Tag Archives: Christine Valentine-Owsik

Late bloom in Mary’s garden

For many of us, life can take on a faded pallor in the absence of our moms. But there’s one lesson Mom imbued well – never forget the rosary. Pray it, no matter what. There’s no protection, intercession, and advocating like Mary’s.

Did we take it to heart? Not so much. We saw Mom as a zealot without the social calendar we had. She insisted we say the rosary as a family before dinner. My brother and I would glare at each other, eying the chilling meat and vegetables, like they were slow-torturing us. We’d bark the repetitions, stare at the ceiling, and sigh obnoxiously when it was finished. In hindsight, I realize that we hurt our mother, and we hurt Our Lady. But like the best Mother, she would patiently await our maturity… even if it might take decades.

Thankfully, those seeds ran deep and have re-germinated after Mom and Dad have gone.

Now to be fair, we were immersed in the ‘70s lifeis-good attitude in the Church, where devotions like the rosary were often shelved. They didn’t fit our demeanor, Motown cars, and bell bottoms. We went to Doobie Brothers concerts and the guitar Mass on Sundays. No rosaries there.

And we didn’t get strong foundational teaching on the rosary, even in Catholic school – like why the rosary exists, where it came from, and why it is so supernaturally remarkable. We just thought Mom and Dad were like cultish European streetprocessors, trying to turn us into fanatics. When friends knocked at the door, we’d grab the ministatues, prayer books, and rosaries, ram them into a drawer, and run straight out.

We escaped all right … not yet seeing the abyss.

Lesson time. We enrolled our eldest in the parish school, and in first grade he came home with a reminder. “Look, Mommy; we made rosaries,” he said, pulling the blue-crystal strand from his pencil case. “Would you say it with me?” It had been 15 years since I’d said a rosary, and had forgotten entirely. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” he continued, “we have rosary booklets, too.”

I thumbed through, struck by the meditations and gorgeous art-renderings of Christ’s face, Mary as mother, and the Holy Family. I was heartsick … it came flooding back, those evenings praying as a family. He watched me with his wide brown eyes, waiting.

God lets our children rework our heart when it needs some reconstruction. And so I began again.

I read St. Louis de Montfort’s The Secret of the Rosary and other books, and realized my parents were right-on – there are amazing promises from Our Mother on her rosary. I researched her 13th-century apparitions to St. Dominic, why she introduced him to the rosary, and her promises for each person, the Church, and the world. So incredible was this protective Mother whom Christ has gifted to us.

The rosary has reordered my daily life. It’s the greatest anti-stress treatment, and my appeals are often answered before I put them into words. ‘Bring flowers of the rarest’ to our sweet Heavenly Mother. And a rosary in gratitude for our incredible mom.

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK  is Legatus magazine’s Editor.

Party of human respect

The inclination toward human respect – to be well-regarded by others – starts as soon as we’re conscious of social order, probably after infancy. But it can become dangerous quicksand upon which to make real assessments. Like many enticing mirages of life, just when we think there’s predictable stature, it proves defective and fickle, never really there … ultimately swallowing everything in its vortex.

Christine Valentine-Owsik

Lessons in human respect are never easy. And many of us get our first smack-downs while still young.

In sophomore year of high school in the late 70s, I hatched the horrifying idea to ask a popular senior football player to our formal class dance. He had David Cassidy hair and arresting blue eyes, with All-Catholic team awards to feed his prowess. He was at all the right parties, and barely recognized me at the bus stop.

I was at none of those parties, clumsy athletically, and only played tennis. I did unpopular other things – studied piano, worked to make honor roll, and wrote for the school paper. But I longed to sample that “other” crowd, even for just this dance. They spent lots of time carousing at the Jersey Shore, having great unchaperoned fun – while we had hell to pay for coming in 10 minutes late, or not putting gas in Mom’s station wagon.

Time to make the dreaded call. I dialed his number scores of times before forgetting to hang up. Terrifyingly it rang, as my heart crashed like a timpani drum. His mother answered and passed him the phone. Sputtering the invitation, I heard nothing. He hesitated, then sighed, “Yeah, I guess so.” He didn’t ask the date or details, just hung up. I should have been insulted, but was euphoric.

I was getting in over my head. Ignoring instinct, I told my friends the next day. Then, like a tsunami, the alpha party girls rushed me at lunch. “He would have gone with anybody – he’s just a nice guy.” He is? For months I was assaulted with their putdowns. But I made my dress, disregarding all signs of blunder.

