The story was simple and appealing. Martin Savidge of CNN, inside Iraq with a Marine contingent, was overwhelmed and close to tears. When Savidge offered them a chance to call home, something none of them had been able to do for weeks, they declined, begging Savidge to extend the offer instead to their sergeant who hadn’t spoken to his pregnant wife for three months. Then they wanted to call the family of their buddy who had been killed in action. Savidge could not convince one Marine to indulge himself with a call to his own family, and the television reporter broke down, on camera.
“Where do they get men like this?” he sobbed.
Well, it didn’t happen. The story turns out to be another urban legend of the war. Yet, so many people repeated it that even the Wall Street Journal had to run a correction. It sounded true enough — Marines are indeed good men, and their culture is selfless and disciplined. And television reporters, who live on another planet, do come from a media culture totally absorbed in self-indulgence. If real people, especially Marines, manage to bring them to tears, it’s probably a good thing.
Reading about this during the Easter season, I was reminded of another story, of another life from another war. This one is true.
Maximilian Kolbe was a Catholic priest. He was very devoted to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. In fact, “Maria” was his middle name. After spending years in Japan as a missionary, he returned to his native Poland, and worked as a priest during the Second World War. He founded and directed a huge publishing operation that distributed spiritual works to millions of people. For this he was arrested more than once by the Nazis, who eventually sent him to Auschwitz. There he ministered secretly to his fellow prisoners.
In the summer of 1944, a prisoner escaped from Kolbe’s unit, and the Commandant announced that he would execute ten men as a punishment. The guards began to select those who would die, among them a Polish sergeant. The man began to cry, because he had a large family and he feared they could not survive without him.
As they were led away, Father Kolbe approached the Commandant and quietly volunteered to take the place of the condemned man. The Commandant asked why. “Ich bin Priester,” Kolbe replied. Hearing this, Commandant Fritsch allowed Maximilian Kolbe to replace the sergeant. Father Kolbe joined the other prisoners in the underground cell in the middle of the camp, where they were left to starve to death.
Inspired by this holy man, the prisoners all sang and laughed, until they died, one by one. After two weeks, however, Father Kolbe, was still alive, and the cell was needed. So he was injected with carbolic acid, and finally died on August 14, 1944.
Saint Maximilian Kolbe was canonized in Rome on October 10, 1982. Hundreds of thousands attended the Mass, including Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek, whose place Father Kolbe had taken so many years before at Auschwitz.
Pope John Paul II began his homily with these words:
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Where do they get men like this?
Christopher Manion [send him mail] writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.