Jean Valjean, Maximilian Kolbe, & the Audacity of Mercy

This post is dedicated to Alicja Sitek & to each & every person from the Aquinas College group to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland (July 2016) & in loving memory of my baby brother Kolbe.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  ~ Matthew 5:7.

Or, if you prefer the Polish translation:

“Błogosławieni miłosierni, albowiem okażą miłosierdzie”. ~ Mateusza 5: 7.

I’m not afraid to follow a cliche occasionally (if it’s a useful one), so I’m going to begin by taking a look at Merriam Webster’s definition of this word, mercy:

Mercy: compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power;  lenient or compassionate treatment; a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion; compassionate treatment of those in distress.”

It’s not that Merriam Webster gets it wrong, it’s just that… it doesn’t get it quite right either. And me being me, I have something to say about that – hence, this post.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I find that I learn best from stories. Human beings have been telling & recording their stories practically since the beginning of time. Throughout the centuries, stories have been used as a means of communicating historical information, wanderings of the imagination, the wide spectrum of human emotion, & some of the greatest truths & secrets about this beautiful & crazy thing we call life.

After all, isn’t that what makes a story great, or even epic, when it teaches a deep truth in the midst of an entertaining tale?

While I’m on the subject of epic stories, allow me to take this opportunity to talk about one of my favorites, Les Miserables (“The Miserable Ones”) by Victor Hugo, published in 1862.  Its fame has grown in recent history as a result of a hit Broadway musical adaptation of the story, as well as a movie. (I’ll admit that I know the story best as a result of seeing the movie; the unabridged version of the book that I own is 1, 263 pages long, so if you’re one of those people who is of the strong conviction that everyone should read the book before watching the movie adaptation of anything, please forgive me.)

There’s a lot going on in the story itself, but it is first & foremost the redemption story of Jean Valjean, a man forced into 19 years’ hard labor in prison as a result of being caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child & later attempting to escape his sentence. As a result of this experience, his heart is hardened & once he is released, he returns to a life of stealing in order to survive. Hugo himself tells us that “it was not without reason that Jean Valjean’s passport described him as a very dangerous man. From year to year this soul had dried away slowly, but with fatal sureness” (87). It is in this state that he meets the Bishop.

Personally, the Bishop is one of my favorite characters in the whole story, firstly because he is just so good. Hugo tells us that the Bishop was so beloved by his people, particularly by the poor, & so hospitable that he was more commonly known as “Monsieur Welcome”. Fittingly enough, it is to the Bishop’s house that Jean Valjean is directed after he is rejected entrance into multiple inns because of his status as an ex-convict. True to his warm & generous spirit, the Bishop welcomes Valjean into his home & offers him food & a bed for the night, in spite of the misgivings of his sister & his housekeeper who are frightened by Valjean’s wild appearance & threatening manner.

Valjean awakes in the middle of the night, to the silence of the household at rest. Silently, he steals out of bed, gathers his things, & sneaks into the other room where he knows the household silver is kept. Incidentally, it is in the same room where he finds the Bishop sleeping peacefully. The night clouds part just enough to send a ray of moonlight down upon the earth & through the window to illuminate the slumbering clergyman, blissfully unaware of the looming figure of Valjean, who stands over the bed for several minutes, quite unsettled at such a pure image before him. After some minutes of anguish, seemingly considering whether “to crush that skull or to kiss that hand” (95), Valjean turns  around suddenly, goes to the silver cabinet, & quickly runs off with the Bishop’s silverware, fleeing over the garden wall.

The next morning, the Bishop’s sister discovers that the silver is missing & consequently, is in quite a state about it. Suspicion falls to Jean Valjean & he is soon apprehended by the authorities & brought back to the Bishop’s house. And yet, it is in this moment – this moment in which Valjean appears at the Bishop’s door once more, hanging his head, feeling certain of his coming condemnation – that something almost-magical & completely unexpected happens.


jean valjean and the bishop les mis
Colm Wilkinson as The Bishop & Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Miserables.

