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If St. Maximilian Kolbe offered his life to save a fellow prisoner, was he truly a martyr?


St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) died in Auschwitz when he offered to take the place of another man being sent with a group of prisoners to die of starvation. Certainly this was a saintly act, but was it martyrdom? Aren’t martyrs those who die for the faith?


The question of St. Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom was vigorously debated at the time of his canonization precisely because there was no indication that he was put to death out of hatred for the faith (odium fidei), the criterion for martyrdom. At the time of his beatification, St. Maximilian was considered a confessor and not a martyr. However, when it came time to canonize him, Pope John Paul II personally authorized naming him a martyr. His reasoning was that systematic hatred for the human person—such as that displayed by the Nazi regime—constitutes an implicit hatred for the faith. For more information on the controversy surrounding St. Maximilian’s canonization as a martyr, read the discussion of it in George Weigel’s Witness to Hope, his biography of John Paul.

There are other indications that in recent decades the Church has been developing its understanding of martyrdom beyond the traditionally strict criterion of odium fidei.

On April 24, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a letter to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in which he stated:

What has changed are the cultural contexts of martyrdom and the strategies ex parte persecutoris [on the part of the persecutors] that more and more seldom explicitly show their aversion to the Christian faith or to a form of conduct connected with the Christian virtues, but simulate different reasons, for example, of a political or social nature.

It is of course necessary to find irrefutable proof of readiness for martyrdom, such as the outpouring of blood and of its acceptance by the victim. It is likewise necessary, directly or indirectly but always in a morally certain way, to ascertain the odium fidei of the persecutor. If this element is lacking there would be no true martyrdom according to the perennial theological and juridical doctrine of the Church.

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