We all like to think that, should the time ever come, we’d stand up for what we believe. ‘Standing up and being counted’ has not yet been devalued by our politicians as other phrases have (cf ‘the right thing to do’). Standing up and being counted is what we do when confronted by something we see as wrong, simple as that. It suggests plucky little David outfacing and ultimately overcoming Goliath. Today, however, the feast of St Maximilian Kolbe reminds us that the outcome isn’t always positive. Maximilian overcame evil and death, but only at the sacrifice of his own life. He volunteered to take the place of the condemned soldier and himself died an agonizing death from starvation, assisted at the end by a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Until his strength gave out, he tried to keep up the spirits of his companions by singing hymns and praying aloud. He was a priest until the last, a man for others.
When St Maximilian was canonized as a martyr I felt a little uncomfortable. Could he be said to have died in defence of the Faith? He was indeed a martyr of charity, but wasn’t it blurring the distinctions to call him a martyr tout court? I deeply regret the arrogance of my younger self. Maximilian Kolbe had many traits that I personally find unsympathetic (God does tend to make saints according to his own notions rather than mine), but can there be any better ‘defence’ of Christianity than to live according to its tenets under the most trying of circumstances? Maximilian’s death in that sweltering bunker was horrible; but it taught others how to live. He gave his life freely because Christ had given His life for him. And incidentally, he made one English nun rethink the way she views martyrdom.
Note: If you want to know more about St Maximilian, the Wikipedia article is not bad.