Today is the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe who is also known as the Apostle of Consecration to Mary. During the Second World War, Kolbe sheltered many Polish Jews in his friary. In 1941, he was arrested and later transferred to the Auschwitz death camp as prisoner #16670. In July of that year, Fr. Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a man who had cried out, “My wife! My children!” when condemned to die. During his confinement in an underground bunker, Fr. Kolbe kept up the spirits of his fellow prisoners and remained a pillar of strength and calm. After all the other prisoners had died of starvation, Fr. Kolbe was executed and the following day–tomorrow–on the Solemnity of the Assumption into Heaven of his particular patron, the Blessed Virgin Mary, his mortal remains were cremated in the infamous ovens of the Holocaust.
This past weekend, we also celebrated the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born Edith Stein, a Jew, but later an atheist and ultimately a convert to the Catholic faith and a Carmelite sister. As a Jewish convert, she was removed to the Netherlands for her protection in the 1930’s. In 1942, the Dutch bishops issued a public statement condemning Nazism and its racist and anti-Semitic policies. In retaliation, Sr. Teresa Benedicta, her sister, and hundreds of other Jewish converts to Catholicism were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz where they were killed in the gas chambers immediately upon their arrival.
The Holocaust is a rare moment of moral clarity in all of human history. St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and millions upon millions more Jews and dissenters were slaughtered. Adolf Hitler vies with Judas Iscariot as the most evil person ever to have lived. Some seventy years later, we are again witnessing a moment of moral clarity. The jihadist fanatics of the Islamic State have perpetrated horrifying atrocities upon the Christians of Syria and Iraq and are engaged in a campaign of complete annihilation of ethnic and religious minorities like the Zoroastrian Yazidis.
Across the millennia, countless armies have criss-crossed the burning sands of the Mesopotamian deserts. The varying tribes and sects of the Middle East bear ancient grudges that go back to the time of the Babylonian Captivity and the Pass of Thermopylae and the conquests of Alexander the Great. In this part of the world, East and West have clashed over and over again. It can be tempting to dismiss the horrors of war which once again consume this region as yet another chapter in this long history of conflict, but in doing so we would ignore the seriousness of what is taking place. In the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of Western Civilization, pure evil is now taking root.
It is easy to say that war is so terrible that we must avoid it at all costs. War is the source of many evils, but war is not the worst evil. When innocent women and children are being starved on a mountaintop or hacked to pieces, when jihadists cheer as their children play with severed heads as trophies, when we see the black flag of death raised above the rubble and the cross of our eternal salvation torn down, we must act. The phrase, “global war on terror” was always a sort of abstract and unsatisfying notion, but now we see with perfect clarity exactly what is at stake. The Islamic State should be called the Caliphate of Jihad, because they seek permanent war against all unbelievers. Unless and until they are defeated, those who seek peace will never be safe.