September 2013 Print

Book Review: A Twice-Crowned Knight

by Maria Winowska

Our Lady’s Fool

If all you know of the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe is the martyrdom he suffered at the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz, you know only a part of this saint’s amazing story.

A Twice-Crowned Knight, in the best tradition of hagiography, tells the story of a fool. A virtuous fool. An ambitious fool. An obedient and tenacious fool. In other words, it tells the story of one possessed of the qualities that make a saint.

Father Maximilian’s short life was nothing if not eventful. When he was ten, the Blessed Virgin appeared to him holding two crowns, a white one and a red one. “Choose,” she said. Choosing the white one meant he would always be pure; choosing the red one meant he would die a martyr.

The fool chose both.

From that point Raymond (as he was then called) was changed for good. “His heart,” as his biographer notes, “was captured forever” by the Blessed Virgin. Raymond joined the Franciscans at age 16, and at 18, owing to his exceptional abilities, was sent to Rome, where he witnessed the shocking scene of the Masons mocking the pope. That spectacle, which led him to found the Knights of the Immaculata to fight the agents of Lucifer, haunted him for the rest of his life.

Burdened with tuberculosis and migraines, and armed with two doctorates, Maximilian returned to Poland and set out to fight for Mary. What was his mission? Nothing less than to “conquer all souls for Christ, in the whole world, until the end of time, through the Immaculate.”

His weapon of choice was the printed word.

But if his health pestered him ceaselessly, his soul was beset by ridicule, skepticism, and name-calling—from his fellow Franciscans!

But there was no stopping Maximilian—not with Our Lady on his side.

With meager funds he and his growing community produced a modest monthly newsletter for the masses called The Knight of the Immaculate (eventually gaining a million subscribers), then a magazine for children, one for clergy, and a daily newspaper that beat secular papers in circulation numbers.

His little community of printer-friars continued to grow to the point where they needed new space. True to form, Father Maximilian not only left the matter to the Immaculate, he named the property for her: Niepokalanow. The City of the Immaculate was a state-of-the-art industrial complex that was home to 700 Franciscan religious, men whose fervent spiritual lives complemented their technically efficient approach to printing.

Had Father Maximilian’s story ended here, his life’s work would have been regarded as a huge success.

But a chance encounter with some Japanese students made him think of those poor souls all over the world who lived without Christ.

So he did what a saint does. With no money, no knowledge of the Japanese language, and no contacts in Japan, Father Maximilian received permission to set up another Niepokalanow on the other side of the world. Unsurprisingly, Japan proved a huge success: conversions and vocations abounded, and plans were made to establish a beachhead in India before the war clouds of the late 1930s delayed the move.

A Twice-Crowned Knight contains first-hand accounts of Father Maximilian’s remarkable courage and kindness towards other prisoners—and even the guards at Auschwitz, who mercilessly and sadistically beat and insulted him because he was a priest. He prayed for his executioners, comforted the sick and scared, heard confessions, and lifted the spirits of those suffering from despair. The narratives of him offering his life in order to save another’s, and his final days in the starvation bunker, make for riveting reading.

His executioners were forced to admit that they “have never seen a man like him.” No doubt St. Maximilian would have given all the credit to Mary.

Scott Quinn