The Bishop takes one look at Valjean &, without missing a beat, exclaims: “Ah! Here you are!… I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too… Why did you not carry them away with your forks & spoons?” (98)

While Valjean looks on stupefied at this incredible act of kindness, the Bishop dismisses the policemen, telling them that the silver had not been stolen, but that it had been given as a gift to Valjean by the Bishop himself. They are left with no choice but to leave Valjean & exit the house in peace, leaving Valjean a free man.

Once they are gone, the Bishop turns back to Valjean, who is still utterly bewildered at what had just taken place, & explains his actions thus: “My brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts & the spirits of perdition, & I give it to God” (99).

Mercy. Compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power; compassionate treatment of those in distress.

This touching episode is far from being the last of Valjean’s adventures, but, thanks to the good Bishop, mercy changes his life in a radical way. After some distress & a moment of real spiritual awakening (a gradual change born out of that single act of mercy done to him), Valjean steadfastly pursues the life of an honest man, just as the Bishop had urged him to do.

Blessed are the merciful. 

Yes, stories can be beautiful. But there’s something even more wonderful about hearing a good story & finding out later that it is not only good, but even better, it’s true! So with that thought in mind, allow me to tell you a real-life story of mercy.


This photo may not be of the best quality, but hopefully you can tell where it was taken. It is a place whose name & memory, like many others of its kind, will live on in infamy for years to come. It is a place whose history has a darkness about it that is horrifying.


Anyone who has studied modern history knows its name. They know was it was, the purpose for which it was built. I’m not here to tell you the facts; there are plenty of other people out there who have already done so.

I’m here to tell you a story. My story. But first, the story of Father Kolbe.

Father Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan priest who lived from 1894 – 1941. During his lifetime, he founded the Militia Immaculata, an organization dedicated to the mission of conversion & the defense of the Church, under the protection of Mary, Mother of God. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 & World War II began, Fr. Kolbe was one of the few friars who chose to remain in his monastery instead of fleeing for his life. In addition to opening up a temporary hospital within the monastery to aid those in need, he also hid around 2,000 Jews from the Nazis & used his printing press (which he had previously used in his work for the Militia Immaculata) to print anti-Nazi publications, as well as religious literature. The Nazis shut down the monastery & arrested Fr. Kolbe on February 17, 1941; three months later, he was transferred to Auschwitz.

In spite of harassment, Fr. Kolbe remained faithful to his priesthood during his time in the concentration camp. The hot months of summer came, & at the end of July, the news broke: a prisoner from Fr. Kolbe’s cell block had escaped the camp.

The Nazis rounded up all the men from that cell block & once it was clear that they were not going to find the escaped man, they selected ten men to send to the starvation chamber as punishment. The last of these men to be selected was Franciszek (Francis) Gajowniczek, who immediately fell to his knees & cried out, pleading with the commandant to spare him because he had a wife & children. Father Kolbe did not hesitate for even a second.

Normally, if a prisoner stepped out of line without first being called upon to do so, it would result in a fatal shot for that man. Father Kolbe risked it anyway. Addressing the commandant, he said: “I want to go instead of the man who was selected. He has a wife and family. I am alone. I am a Catholic priest.”

Mercy. Compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power; a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion.

Father Kolbe Auschwitz

The commandant relented, Franciszek Gajowniczek was spared, & Fr. Maximilian Kolbe took his place with the condemned men.

Together with his fellow prisoners, Father Kolbe was marched to the starvation bunker in Cell Block 11. Even in that dark place, Father Kolbe did what he could to keep the other men cheerful by leading them in prayer & in singing hymns. After two weeks, only Fr. Kolbe & three others were still alive. On August 14, 1941, Father Maximilian Kolbe went home to God after receiving a lethal injection.

As for Franciszek Gajowniczek, he spent about 5 1/2 years at Auschwitz. His sons were killed in 1945 during a Soviet attack, but after the war, he was reunited with his wife, Helena. For much of his life afterwards, he gave witness to Fr. Kolbe’s heroic sacrifice for him by traveling all over Europe & the United States, telling Fr. Kolbe’s story. He was invited by Pope John Paul II to attend Fr. Kolbe’s canonization in 1982. He died in 1995, at the age of 94.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 


Our group had just come from the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis to close World Youth Day 2016, the theme of which was Matthew 5:7 – “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” It was no accident that this was the theme of the World Youth Day held during the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. It was no accident that it took place in Krakow, Poland, a city which was home to both Saint Faustina – the young nun to whom Jesus appeared to & revealed the Divine Mercy devotion – & Pope St. John Paul II, who really personified mercy throughout his entire life & who was known as “the Mercy Pope” because of how much he did to encourage devotion to Divine Mercy.

