May 3, 2009


I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. – John 10: 17-18

Ted Wotjkowski considered himself an ordinary person when he immigrated to Chicago from Poland after WW II. He worked as an engineer & raised a family. But as a young man he was a special witness to one of the Good Shepherd heroes of the 20th century. After the German invasion in 1939, he went underground. When things became too risky, he tried to get into Hungary but was caught at the border, & sent to Auschwitz when it was still a place for criminals & critics of the Nazi regime.

The prisoners were treated cruelly. The guards saved their special hatred & punishment for priests. After a prisoner escape, ten prisoners were picked at random for execution by starvation. One of those picked began sobbing, “My wife & my children! Who will take care of them?” Suddenly another prisoner spoke up & said to the commander, “I will take the place of this man with the wife & children.” Wotjkowski noticed that there was something serene & remarkable about the volunteer’s demeanor. The commander sneered, “You must be one of those vermin priests.” But he accepted the offer.

The volunteer wasn’t just any priest, but the well-known Franciscan Fr. Maximilian Kolbe who ran a publishing house for religious materials before the war. When locked in the bunker, Kolbe led the doomed men in prayer & hymns. When all had died except Kolbe, the impatient Nazis had a doctor inject poison to finish him off. The man he replaced was an anonymous peasant farmer, but Kolbe was one of the best known & accomplished men in Poland . Yet he exchanged his life for the other.

Kolbe not only saved the farmer but Wotjkowski himself, who, inspired by Kolbe’s act, endured years of backbreaking labor & abuse in the camp. Finally, in 1945, while being force marched to Dachau , Wotjkowski escaped & took refuge with a German priest who hid him & fed him until the Allies rolled into Germany .

Fr. Kolbe was indeed a Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. At a time when some priests have been less than shepherds, much less good, we need to be reminded that there are indeed good shepherds in the Catholic Church: not just Kolbe but the German priest who fed & hid Wotjkowski at great risk, the faithful ones who baptize, marry & anoint family members, who guide & encourage their flock along the journey. Catholic priests may not be noted for their preaching ability, but they do have one advantage: celibacy makes the point that they have put their lives where their mouths are.

There are moments like this when we can glimpse unconditional love, which is neither a personal achievement nor a moral preference. We cannot boast of it, since it does not appear as something of our own making. We can only accept it as what it is – a gift of God, who permits us such glimpses to remind us that in this messy family we call the church, the Good Shepherd walks with us still. AMEN!