“What parties are we going to?” he muttered the week of the dance. He expected cool gigs as part of the deal. A scary new predicament: I wasn’t invited to any. The night of the thing, he arrived late with another couple in the car, forgot my flowers, and had to contend with my father. After chastising him, Dad took a few pictures and told him when to have me home. It went from bad to worse. He didn’t talk, drank a trunk-load of beer, and hardly danced. I fought hot tears for hours.

I was out of my element, and longed to be back at home. Isn’t much of life like this? We compromise self-respect for illusory ideals … and it all becomes crushingly clear.

Fast-forward to another guy from high school whom I married, Joe — with tropical blue eyes, All-Catholic athleticism, sacrificial gentleman to the end. It was his idea to care for Dad in the twilight of his life. He embodied real respect, and I’ve appreciated the blessing to this day.

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.

When Truth is crucified

As America tries to assimilate another school shooting in Florida, the uncomfortable question is: why wouldn’t such things happen when education and social structures teach that truth and morality are fluid? Who dictates what is right, wrong, tolerated or not? Someone could claim logical reasons for it, such as anger, retaliation, depression, or under privilege.

Christine Valentine-Owsik

But killing people at random is wrong, we say. Says who?

Modernity has deemed it a choice to take certain lives – pre-born, defective, diseased, elderly, unproductive, or dying. Why not other lives?

Society is at its desperation point, because it cannot agree on truth anymore. What’s worse, there’s no consistent agreement on consequence when laws (once based on agreed-upon truth) are violated. Do perpetrators get punished — or affirmed?

“There is no love – no charity – without truth, just as there is no real mercy separated from a framework of justice informed and guided by truth,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia a few weeks ago in his CatholicPhilly.com column, “Charity, clarity, and their opposite.”

Truth is conformity of the mind with reality, St. Thomas Aquinas says in his SummaTheologica. Then who determines reality, and establishes norms for conformity and behavior, and delineations of infraction and injustice?

For order to reign interiorly and societally there must exist objective, unchangeable Truth in reality. And there Is.

But this Truth has long since been banished from some churches, schools (even certain Catholic ones), workplaces, family gatherings, and other settings. So why would people assent to it?

Pontius Pilate didn’t recognize Truth, either, even when it stood right in front of him. Against his own judgment, he permitted condemnation of an Innocent – to please the crowd (Mark 15:15).

Pilate capitulated to human respect and political ambition. He crucified Truth.

And so it goes. Truth is subjugated to man’s whim.

About 35 years ago in an early-morning college class, our elderly anthropology professor interrupted his lecture, commanding a student to “take the superstition off” around her neck. She dropped her pen and hesitated, as she fingered the gold crucifix. In disbelief she glared at him. “I mean it!” he screeched bizarrely. “None of that will be tolerated in this class!” And she complied.

My pulse raged as my throat burned. I wanted to defend her, but didn’t know how. An aspiring journalism student, and I couldn’t muster a word.

For years, I carried the shame of my silence like a hot coal.

There’s a high price for asserting Truth— especially amid punishing opposition – but a higher price for remaining silent. Today’s confused society is living proof. “No truth can really exist apart from Christianity,” said Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman.

It comes down to whether we will accept the risk in persevering for that Truth.

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.

Why marry in the church?

Today, only 25 percent of those identifying as “Catholic” marry sacramentally in the Catholic Church. And within that segment, many don’t attend Mass, catechize their own children, or embrace spiritual order. Other adult Catholics who were raised in the faith, even married in the Church, concede to their kids skipping the sacrament of Holy Matrimony altogether in favor of indulgent alternatives. Education, comfort and opportunity have brought society a long way. But to where?

Christine Valentine-Owsik

The reason for sheltering marriage under the protective wing of Christ has been largely forgotten. Today, the divorce rate among Catholics is indistinguishable from society at large.

Except in a little nondescript town near Croatia – where there are no marriage breakups. A priest recently relayed their story in a sermon.

“The Cross of Christ has a special place in that town,” he said. “When a Catholic couple there stands at the altar to be married, the priest tells them ‘you have found your cross.’” The couple brings a special crucifix to the ceremony, the priest blesses it, and they keep both their hands upon it. They promise to be faithful to God and the precepts of the Church. They conclude by kissing the cross – not each other. Bringing the same crucifix back to their home, they give it a place of honor from that day on, to remember to go before Jesus for help with any problem.