Throughout the two weeks that we had spent traveling around Poland & Lithuania, we were blessed to find ourselves faced with countless moments of mercy, whether it was mercy being shown to us (like when we arrived a bit too late to receive food bags for the vigil; the other pilgrim groups around us gathered their left-over food & generously gave it to us) or God calling us to be merciful to the people around us (like not complaining whenever we found ourselves literally packed in like sardines on a metro train in Warsaw). Personally, the most beautiful moment for me was seeing the original Divine Mercy image in Vilnius, Lithuania. (See for more information.)

It was a dark & rainy afternoon when we went to Auschwitz. Once inside, most of us went our separate ways, preferring to take it all in alone. I remember walking by myself, my sandals sticking a bit in the mud, my glasses covered in raindrops, with a rosary I’d gotten for a friend clutched to my chest. As I walked through the camp & looked at the exhibits telling the story of all the evil that had resided there, my heart – yes, even my very soul – was just… heavy. There’s really no other way for me to describe it. I just couldn’t shake the feeling of this incredible weight on my heart & then I had a terrifying realization –

Where was God?

I felt the weight of the evil of that place so heavily on me that I couldn’t feel God. I knew intellectually that He is everywhere, & therefore, was still right by my side like He always is. But, in that terrifying moment, I couldn’t feel His comforting presence. It felt as though evil had succeeded in driving God out of that dark place.

Then, ten minutes before we were due to meet back up at the front, I passed by my friend Mary. “Have you been to St. Maximilian Kolbe’s cell yet?” she asked me excitedly. I replied that I hadn’t. I knew his story & so I had been looking for it, but so far, had had no luck in finding it. Thankfully, she pointed me in the right direction & I hurried to Cell Block 11.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the overwhelming sensation of evil grew heavier as I passed over the threshold of the building. Determined to persevere, I made my way down to the cellar, to this tiny, narrow hallway, and there it was.

Pope Francis Auschwitz
Pope Francis visited Auschwitz & Fr. Kolbe’s cell a few days before we did!

Marked by a plaque, a relief depicting Fr. Kolbe, & a paschal candle, there was the cell in which St. Maximilian Kolbe had spent the last two weeks of his life, had breathed his last, had left this earth to go home to the God Whose incredible mercy he had imitated so well.

There, in a tiny cell in the cellar of Cell Block 11, amidst the overwhelming darkness of Auschwitz, I found God once more, just as I imagine Fr. Kolbe did 75 years earlier.

So yes, for me, mercy is audacious. We’ve all heard it said that God works in mysterious ways. Because of this, it therefore makes sense to me that mercy comes from God, because it seems as though it is written in the nature of mercy for it to take us by surprise whenever we encounter it. It is not necessarily a virtue that comes easily to many; so when I see mercy in the world, that is just another sign to me that it comes from God.

Mercy is a second chance. It’s a third chance. It’s a fourth chance. It’s recognizing the forgiveness we’ve experienced & the mercy that we have been shown in our own lives, & realizing that we are called to forgive others their trespasses just as we have been forgiven ours. We are called to show mercy to others & we know this because we have been saved & redeemed by mercy. Mercy is not something that you earn or that you deserve. It is a gift of love, freely given. It’s a bold choice. It’s a controversial choice. It goes against everything that the world says about getting even, taking revenge, repaying someone. I can speak from experience when I say that sometimes, it is far from easy. Sometimes, a lot of times, it hurts. Once you make the decision to be merciful & to forgive someone who has hurt you, it can be difficult to stick by it; emotions brought on by hurt & betrayal & anger & any number of other things tend to creep up & make you second-guess yourself.

But believe me when I say this: it is so worth it.

Be brave. Be audacious. Be merciful. 



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