When we mention or speak about offering our life, also with believers and practising people they react with feelings of embarrassment. Is the issue a delicate one? Are there proactive ambiguities? It is due to defence psychological mechanisms? Is it misinterpreted support? These are legitimate questions that can be clarified in the light of the Motu proprio “Maiorem hac dilectionem.” The document is not an acrobatic abstraction of canon law, or a triviality we could do without because nothing would change. In fact it is the outcome of an attentive observation of the overwhelming reality unveiling the need for a distinction, for it reposes on concrete grounds, on people who love Christ and thus love life and their own life. Yet they have been led by the Spirit to bestow their life at special moments, when they perceived the calling, that in their conscience became a transparent, impelling, light.
For the love of experienced history, we should look up to life of a saint whose example has no doubt been an impetus to make a distinction: Maximilian Maria Kolbe. His witness fully responds to the four criteria expressed and requested by the Motu Proprio.
The Franciscan priest was deported to Auschwitz on May 28 1941 and became nothing but a mere Stück, a numbered piece: 16670. One of the most dreadful works he was forced to was to transport the dead corpses. He was repeatedly beaten, his was a silent and passive resistance, standing as one with his deported companions. He also managed to celebrate the Eucharist twice, even though it was explicitly forbidden. The criteria is illustrated and demonstrated as follows c): “to practice, at least in ordinary degree, the Christian virtues before the offering of life and, then, until death.” At the end of July Kolbe was moved to Bloc 14 and was forced to harvest under the scorching sun, kept without food and subjected to psychological torture with the constant terror to lose his life. Ten prisoners were victims of the retaliation that followed the escape of a prisoner. They were closed in the hunger bunker: it meant certain death in the very short term. One of those convicted, Franciszek Gajowniczek, broke out in tears thinking of his family. That was when Maximilian felt the deep calling to offer his life and thus incarnated the criteria a): “Free and voluntary offering of life and heroic acceptance propter caritatem of certain death in the short term; link between the offering of life and premature death.” Unexpectedly the offering was accepted and the destiny of Kolbe was marked, for he had listened to the impetus of the Spirit to welcome the gift that the Gospel enshrines in one single verse: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15: 13), number 16670 was to suffer two weeks of unbearable agonies, without food nor water. It was a short yet extremely painful deadline that he was able to transform in a constant hymn filled with calmness and prayer. He died on August 14 after a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Such a step cannot be invented. No form of masochism can endure the certainty of such a terrifying death. Only the earlier life, spent listening to the Word, to helping others, was the fertile ground that germinated the seed of the gift asking to erupt in full blossom.
It is distinguished from martyrdom in that its spontaneity breaks away from reservations and attachments to life that every person comes up against when faced with death.
Hence it is not only acceptance, that some may describe as passive, of an ominously threatening reality. Instead it is a race, going forth with full determined clarity and pride. Not counting on oneself but releasing the moorings and setting the sail of one’s existence guided by the Breath that had been waiting to blow and give impetus. With an immediacy that responded to an immediate need. Many of our brothers and sisters have understood it. In all likelihood they wanted it, cultivated it as the seal of a life in which charity was already growing luxuriantly, but which still lacked the perfume of a selfless, free gesture, responding to whoever was in danger. Only an earlier formation, experienced at a deep level, can act as a thrust on this martyred life, in its etymological meaning of witness, but distinguished by martyrdom in its very rapidity. Like a blade of light that cuts through a dark moment in history to transfigure it into a single moment in which charity shines in full.