Catholics have historically approached the sacrament of Holy Matrimony in earnest, vowed to embrace God’s will for their life and its direction, accept children willingly, and persevere through good times and bad. They couldn’t know all that might lie ahead, but they committed and trusted in God’s fortification.

He had good reason to create the First Couple in complementarity – male and female – and to validate their purpose from the beginning. “… male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…’” (Gen 1: 27-28). At the wedding feast of Cana, the bride and groom invited Christ and His mother as honored witnesses – and were helped immediately – even miraculously – in their need before thinking to ask their esteemed Guest for it (John 2: 1-12).

This circles back to why marrying in the Church makes an interminable difference.

If man’s purpose is to align with God, bring others to Him, and live happily with Him in eternity, God will certainly assist spouses along their journey if He’s invited. Numerous studies over recent decades have shown that among the happiest and least-stressed of people are those who pray regularly and practice their Christian faith.

In Catholic faith-practice, Holy Matrimony is vital for a reason. Christ anticipates spouses’ need for His special grace and intervention – for themselves, and in raising their children. Through sacramental marriage, He blesses them. And when each remains faithful to Him, He channels what is needed, in good times and in bad, spiritually and temporally.

The Lord’s is the most important wedding invitation, and His gift is beyond compare.

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.


We each build our own bridge

It has been said that death is the most important thing in life. How we die – the state of our soul at that critical instant, and the moral choices that affect it – is the only thing we can ultimately control. Everything else in life – worldly successes and failures, reputation, vocation, family, health, business, friendships – is not fully in our grasp to engineer exactly as we want.

Christine Valentine-Owsik

The beginning of each year dazzles with new possibilities. New ventures are sought, relationships pursued, improvements planned, so much beckons on the horizon.

It can be a shame to confuse distraction with destination.

When St. Thomas More was approached shortly before his beheading by those encouraging him to acquiesce to King Henry VIII’s demands for a sanctioned divorce and pretend to set aside his deference to Catholic teaching, Thomas simply said: “The way we die is in our own hands.”

Our purpose is to be ready for that heroic moment. The second our soul departs our body, we are met by God on how we handled what He taught and provided us, then are awarded our eternal destiny. And even though He is the final arbiter, we had a lifetime to affect the decision.

It begs the question on how we spend our time and resources, and what comprises top priority. Life can be short or long, well lived or not, valued or cheapened, taken seriously or flippantly.

On a recent morning after Mass, I watched two trench-coated men enter the church to arrange for a funeral. They set up two easels for holding picture-boards of the deceased, whom I saw was a striking young man in his 20s, about the age of my sons … handsome, athletic, with a pretty girlfriend, plenty of social life, everything seemingly going for him. I slid closer to study the photos – he attended a prominent college, had a nice car, and there seemed to be many good times and parties. Life was good.

Then the funeral director placed a small burnished urn on a table between two tall sprays of lilies. Wow, and there he is. I wondered what happened to him, and asked the usher. “He was in a horrible car accident a few nights ago, several were killed instantly.”

His attractive parents walked to the front of church, stunned and tearful. His mom looked at the urn and deftly reordered the flowers, then put both hands over her face and shook. The stark reality of death – like being burned in a fire – peels away layers of protective artifice to reveal our raw longing to know what happens after this life.

“Death is nothing to be feared when we keep ourselves always prepared,” a priest once told me. I’d never thought of it like that, but began to. “Live every day, every hour, like it may be your last,” he advised.

St. Alphonsus Liguori, one of the great doctors of the church, said “time is as valuable as God Himself.” Our soul is our most valuable asset – it’s our bridge to eternity. How we invest in it and preserve its worth is our most important ongoing decision.

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.

Christ’s radical advent into our lives

The bold person of Christ – born to earthly parents and into a family, in a cold cave, embracing menial labor, injustice, and exemplifying Truth — is radical indeed. He didn’t recoil at the Father’s will for Him. He didn’t apologize, capitulate or pursue ease. He also didn’t ostracize the affluent, successful or prominent, a few of whom were among his close friends. He simply asked each to be true to God’s calling, and to reject duplicity.

