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March 01, 2024   |   Tagged Motivation,

The Polish Priest who Chose Joy in Difficulty

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter trials of various kinds, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4

When I encountered trials growing up, I often thought, “Why me?” and sometimes felt envious of those who were not having trouble. Other times when I encountered difficulty, I felt I had somehow brought the hardship on myself. I felt guilt during difficulty-- shame, discouragement, or fear. I never felt delighted.

Then one day during a particularly difficult time in my life, I happened to read the story of a Polish priest named Father Kolbe. He had been imprisoned for resisting the Nazis and placed in a concentration camp. Everyone in the camp knew and loved Father Kolbe. He was often singing, praying with those in need, or offering his bread to others. During his time in the camp, a fellow prisoner attempted to escape. As punishment, the Nazis would randomly select 10 men to send to a bunker without food or water until they died. The guards preferred this punishment because the bunker would reverberate throughout the camp with the sounds of screams and suffering men, thereby discouraging any further attempted escapes.

As the guards began to select men for the starvation bunker, one man, Franciszek Gajowniczek, was randomly selected to die. He immediately began to beg for his life, crying out and pleading that he had a wife and child he had promised to return to. Father Kolbe immediately recommended to the guards that he be selected instead. He quickly rationalized that Franciszek was a strong and powerful man and could still do manual labor while he was old. The guards made the trade, Father Kolbe exchanged his place with Franciszek and was marched to the starvation bunker.

The camp prisoners were crushed. Father Kolbe had been a leader of joy and hope for them. They waited in anguish for the terrible sounds to arise from the bunker. Instead, every night they heard the men singing led by the voice of Father Kolbe. After 10 days, Father Kolbe was still alive, the police entered the bunker to find him praying and holding men who had died in his arms. He was killed by lethal injection 2 weeks after entering the starvation bunker. Father Kolbe met the difficulties he faced with prayer and singing. His leadership inspired others to continue to live with dignity, power, and compassion even in the worst of human suffering.

I thought often about how in my difficulties, I can be self-focused, mesmerized by my own struggles. Father Kolbe offered me an alternative response to suffering.

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