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Militant Saints: Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Jonathan Daniels, and the Marian Call

By Kenly Stewart

“We are beginning to see as we never saw before that we are truly in the world and yet ultimately not of it. For through the bramble bush of doubt and fear and supposed success we are groping our way to the realization that above all else, we are called to be saints. That is the mission of the Church everywhere. And in this Selma, Alabama is like all the world: it needs the life and witness of militant saints.”
— Jonathan Daniels

Every year on August 14, two martyrs of the universal Church are honored, Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Jonathan Daniels. Though Kolbe was Roman Catholic and Daniels Episcopalian, together they show, in our one Lord Jesus Christ, that there is unity in purpose, even amidst ecclesial disunity. The Virgin Mary, who is commemorated August 15 (transferred to the 16th in the Episcopal Church’s calendar this year), further connects them, for both had powerful experiences with Our Lady. Their heeding the Marian Call reminds Christians, especially Episcopalians and Anglicans, of her essential role to the Christian life.

Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan friar and priest born in 1894. In 1917, a year before his ordination, he founded the Knights of the Immaculata, and began publishing a monthly periodical of the same name in 1922. Kolbe established a monastery near Warsaw in 1927 called Niepokalanów or City of the Immaculate which served as the magazine’s publishing house, a place of devotion to Mary, and an important center for evangelization. It grew to include almost 800 friars. During the 1930s Kolbe embarked on numerous missions, including a lengthy period in Japan, founding another monastery in Nagasaki. It later survived the atomic bomb explosion, another momentous early-August event.

Kolbe moved back to Poland before World War II erupted. The invasion of his home country in 1939 devasted Niepokalanów, and the Nazis attempted to suppress Kolbe’s publications. Despite the danger, Kolbe used the monastery to house Jews and other refugees. A final printing of the magazine included this passage:

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?

Eventually, Kolbe was arrested in 1941 and sent to Auschwitz. Two months after he arrived a prisoner escaped. Ten prisoners were then selected to be starved to death in retaliation. Kolbe heard Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish army sergeant chosen, cry out, “My wife! My children!” He volunteered to take the sergeant’s place.

Dark, suffocating, and cramped, the starvation cell they were locked in can only be described as the lowest level of what was already hell on earth. Kolbe continued to exercise his priestly duties, praying with and comforting his fellow prisoners. After more than two weeks of no food or water, Kolbe was one of the few left alive. The guards grew impatient, so they gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid.

On October 10, 1982 Kolbe was officially canonized a saint and declared a martyr of charity by Saint Pope John Paul II.

Twenty-four years after Saint Kolbe’s martyrdom, Jonathan Daniels preformed another act of remarkable charity. Daniels was born in New Hampshire, graduated valedictorian of the Virginia Military Institute Class of 1961, and left a prestigious post-graduate fellowship at Harvard to pursue ordination into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. After brutal attacks on activists at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called on clergy to come south. Daniels, only 26 at the time, took a break from his studies to answer the call.

One of Daniels’s main goals was to integrate the local Episcopal church. He also tutored children, helped poor locals apply for assistance, and registered African American voters. The Voting Rights Act was passed eight days before his martyrdom. On August 14, 1965, Daniels and others were arrested while protesting discriminatory and segregated business practices in Hayneville, Alabama. All were arrested and spent six days in jail.

After being released and awaiting transport, Daniels, along with a white Catholic priest named Richard F. Morrisroe, and two African American female activists, Ruby Sales and Joyce Baileywent, went to get a drink from a non-segregated store. Thomas Coleman, a special deputy armed with a shotgun, refused them entry. The situation quickly turned violent when Coleman aimed at 17-year-old. Daniels pushed her out of the way as Coleman fired, caught the full blast of the shotgun, and was killed almost instantly. Joyce and Ruby were able to escape physically unharmed, but Father Morrisroe was severely wounded when Coleman shot him in the back (a tragic but additional ecumenical connection between Catholics and Episcopalians).

When Dr. King heard of Daniels’s death he said, “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels. Certainly, there are no incidents more beautiful in the annals of Church history, and though we are grieved at this time, our grief should give way to a sense of Christian honor and nobility.” An all-white jury acquitted Coleman of manslaughter. In 1991, the Episcopal Church designated Jonathan Daniels a martyr and established August 14 (the day he was arrested) as his feast day.

Both Kolbe and Daniels were directed on their journey toward sainthood through the Virgin Mary. Fitting then that their feast day comes on the eve of Feast of the Assumption for Catholics and the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Before his martyrdom, Kolbe was best known for advocating devotion to the Holy Mother and her Immaculate Conception. Well before he entered the priesthood this devotion was central to his life. In 1906, at the age of 12, Kolbe received a vision of the Virgin: “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.” One cannot help but think Kolbe found strength in this Marian Call while at Auschwitz.

The Marian Call also led Daniels to answer MLK’s request and travel south. Daniels recorded in his journal the moment he knew he must go to Selma:

I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. “He hath showed strength with his arm.” As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled “moment”… Then it came. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.

All Christians know we must emulate Christ’s sacrifice (Eph. 5:1-2). Unlike Kolbe and Daniels, most Westerners will not face martyrdom. Yet we must pick up our crosses daily (Luke 9:23) and provide solidarity with the broken and suffering, for we eat the body and drink the blood of a crucified Lord. One can easily get lost on this journey. Thankfully, we have a guide, Our Lady.

Kolbe and Daniels point us towards the one who first made Christ truly present, the Holy Mother. She whose Yes started the revolution that death could not stop, nor a tomb contain. From Bethlehem to Cana to the horror of Golgotha, she was there. The entirety of the Holy Mother’s life teaches us what it means to pick up our crosses and follow her Son with confidence that “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones (Luke 1:52).” All those who are called to be saints must listen, like Kolbe and Daniels, for the Marian Call.

The Marian Call beckons us to do nothing less than journey towards the cross. We will need sustenance on this journey (1 Kgs. 19:7) and a compass to help navigate stormy waters. Hence the absolute necessity of the ancient teachings, traditions, and sacraments of the Church. The entry on Daniels in Lesser Feasts and Fasts includes a reflection from him that captures this truth:

The doctrine of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were the essential preconditions of the experience itself. The faith with which I went to Selma has not changed: it has grown… I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection… with them, the black men and white men, with all life, in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout…We are indelibly and unspeakably one.

Kolbe and Daniels were ready to answer the Marian Call toward sainthood because they had dedicated themselves to “the essential preconditions of the experience itself.” In an age where many Christians think they must choose between a “progressive,” justice-oriented faith or an orthodox faith, these two martyrs follow Our Lady in revealing the falsity of this choice.

Kenly Stewart is member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Clinton, NC. He graduated from Campbell University and holds an M.Div. with a concentration in Episcopal Studies from Wake Forest University School of Divinity.


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