Christine Valentine-Owsik

Likewise He didn’t extol poverty as virtue … but being poor in spirit. Contrary to the misnomer, money isn’t the root of all evil – love of it is. “For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Therein lies the rub.

People view leaders as privileged, powerful and above the fray. What they may not discern is a good leader’s autonomy of mind, loneliness through perseverance, and contention with flattery and betrayal. And if a leader stands on moral integrity, he can be more isolated still.

Each person eventually comes to his fork in the road: to enjoy the approved way, or brave the other way. The catalyst isn’t stature or affluence, but rather his condition of heart — the conviction to use God-given gifts for Godly purpose. ‘Worldlings’ prefer their own ends, at least initially, figuring maybe they’ll determine reality of God later. I did.

Colleges and mass media have indoctrinated generations of women — and men — to make their secular marks before ‘wasting time’ married with children. It crept into movies of the ‘30s — emaciated flappers smoking, drinking and doing the Charleston with emasculated married men. Satan’s ‘I will-not-serve’ mantra morphed into a slick modern equivalent – women were enticed to ‘control’ their destiny, and take advantage of irresistible ‘fruits’ to sideline parenting, avert marriage, and stockpile for retirement and traveling. It became trendy to disparage men and husbands, spend freely and covertly, and declare immunity to unenlightened traditions. One of my long-ago clients, a prominent Philadelphia plastic surgeon, said that childbirth ‘trashes a woman’s body.’ I was tasked with communicating the mega-practice’s reconstructive and aesthetic-reconfiguring procedures, and remember thinking, what am I promoting?

We were married only 13 months when our eldest son, Andrew, was born. He would enliven my soul. I longed to be home with him rather than chasing a morning train. I’d have to disentangle, and it wouldn’t come easily. God sped up the process – the ad agency had financial trouble and several of us got blindsided out. It was an early Christmas gift. I had opportunity to stumble upon EWTN. Who was this feisty Italian nun, Mother Angelica, who talked about her temper, food, and impatience like my relatives did? I loved her. One Sunday, our priest sermonized on popular modern sins, all of which I’d seen previously as ‘innovations.’ I was thrown from my horse, and had to clear the scales.

Then I realized…many like me might appreciate this Truth. It was stunning, yet magnetic and liberating. If I’m in communications, I thought … time to get to work.

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.


Envy can leer from strange corners

“He got a raise that’s better than mine.” “I deserve more benefits.” “They have an unfair advantage which makes our jobs harder.” “You’re lucky you landed that position [interview] [award] [opportunity] [spouse][family] [golf score].” Sound familiar? Resentments involving status, liberality, ability, esteem – even character – are as old as time.

Christine Valentine-Owsik

An odd sting in extending hospitality or altruism – whether on a broad scale or one-on-one – is often the bitter chill from others who compare themselves to the benefactor or recipient. Even accomplished peers with similar breadth of experience in business, education, and hardknocks can bristle at a junior colleague’s integrity or distinction.

Take a peek. A subordinate invites several supervisors to his home for a Christmas party. He earns considerably less than they do, but he and his wife enthusiastically spend weeks planning the menu, cocktails and music. His children dress nicely, help serve, and hang coats. His wife cooks everything, splurges on fresh flowers, and presents each guest a handmade ornament. He even obliges their requests to play some sing-a-long carols on the piano. Several guests comment on what fun it all is, the delicious food, and attractive holiday decor. A few others take note and utter not a word. They don’t sing, either. What’s up with that?

“Are you envious because I am generous?”

In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16), the Lord – personified as the vineyard owner – receives complaint from the day’s first-workers about late-hires receiving the same wage as they did. The owner doesn’t apologize for his generosity or affluence – but instead asks them if they’re envious because of it! He throws more fuel on the fire, declaring, “Am I not free to do as I please with my own money?” Wow, right? It’s always confounding that he didn’t instead dock them without any pay for their impertinence and ingratitude. The firstworkers weren’t just envious of others receiving what they did, but of the owner’s incredible beneficence. His virtue exposed their lack of it.

It is evident that some get more – and different – gifts than others. No two journeys or ‘benefit packages’ are alike, temporally or spiritually. In contrast to the renewed push for wealth redistribution now (we called it “communism” back in the day), God’s plan involves lots of inequality – in physical traits, health, prosperity, athleticism, intelligence, and affability – as well as in weaknesses and problems. We take the hand we’re dealt … and we deal with it.

