The Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time
Photo by Bob Culshaw (go HERE for info)
When he visited Canterbury Cathedral on the eve of Pentecost 1982, one of the things Pope John Paul II did was to pray with Archbishop Robert Runcie in a small semi-circular chapel lit with high stained-glass windows, not far from where St Thomas Becket was martyred, right at the easternmost end of Canterbury Cathedral. For a long time this was known as the Corona Chapel, having been the place where part of Becket’s skull was housed as a relic. By 1977 the Corona Chapel had been given a new name: “The Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time.” It honours those who have more recently given their lives in martyrdom.
A notice on the wall reads:
"Throughout the centuries
men and women have given their lives for Christianity.
Our own century is no exception.
Their deaths are in union with the life-giving death
of Our Lord Jesus Christ the Saviour of mankind.
In this Chapel we thank God for the sacrifice of martyrdom
whereby truth is upheld and God’s providence enriched.
We pray that we may be worthy of their sacrifice."
The change in designation took place following the murder of Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda by Idi Amin’s forces in 1977 As David Douglas says in Touchstone Magazine of December 2000, ". . . Plastic-sheeted pages inside offer brief biographical sketches of more than a dozen twentieth-century martyrs, among them the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the priest and hermit Charles de Foucauld. Two nuns, Edith Stein and Maria Skobtsova, are included . . .
"Without fanfare, in stained-glass stillness, the East Chapel transforms the beatitude, 'Blessed are those who are persecuted,' into lives of flesh and spilled blood . . ."
Today is when the Church celebrates the triumph of sanctifying grace in the life of Maximilian Kolbe, one of the martyrs commemorated in the east Chapel. Born in Poland in 1894, when he was just 12 years old Maximilian had a vision of our Lady offering him a white crown and a red crown. The white crown symbolized persevering in holiness, and the red crown symbolized accepting martyrdom. This devout boy accepted both! His first name was actually Raymond. He later took the name of Maximilian, an ancient Christian martyr.
He became a Franciscan priest and had a remarkable ministry of evangelization in Poland and Japan. Through his ministry so many young people came to know the Lord. But the darkness that spread across Europe during the 1930's gave rise to the Second World War, and on 17th February 1941 Maximilian, whose large following was greatly feared by the Nazis, had been arrested. In May of the same year he was transferred to the dreadful Auschwitz concentration camp where he devoted himself completely to caring for the other prisoners. His kindness, love and generosity became well known.
At the end of July one of the prisoners escaped. The commander was furious and ordered that ten prisoners should die in his place. The prisoners were lined up and ten picked out at random. The ninth one chosen, a young Polish soldier, broke down and asked for mercy on the grounds that he was married and had a young family to support. It was then that Maximilian stepped forward and asked if he could take the man's place. After giving the matter some thought, the commander agreed.
The ten condemned men were flung naked onto the concrete floor of an underground bunker and were left there to starve to death. The guards observed them through a peep-hole and could hardly believe what they saw. Frequently the condemned men were gathered around Father Maximilian. Sometimes they were joking, sometimes they were praying and singing hymns. The assistant janitor, an eyewitness of those terrible days, said that it was as though the cell in which the condemned men were held "had become a church."
Fourteen days went by, and death overtook the prisoners one by one. Father Maximilian was the last to die when a guard put and end to his agony with an injection of phenol.
Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose place Maximilian had taken, survived Auschwitz and the war. Later he said, "At first I felt terrible at the thought of leaving another man to die in my place. But then I realised that he had done this, not so much to save my life, as to be with the other nine in their last terrible agony. His nearness to them in those dreadful last hours was worth more than a lifetime of preaching."
Maximilian might have contented himself with giving those men encouragement and advice. If it had been allowed he might have visited them in their death cell. But his presence with them, sharing their dreadful ordeal meant more than anything else.
Maximilian's death began a healing work in many hearts. After the War he became a popular symbol of the cry for a renewed respect of basic human rights in Germany as well as in Poland. In church circles, people of both nationalities pressed for his recognition as a Saint. This eventually took place in October 1982 in St Peter's Basilica, Rome. The next day, Franciszek Gajowniczek and many other survivors of Auschwitz and similar concentration camps were present at a special service of reconciliation in which Germans and Poles prayed together and exchanged the greeting of peace with each other. Gajownizek died in 1995, a great-grandfather.
Like Jesus whom he served, Maximilian gave his life for others. Like Jesus, his very presence reassured all kinds of people that God was real and that he loved them in spite of all the suffering and pain in the world.
St. Maximilian's cell in Block 11 at Auschwitz
Patricia Treece, in A Man For Others quotes one of the prisoners who witnessed Maximilian offer himself in Franciszek Gajowniczek's place:
"It was an enormous shock to the whole camp. We became aware someone among us in this spiritual dark night of the soul was raising the standard of love on high. Someone unknown, like everyone else, tortured and bereft of name and social standing, went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him. Therefore it is not true, we cried, that humanity is cast down and trampled in the mud, overcome by oppressors, and overwhelmed by hopelessness. Thousands of prisoners were convinced the true world continued to exist and that our torturers would not be able to destroy it. More than one individual began to look within himself for this real world, found it, and shared it with his camp companions, strengthening both in this encounter with evil. To say that Father Koble died for one of us or for that person's family is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands. And on this, I would say, rests the greatness of that death. That's how we felt about it. And as long as we live, we who were at Auschwitz will bow our heads in memory of it as at that time we bowed our heads before the bunker of death by starvation. That was a shock of optimism, regenerating and giving strength; we were stunned by this act, which became for us a mighty explosion of light in the dark camp night . . ."
". . . For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall walk by your light . . ." (Isaiah 60:1-2)
The painting of St Maximilian at the Franciscan Church in Krakow