Kyle Eller: Getting a new middle name

I said in last week's column that it was going to be a big Easter for me. One of the reasons, which I kept to myself then, was that I was getting a second middle name.

I said in last week's column that it was going to be a big Easter for me. One of the reasons, which I kept to myself then, was that I was getting a second middle name.

Being accepted into full communion with the Catholic Church as a candidate -- someone already baptized in another Christian denomination -- a confirmation name is optional. I chose Maximilian, after St. Maximilian Kolbe. I thought I'd tell you a little about my new patron saint.

But first, about becoming a Catholic: by telling this story, I don't mean to pick a fight with my fellow Christians. This is not because I'm unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the Reformation battlegrounds -- I came from a serious Lutheran background in which a pastor literally once taught me the Pope is the Antichrist, so believe me when I tell you that I wrestled with all of the big issues about salvation, the saints, the Petrine ministry, the Bible, purgatory, confession, etc.

The reason I don't want to fight, and I choose the term carefully, is that I believe deeply in Christian unity; in fact, that's one of the reasons I became Catholic. I have always hated the divisions among Christians, and the Catholic Church, which I believe to be the church Christ founded, is committed to unity. I believe, with the Catholic Church, that by virtue of common baptism and living faith, I'm in real but imperfect communion with other believers, even those who don't wish to be in communion with me.

In these strange times in America, a unified Christian witness is needed -- for the defense of human life, human dignity, the family, justice and peace, perhaps for the defense of civilization itself. In light of the gathering storm, we need each other.


Unity, of course, eventually means unity in doctrine and ultimately in communion. To have chosen sides -- and switched sides intentionally, no less -- makes me a partisan. But I aim to be a gentle, irenic, friendly partisan whenever I can be. I cherish our common ground, our common mission and most especially our common Lord.

I'm thrilled to see hints of an emerging consensus on that. It's not just Catholics, for whom Pope John Paul II has called the ecumenical commitment to unity "irrevocable." On the Protestant side, evangelicals like Charles Colson are trying to bridge the gap. A recent poll on evangelicals shows that on average they hold the Pope in higher esteem than they do Protestant leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Even on doctrine, hopeful signs emerge. Catholics and some Lutheran bodies have signed a joint statement on justification, a thorny theological issue. A recent article in the Web site of the Protestant magazine Christianity Today had evangelicals rethinking Mary. Despite some obligatory jabs at Catholics, it showed a growing affection for that first Christian, the woman the Bible says all generations will call blessed.

But I promised to tell you about Father Kolbe.

A good start in explaining my choice is to mention that St. Maximilian Kolbe is a patron saint of journalists and the pro-life movement.

Some of the things he said also inspire:

"No one in the world can change truth," he once wrote. "What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?"

Another example: "The most deadly poison of our times is indifference. And this happens, although the praise of God should know no limits. Let us strive, therefore, to praise Him to the greatest extent of our powers."


But then there's his story. Father Kolbe was a Polish priest born in 1894. A wild child, he had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who asked him if he'd like to be a martyr or a saint. He said both. He first became a soldier, but he eventually heeded God's call to the priesthood, becoming a successful missionary. He worked particularly through his writing to spread the faith and battle atheism -- a magazine he started built a circulation of more than 1 million.

However, his writing in Poland did not prove so popular with the occupying Nazis, and he was arrested and taken to Auschwitz. There, he continued to inspire and uplift others, entreating prisoners to pray for their persecutors, refusing medical treatment until others were treated and secretly sharing his food rations, hearing confessions and holding Mass for others in the camp.

When a prisoner escaped from the barracks where Father Kolbe was held, the Nazi reprisal was that 10 men from that barracks would be starved to death. One of them, Francis Gajowniczek, begged to be spared for the sake of his family.

Father. Kolbe stepped forward and took his place, assuring his successful intervention by identifying himself as a priest.

An amazed clerk recorded the rest in detail. For two weeks, instead of the normal screams of agony emanating from the starvation chamber, only prayer and hymns were heard. At the end, the cell needed for other purposes, the four men still alive, including Father Kolbe, were killed by lethal injection.

The man he saved attended his canonization in 1982.

Maximilian is an unusual name in 2004, but this patron saint of the difficult 20th century is still needed, for his prayers and example, in the 21st. I hope to grow into this name for the faith, courage and charity it represents.

Kyle Eller is features editor of the Budgeteer News. Reach him at 723-1207.

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