Distress at another’s excellence – especially in virtue – is the worst sort of envy, said the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J. “It is the envy of sanctity,” he said, “and Christ – along with many prefigures in salvation history – suffered it repeatedly.” The fallen angels envied their Maker, Satan envied the First Couple’s happiness, Cain envied Abel’s pureheartedness, Saul envied David’s prowess, Herod envied Christ’s moral superiority, even Pilate envied Christ for His burgeoning leadership influence.

Emulating and honoring the Great Benefactor remains the ultimate incentive, however, for sharing every good gift, no matter the earthly cost or sacrifice in human regard.

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.

Columbus – apostle to the Americas

It is dizzying to endure the popular disdain for Christopher Columbus. The discoverer of the New World was a devout Catholic, as many historians and the Holy See have attested. Columbus’ decisions and behaviors were greatly influenced by his desire to honor God. But that isn’t what we hear.

Christine Valentine-Owsik

Time to shine some light on forgotten reality.

In the 1870s, a number of Fathers of the First Vatican Council proposed Columbus’ canonization – not only because he introduced Christianity to the New World, but because of his character and virtue. Imagine that. Many simply will not – and ride the pop-train of malignment, touting Columbus as a hater with inexcusable sin.

The life of a culture is intertwined with its history, not in denying it. Columbus’ discovery is indeed extraordinary, but opening up two American continents to Christianity has been called the greatest evangelistic feat since the days of St. Paul. Perhaps that’s the real ‘problem.’

He was a man of deep piety – attending daily Mass at a convent chapel in Italy, where he met his first wife, Donna Phillipa. She died within two years of marriage, after giving birth to their first son, Diego. This caused Columbus tremendous grief; though he was only 30, all his hair turned gray. Ten years later he married again, to Donna Beatrix Enriquez of Spanish aristocracy. Their only child, Fernando, was born the following year in 1488.

Here’s where some historians bungle the threading. A Spanish librarian found a copy of Columbus’ last will wherein he designated a pension for Beatrix, “mother of his second son, Fernando” … which Columbus then says is “for the relief of my conscience.” The librarian presumed Beatrix was his concubine. This sloppy attribution catalyzed other animosities – upon which hostile writers and biographers have feasted since.

Columbus was a third-order Franciscan tertiary, taking Franciscan friars with him on his voyages. He went to confession regularly, had love for the Real Presence and had devotion to Mary. His shipmen maintained daily prayer, and his son Fernando noted specially: “He was so strict in matters of religion…that he might have been taken for a member of a religious order.”

Then there are Columbus’ own writings. His Book of Prophecies, scarcely mentioned by biographers, was begun in 1502 after his third voyage to America. He cites Scripture at length, following God’s will, and extending Catholicism afar. In 1491, one year before discovery of America, Spain was finally liberated from 700 years of Muslim domination – and Columbus’ voyage-journal reveals his aim to surpass Islam with spread of Christianity.

As early as 1493, he wrote to the Royal Treasurer of Spain, calling discovery of the New World a great victory – but not in the typical sense. Rather, Columbus says: “Since our Redeemer gave this victory to our most illustrious King and Queen … it is fitting for all Christendom to rejoice … and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity … for the great exultation it will have and the turning of so many peoples to our holy Faith.”

Hail Christopher Columbus, sir. 

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.

Early wonder years in Catholic school

Forty-nine years ago this month, I put on an itchy wool-plaid jumper, beanie, blazer, maroon knee socks and regulation oxford shoes to venture out to the bus stop — alone — for my first day at Sacred Heart School in southern New Jersey. Back then, our pastor could waive the kindergarten requirement if parents made the case that we were ready for first grade. Mom lobbed a convincing pitch.

Christine Valentine-Owsik

An exasperated nun rushed down the school’s iron steps waving, her full black habit billowing in the rainy wind…the bell had rung and everyone was inside. “Are you Christine Valentine?” she barked, mispronouncing my last name to rhyme with my first. I flinched as she pointed me to her classroom. I didn’t know how to address nuns or what was expected. I sensed I’d be learning PDQ.

A stack of new books was on every old desk, and Sister Julia hustled me to my seat. She began reviewing numbers out loud, asking each row to count upward in unison. I had no idea. Suddenly we were on to identifying colors, with her pointer slapping large color-circles above the blackboard. Again, no idea. Everyone knew I was out of sync — they were giggling and side-glancing.

