We tend to hear about Maximilian Kolbe’s life in reverse order. First, we hear that he offered his life for another prisoner in a concentration camp. Then, we hear of his mission to reach all of Poland with his Marian spirituality through the Militia Immaculata. Last, we hear the childhood story of Mary offering him two crowns: Purity and martyrdom.
Ironically, that’s probably the right order. If we want to be saints, our life needs to follow a certain order: the choice, the call, the cross, the crown.
Comparing his life to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s offers a great example of how this works.
First comes the choice: I give my life to God, through others.
It was service to others that put Kolbe in the concentration camp to start with. After World War II started, Kolbe organized his monastery in Poland into a makeshift hospital. The Germans arrested him and soon sent him to Auschwitz. In prison he was beaten for giving the sacraments to his fellow prisoners.
On one occasion a prisoner escaped, and the merciless guards vowed that 10 others would starve to death in retaliation. When one of the 10 chosen to die cried out “But my wife! My children!” St. Maximilian offered to take his place, since he had no wife and children.
In isolation with the others, St. Maximilian still acted as a priest, leading the prisoners in prayer. After two weeks without food and water, everyone was dead except Kolbe. On August 14, the guards finished him off with a lethal injection. He was cremated on August 15, Feast of the Assumption.
Nothing so dramatic happened in the life of Elizabeth Ann Seton, but in early adulthood, she made the same choice that St. Maximilian made at the end of his life.
We all have a call to give our life for others, and Elizabeth responded again and again. She did it when she married William Seton, and she renewed her vow when he was sick and she accompanied him to Italy to heal.
He died there, and what Elizabeth described at his death bed was not unlike Maximilian Kolbe singing hymns in the starvation chamber:
“With God for our portion, there is no prison in high walls and bolts — no sorrow in the soul … though beset with present cares and gloomy prospects,” she wrote. “For this freedom I can never be sufficiently thankful…Often when [William] hears me repeat the Psalms of Triumph in God and read Paul’s faith in Christ with my whole soul, it so enlivens his spirit that he also makes them his own, and all our sorrows are turned into joy.”
We learn also that St. Maximilian’s dedication to the Mother of God led him to spread devotion to her across Poland.
A fellow seminarian reported of Kolbe, “He often said that he desired to consecrate this entire life to a great idea.” In 1917, he started the Militia Immaculata — a spiritual campaign dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Mary — saying, “I have a mission…the Immaculata has a mission to fulfill.”
Father Michael Gaitley, in his own apostolate of Marian consecration, makes the point that Kolbe’s work of spreading Marian devotion prepared the fertile ground that would later bear fruit in St. John Paul II’s pontificate and the Solidarity movement’s historic resistance to Soviet control.
Through Divine Providence, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s devotion to God accomplished great things as well, in America, through the charitable works of the religious communities she founded, and by planting the seeds of the Catholic education system.
She told her students, “Your little mother, my darlings, does not come to teach you how to become good nuns or Sisters of Charity, but rather I would wish to fit you for that world in which you are destined to live, to teach you how to be good mistresses and mothers of families.”
The parochial school system would go on to form generations of Catholic families nationwide.
Even the unique Marian spirituality of Kolbe — and Mary’s childhood promise of a crown — is echoed in St. Elizabeth Ann’s life.
St. Maximilian Kolbe’s Marian spirituality was of a piece with St. Louis de Montfort’s idea of total consecration to Mary, and St. John Paul II was a great devotee, adopting Totus Tuus — “totally yours, Mary” — as his papal motto.
Kolbe said he wanted “to be one in will with Mary of the great fiat,” when she said to God, “be it done unto me according to thy word.” Indeed, he taught that “It is this alignment of your will with his that is the pressing business of your life.”
After her conversion following her experience of the Church in Italy, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton became much more devoted to Mary.
As with Kolbe, one sees in her writing a reflection of the signature Marian devotion of Montfort. “Jesus delighted to receive our love embellished and purified through the heart of Mary, as from the heart of a friend,” she wrote.
But it is her words of appreciation for the Memorare prayer that presage Maximilian’s experience of the Blessed Mother.
As a boy, Maximilian was getting on his mother’s nerves one day when she shouted, “Raymond, what will become of you?” He was very much struck by the question, and asked the Virgin Mary herself, “Mother, what will become of me?”
He describes what happened next: “Then the Virgin Mother appeared to me holding in her hands two crowns, one white and one red. She looked at me with love and asked me if I would like to have them. The white meant that I would remain pure and red that I would be a martyr.” He accepted both.
Elizabeth never knew her own mother, who died when she was very young, but she too had a personal experience of her heavenly mother, Mary.
“My foolish heart so often lamented to have lost [my mother] in early days,” she said. “From the first remembrance of infancy I have looked in all the plays of childhood and wildness of youth to the clouds for my mother.”
One day in praying the Memorare prayer to Mary, “I felt really I had a Mother,” she said. “It seemed as if I had found more than her, even in the tenderness and pity of a Mother — so I cried myself to sleep in her heart.”
And after her canonization we can say that St. Elizabeth Ann received a crown of her own, as she basks in the glory of heaven with her queen, and, we hope, her own earthly mother as well.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
This reflection was originally published in August 2020.