We must do everything in our power to help these unfortunate people who have been driven from their homes and deprived of even the most basic necessities. Our mission is among them in the days that lie ahead." Fr. Maximilian and the friars housed, clothed, and fed the refugees, sharing everything they had with them. The community was under suspicion and watched constantly. On February 17, 1941, Fr. Maximilian was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Pawiak Prison. He had provoked his arrest by writing the following and publishing it in this newspaper The Knight of the Immaculate: “No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?" On May 25 of that year he was transferred to Auschwitz. He continued his priestly ministry even in prison, secretly celebrating the Eucharist for other Christians. In July, a member of the cell block he was in vanished, and the deputy camp commander chose ten men to be starved to death in Block 13 to deter further escape attempts (the body of the missing man was later found drowned in a latrine). One of the men selected cried out, lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place. He spent the time in Block 13 leading the men in singing and prayers. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe and three others were still alive. He was executed with an injection of carbolic acid on August 14, 1941. He was canonised on October 10, 1982.
O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels was born in Keene, New Hampshire, on March 20, 1939, to the family of a Congregationalist doctor. He was one of those brilliant, popular persons with many options, and he was torn about what to study, as he was interested in medicine, ordained ministry, law, and writing. He went to Virginia Military institute, where he graduated as valedictorian, and then went to Harvard to study English Literature. He wrestled with the meaning of life and death and vocation,and was questioning his faith after the death of his father and his sister’s extended illness that same year. In 1962 he attended an Easter service at the Church of the Advent in Boston, and he had a profound conversion experience. His doubt disappeared and was replaced with a conviction that he was being called to serve God. He entered the Episcopal Theological School (now EDS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1963, expecting to graduate and be ordained in 1966.
In March of 1965 he heard the televised appeal of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for volunteers to come to Selma, Alabama to work to secure the rights of all citizens to vote. He answered “yes” to this call. Daniels and several classmates left Cambridge for Selma on Thursday, only expecting to stay for the weekend, but Daniels and a friend, Judith Upham, missed the bus home, and were forced to stay longer. They realized how bad it most appear to those Civil Rights workers who were there full-time in Selma that these young people from privileged homes would come for the weekend and return to the relative safety of Cambridge, and became convinced that they needed to stay longer. They returned to Cambridge and asked for permission to spend the rest of the semester in Selma, returning in time to take their exams. Daniels stayed with a black family in Selma. Daniels devoted himself to integrating the local Episcopal church by bringing groups of young African-Americans to church, where they were usually scowled at or ignored. It was probably similar to what would have happened if a large group of Afro-antillano youth decided to attend services at St. Luke’s back in those days. In May he returned to Cambridge, took his exams, passed his exams, and returned to Selma in July to continue his work for the Summer. He helped assemble a list of Federal, state, and local agencies that could provide assistance to those in need. He also tutored children, helped poor locals apply for aid, and worked to register voters.
On August 13, 1965, Daniels and a group of 29 protesters went to picket whites-only stores in the small town of Fort Deposit, Alabama. They were all arrested and taken to jail in the nearby town of Hayneville. Daniels shared a cell with Stokely Carmichael. The next day five juvenile protesters were released, but the rest of the group was held for another six days, as they refused to accept bail unless bail was provided for everyone in the group. On August 20, they were released without transportation back to Fort Deposit. They were waiting alongside the road near the jail, and four members of the group: Daniels, a white Catholic Priest named Fr. Richard Morrisroe, and two teen-aged black protesters named Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey, decided to go down the street to Varner’s Grocery Store (one of the few local stores that would serve non-whites), to get some sodas. They were met at the door by Tom Coleman, an engineer for the state highway department and an unpaid “special deputy.” Coleman was carrying a 12-gage shotgun. There was a discussion, Coleman threatened the group, and then levelled his gun at Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Ruby down onto the ground and caught the full blast of the gun. He was killed instantly. The priest, Father Morrisroe, grabbed Joyce and ran. Coleman shot Father Morrisroe, too, wounding him in the lower back. Coleman was arrested and stood trial, but was acquitted by a jury of twelve white men, on the grounds of “self defense.” Coleman claimed that Daniels had a knife, which was highly unlikely as he had just spent a week in jail where, as you may know, one isn’t allowed any weapons, and those “special deputy” types certainly wouldn’t have allowed prisoners any weapons, especially a racially-mixed group like the group Daniels was in. No one else saw a knife and the police never found any weapon, but that’s what passed for justice in the Southern United States in those days.
It’s unfortunate that it took the murder of a white priest in training while protecting an unarmed teenage girl to shock the Episcopal Church into facing the reality of racial inequality, in which it had participated and supported in many ways; paying attention to the Gospel should have convinced them of the evils of racism from the start, but, change moves slowly in all churches. Daniels’ death did make it possible for the Civil Rights Movement to become important to the Episcopal Church as a whole and reminded Episcopalians outside of the South that the struggle and violence for racial equality would impact their lives, too.
Maximilian Kolbe and Jonathan Daniels both put the needs of others ahead of their own needs, giving their lives for others, just as their Lord and Master Jesus did for all of humanity. We honor them as saints because their lives are examples for all of us. They are examples of what can happen when we let the Holy Spirit direct our lives, examples of what may happen when we take the gospel imperative seriously, and when we realize that all of us are connected and children of God.