For St. Maximilian, the Immaculate Conception is a mystery not simply to be believed, but also lived by all the faithful. He strove, therefore, at all times and in every way to advance the cause of the Immaculate, introducing her into all hearts, “so that she may erect in them the throne of her Son.”
It is said that the further a religious order is removed from its founder, the weaker it becomes. And that is what often happens. Yet it need not necessarily be like that. For the spirit does not know the material laws of aging, but must evolve without limit. In addition, it is no sign of humility, for example, to pray to our Father St. Francis that he may obtain for us a “part” of his love for God, or a love equal to his. Our holy Father will be perfectly happy only when, through his intercession, we ask God for a greater love than his, indeed a love infinitely greater. And he wants his spirit to “evolve” in his children and not to set his own holiness as a stopping point, as the limit of our perfection. The germ he placed in the Order must evolve “without limitation.”
From the dawn of our Order, for seven centuries, the golden thread of the cause of the Immaculata has constantly evolved. We fought for recognition of the truth of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our fight ended in victory. This truth is recognized worldwide and has been declared a dogma of faith.
And now? … Has that cause possibly come to an end? …
Could we be content just with drawing the plan of a house without ever trying to carry it out? … Rather, is it not true that the plan is laid out only because it is the prerequisite for building the house itself? …
There opens the second page of our history then; namely, to sow that truth into the hearts of all those who live and will live until the end of time, and to ensure that growth and the fruits of sanctification. To introduce the Immaculata into the hearts of men, so that she may erect in them the throne of her Son, lead them to the knowledge of Him, and inflame them with love toward His Most Sacred Heart.
Our Order is called and is “the Order of Penance,” which both practices and preaches penance. And here, we see that four years after the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, she herself in Lourdes asks for: “Penance, penance, penance.” There is the One who wants to proclaim penance to our corrupt world: the Immaculata. So let her in us and through our Order proclaim repentance with the aim to renew souls…
Let her preach to us such penance. Let us open our hearts, let her come in, and let us generously give up our hearts, our souls, our bodies and all to her without any restriction or limitation. Let us devote ourselves to her completely without any limitation, to be her servants, her children, her unconditional possession and her property, so as to become, somehow, herself living, speaking, acting in this world…
I have been to many countries, I have seen many things, I have spoken with several people, but trust me: there is no better or more suitable means to address the evils of our time than our Seraphic Order, if it furthers the spirit of our Father St. Francis with courage, alertness, speed and steadfastness.
The Immaculata wants to show in us and through us the fullness of her mercy: We do not want to be a hindrance; let her do that.
But why does she want to do that precisely to us?
It is a mystery of her love.
— From the writings of St. Maximilian M. Kolbe, KW 486
In some of his writings, St. Maximilian makes reference to an “era of the Immaculate,” or to an “era of the Immaculate Conception.” What did the Saint intend to convey by this phrase, and what importance did this subject assume in his mind? What importance does it have for us?
Kolbe offers few details in the writings which contain these exact terms. He characterizes this age as interchangeable with another term—“age of the Holy Spirit”—indicating that “others” have made reference to this latter term, without specifically naming anyone. He further identifies three events which, for him, lie at the beginning of this age: (1) the manifestation of the Miraculous Medal to St. Catherine Labouré in 1830; (2) the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854; and (3) the apparitions of Our Lady to St. Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858.
To gain further insights, it is necessary to peruse his writings and conferences in greater depth. As a matter of fact, the subject assumes a very great, indeed primary, importance in the Saint’s thought, and he took considerable care to inculcate its importance in the minds of others—as if he were bequeathing to them a legacy upon which they, in their turn, must build.
His thought is perhaps best summed up in a letter he addressed to all seminarians of the Conventual Franciscans in February 1933 from his missionary post in Japan, number 486 of his writings. In this letter, he expounds precisely on the subject of this “era of the Immaculate,” but explaining it in other terms very dear to him: the golden thread, which he identifies as the “cause of the Immaculate,” and the two pages.