But I caught on. By November, I knew the alphabet, colors, numbers, telling time, basic prayers, printing, and simple reading — and began cursive writing, which seemed like personalized art. What Sister Julia didn’t realize about me was, I wanted to learn and had looked forward to school. I tried hard to win her over. We knew our parents wouldn’t respond to school complaints — we had to sink or swim.

I remember Sister teaching us our first Bible story about Adam and Eve. She hung a giant Bible reader above the board, and with her pointer, had us read the large words aloud. I was transfixed — these two people listened to a snake and ruined life for everyone over an apple? I was enthralled with the artwork — flowers, brooks, animals, fruit groves and angels — and secret gardens. It began an enduring curiosity in me about the nature of God and of people, how things came to be — and what’s in store ultimately.

There were years with congenial teachers, and with tough ones. We were taught to obey, adapt and keep going. Our individual hang-ups were not paramount — the teacher was. Her priorities became ours, but we were always accountable. We respected authority, even if we didn’t relish or agree with it. It prepared us for responsibilities of all sorts.

We learned more than we realized. Life is demanding, people aren’t always affable, and their expectations not always comfortable. Every day has its duties, bright spots and disappointments, and we were held to a disciplined regimen. But in that old stone Catholic school with no air conditioning, cafeteria or gym, we had order, safety, and something more. We went to weekly Mass, received sacraments regularly, had parish priests guest-teaching our class, jump-roped with the nuns, and learned our place … for now and later.

I look back on those fledgling Catholic school days with great gratitude. We got so much — solid girding of faith, durable work ethic, lessons in perseverance, obedience, and humility. Pearls for a lifetime.


CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.

A saint’s place in Auschwitz

Last fall during a European road trip, my husband Joe and I visited Poland as we meandered through several countries, from Italy into Eastern Europe.

Christine Valentine-Owsik

A frightening border-stop from Austria into the Czech Republic was an odd foreboding. From nowhere, a police-guard screamed, “PULL OVER!” demanding our papers and destination. Rifle in hand, he leered in at us, then languished checking with his ‘authorities.’ He’s got all our I.D., I thought. “GO ON!” he finally shrieked, shoving our papers back. We sped off like refugees.

Settling in at the Czestochowa Shrine in southern Poland, a priest- friend there suggested we consider a day trip to nearby Auschwitz. “You really shouldn’t miss it,” he said.

We hesitated at visiting the stunning WWII death camp we’d only glimpsed in documentaries. But we felt drawn to go. Joe’s grandparents were from Poland. We would get a close-up of the war-plight of those not lucky enough to have left – like our families had – before the horrific holocaust.

As we drove down the Polish highway on that overcast October day, little green signs for ‘Oświęcim’ (town where Auschwitz camp is located) repeated a creepy graphic. We felt a mounting reticence.

We parked, forgot about lunch, and walked the gravelly mud path toward the curved-iron “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) entrance archway. I hated that sign. Clusters of visitors lumbered among the maroon-brick buildings spiked with ominous chimneys. No one spoke and no birds were heard in the lush treelines – only crunching footsteps in an icy drizzle. Was it like this as they’d shuffled toward their fate?

Going into the starvation block where Polish priest and martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe was put to death in August 1941, we descended narrow concrete steps toward his cell containing a tall candle beside an etched bronze memorial, with one red rose on the floor. We were frozen in time.

When SS guards had randomly chosen 10 prisoners to die as ‘payment’ for three escapees, one chosen cried out, ‘My wife! My children! What will they do?’ Forty-seven-year-old Maximilian stepped forward saying, ‘I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.’ The Nazi commandant laughed, then acquiesced and returned Franciszek Gajowniczek to his place. Gajowniczek later recalled: ‘I could only thank him with my eyes.’

Fr. Kolbe was thrown down these concrete steps, to starve in this dark airless cell for two weeks. The entire time, he encouraged his nine cellmates with Christ’s teachings, and they were heard in loud prayer, rosary and singing, which neighboring prisoners also joined. Bruno Borgowiec, a janitor eyewitness of Kolbe’s last days recalls: ‘…Their fervent prayers resounded in all the corridors of the bunker. I had the impression I was in a church.’

Kolbe survived the longest, after which one of the SS guards remarked: “This priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him.”

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.