The cause of the Immaculate is something that constantly commanded the Saint’s attention. He saw in it the basis for the existence and operation of the two cities of the Immaculate he founded, Niepokalanów in Poland, and Mugenzai-No-Sono in Japan. But its importance for him assumed universal dimensions. Already in 1919, he expounded the significance of the “golden thread” in a letter he wrote to his brother, Fr. Alphonsus, a Conventual Franciscan friar like himself:
Beginning with our Father St. Francis and St. Bonaventure, devotion to the Immaculate Conception has been a particular feature of our Order; Duns Scotus and the Franciscan school then defended this privilege, which she greatly appreciated; and now it has coalesced in the solemn definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This is, therefore, the golden thread of our Order and, perhaps, also the beginning of the renewal of our corrupt society… Let us prepare to fight against Satan, the world and… ourselves—to save and sanctify our souls and as many other souls as possible—let us prepare to suffer and to work. We can rest after death.
It is important to note that the Saint recorded these observations long before the founding of the Cities of the Immaculate in Poland and Japan. Thus, he did not contrive the thesis simply to justify the existence of these Cities. Rather, his observations are much more likely the fruit of the same inspiration that led to the founding of the Militia of the Immaculate (M.I.) two years earlier, in 1917. The Martyr of Charity always regarded the Militia as a gift the Immaculate entrusted to the Franciscan Order for the good of the Church.
St. Maximilian is not the first person to see the mystery of the Immaculate Conception as the key to understanding the nature and history of the Franciscan Order. He appears, however, to have been the first to appreciate or at least demonstrate how the ultimate purpose of the Order necessarily involves not merely a theory but also a praxis that follows upon the theory, rooted in the same mystery:
The Franciscan Order has led the cause of the Immaculate Conception. And so, from St. Francis up to the proclamation of the dogma, the first page of history was written… Now that the dogma has been approved, is the matter finished? Are we to cross our arms and consider it done with? Like that? … Oh, never! It is right now that we need to get busy, to disseminate devotion to the Immaculate Conception throughout the whole world and instill this devotion in every soul.
This praxis paves the way for the ultimate glorification of Christ as King of all creation—or, in terms of Franciscan thought, the explicit acknowledgement of the absolute primacy of Christ. The dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception thus ushers in a new period or “page” which is in continuity with the old and builds upon the old. The progressive realization of this sweeping plan is what the Saint calls the “cause of the Immaculate.” He saw the embracing of this “cause” by the Franciscan Order as essential for its well-being, at a time when there were even grave concerns about its very survival:
As our aim [for advocating consecration of the Conventual Franciscan Order to the Immaculate], we could mention, among other things, the need for a rebirth of the Order…
Apologizing—as I have heard from people otherwise fervent—by saying that our Order is old and therefore run down, avails us nothing in this case, for spirit knows no age. Only departure from our ideal, for one, and lack of flexibility in adapting to the ever-changing conditions and circumstances, for another, can bring about debilitation, a weakening of vitality, and decay.
Not even the wisest of prescriptions will suffice to bring about rebirth of the Order, even if they were to be enforced with the strictest forms of punishment. What is indispensable in this field is supernatural grace, the grace of sanctification of the friars. And since the Immaculata is Mediatrix of all graces, therefore the closer one comes to her, the more exuberant one’s spiritual life will be. But undoubtedly, the most perfect form of drawing closer to is total consecration of oneself. So, it will be consecration to the Immaculata not only of individual friars, friaries, or even Provinces, but of the Order as such, which will bring about rebirth.
In identifying the basis for such a revival, the Saint clearly demonstrates that he is not proposing a novelty, but grounding himself in a tradition that extends over the entire period of what he terms the “first page.” “It is clear that [St. Maximilian] held as certain (and not merely as a working hypothesis) that St. Francis knew the Immaculate and had made her [the] Cause… of his Order.” The Saint further appeals to a decree issued by the Conventual Franciscans some two centuries earlier, on May 27, 1719:
“Since its origin and throughout its history the Order of Friars Minor Conventual has surrounded the Conception of the Blessed Virgin with special manifestations of devotion. Therefore, in the footsteps of their fathers, the Venerable Definitory has decreed to establish the Blessed Virgin, under the title of Immaculate Conception, as their main Patroness, in the firmest hope that more every day in our Order devotion and veneration toward the Mother of God and toward the mystery of her Immaculate Conception should increase and be developed”…
So already, this devotion was not a novelty, but a tradition, an ancient tradition going back to the origins, to the “beginnings” of the Order. This tradition, then, has not been sporadic, but always constant, in every age, “throughout its history.” The proof of this tradition, moreover, is not presented here by some occasional writer, but by representatives from all over the Franciscan world of those times.
In ecclesiastical jurisprudence, tradition is not only placed next to the law, but a 40-year-old tradition prevails over any legal prescription contrary to it, and if it reaches 100 years, even norms prohibiting customs, that is to say, contrary traditions, give way to it…
Rightfully, therefore, already then, the Chapter Fathers could base themselves on such a tradition, in this case the cause of the Immaculata in the Order, and choose the Immaculata as principal Patroness of the Order. Or rather “establish,” because in the presence of a tradition of special devotion, of “special manifestations of devotion,” which was by then already 500 years old, it finally became necessary to decide to take this step, all the more so because the other Franciscan branches had already done so…
In his letter to the seminarians, St. Maximilian associates the penitential nature of the Franciscan Order to Our Lady’s universal call at Lourdes to penance. There is a clear indication here that the Saint’s vision of renewal of the Franciscan Order, which he links to the “cause of the Immaculate” and which entails “letting her in us and through our Order proclaim repentance with the aim to renew souls,” assumes universal proportions—a far-reaching vision in which the Franciscan Order plays a determined role. It is remindful of a famous dream of Pope Innocent III, in which he saw St. Francis of Assisi as a pillar upholding the Church of St. John Lateran of Rome, representing the universal Church. “Because iniquity has abounded and the charity of many has grown cold, behold, the Lord has raised up the Order of his beloved sons, the Lesser Brothers.”
There is, apparently, a spiritual itinerary that must be undertaken by the Church with her members, oriented toward and ultimately finding her fulfillment in Christ her Head. In a certain sense, it is oriented toward the ideal that characterized the life of the early Church as described in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-34). However, it is not a question of “turning back the clock” to recapture days gone by, but rather of advancing forward along a “pilgrimage of faith”: “Moving forward through trial and tribulation, the Church is strengthened by the power of God’s grace, which was promised to her by the Lord, so that… moved by the Holy Spirit [she] may never cease to renew herself, until through the Cross she arrives at the light which knows no setting.”
What the Church is becoming is already realized in the person of Mary, the “Virgin made Church”: there is an “active and exemplary presence” of Mary “in the life of the Church” as Mother of the Church. In union with the Holy Spirit, Mary is guiding the Church toward this “arrival at the light which knows no setting.” Proceeding along this spiritual itinerary in the right manner is, evidently, not a question of “fitting” Our Lady into our own plans, but discovering and being docile to her own plans in our regard: “It is not so much a question of what place Mary has in our lives, as what place we occupy in hers that is the starting point of any discussion.” This discussion, however, develops and orients itself toward its goal or conclusion to the degree that the individual and the Church are docile to Mary’s guidance.
The progression along this itinerary is what St. Maximilian describes as a spiritual evolution: “The spirit does not know the material laws of aging, but must evolve without limit.” According to the Saint, the lamp that clearly illuminates the path of this evolution is the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. Or, better, the mystery is as a fire, not only revealing itself to the human heart and guiding it, but all the while enkindling and transforming that heart into the likeness of the Immaculate Heart. This is exactly the point of insertion of language employed by Kolbe such as “transubstantiation into the Immaculate.” And this is why the golden thread spans not one, but two pages. First, the truth of the Immaculate Conception had to be more plainly manifested and professed by the whole Church (first page). Then, once solemnly declared, it serves as a sort of “principle of transubstantiation into the Immaculate and into the Holy Spirit” that involves the Church and every individual (second page).
For this reason, the practice of Marian consecration according to Kolbe centers about the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, which is the basis for her universal mediation of grace. In the primitive statute of the M.I., one is enjoined to wear the Miraculous Medal (the Medal of the Immaculate Conception) as an expression of one’s consecration and to say daily the prayer revealed to St. Catherine Labouré, also professing belief and confidence in this mystery: “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us to have recourse to you.”
The Saint is forceful in declaring the necessity of taking up the “cause of the Immaculate.” It is necessary, he says, for the revitalization of the Franciscan Order. But he also implies that it is necessary for the revitalization of the Church when he says, “There is no better or more suitable means to address the evils of our time than our Seraphic Order, if it furthers the spirit of our Father St. Francis with courage, alertness, speed and steadfastness.” The Saint is not hereby advocating a triumphalism which would purportedly exalt the Franciscan Order at the expense of other charisms given life in the Church by the Holy Spirit. Rather, he is recalling Franciscans—and, by extension, all members of the Church—to reset their sights on the ideal, which is personified in the Blessed Virgin Mary and revealed in a special way in the truth of the Immaculate Conception. And, insofar as necessary, he is warning them of the dangers of slipping into a spiritual lethargy should they lose sight of this ideal or, worse, reject it.
The pursuit of the “cause of the Immaculate” as this second page of history unfolds, ushers in or deepens what Kolbe calls the “age” or “era” of the Immaculate, as Fr. Fehlner observes:
We cannot fail to grasp why St. Francis, called to “repair the Church of Christ,” to sustain and support the hierarchy, especially the successor of St. Peter, should have addressed Mary as the “Virgin made Church.” For Mary had shown herself to him as the Immaculate, i.e. the Spouse of the Holy Spirit… And herein we come to understand why our age variously is called “age of the Church,” “age of the Spirit,” “age of Mary Immaculate.” It is the age of the Church, in so far as the body of Christ is more intensively conformed to its head; this is so because the gifts of the Spirit are being given in great abundance. The Spirit is so diffused in our hearts because of the prayers and help of Mary Immaculate, the Spouse of the Spirit and Mother of the Church.
In this “second page” or “age of the Immaculate,” writes the Saint to the seminarians, there is feverish activity “to sow that truth [of the Immaculate Conception] into the hearts of all those who live and will live until the end of time… to introduce the Immaculata into the hearts of men, so that she may erect in them the throne of her Son, lead them to the knowledge of Him, and inflame them with love toward His Most Sacred Heart.” As the age continues to unfold and deepen, he envisions a scenario in which divisions will be overcome by an ever-growing unity of souls following the guidance of this creature and under the banner of this mystery.
They will strive, above all, to consolidate their will with that of the Immaculata, or rather to love her as ardently as possible and then to light this fire around themselves, each according to their means… The heresies will then be extinguished, the schisms, and the hardened sinners will return to God through the Immaculata, to His loving Heart; all the pagans will be baptized and the prediction of the blessed Catherine Labouré, to whom the Immaculata revealed the Miraculous Medal, will come true, that the Immaculata would become “the Queen of the whole world and of each person individually.”
The parallel between this prediction which St. Maximilian made his own and that of Our Lady of Fatima (“in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph”) is striking, especially considering that there is no evidence St. Maximilian was aware of the Fatima apparitions and message. It is a point of strong evidence indicating that, not only did St. Maximilian know how to read the signs of the times, he understood perfectly well the place he occupied in Mary’s life, because he “resolved to let [himself] be guided always by her, anywhere and in everything, and thereby return unceasingly to peace and to love.” It has been suggested that he received very particular mystical graces at the hands of the Immaculate:
It seems that the person who has best grasped the sense of this title, “Spouse of the Holy Spirit” [the title given Our Lady by St. Francis] and adopted it to a contemporary mentality is the martyr, Bl. Maximilian Kolbe, O.F.M. Conv. … In our opinion, only a charismatic gift of a very high order could have permitted Bl. Maximilian to have discovered among these mysteries of faith the analogy explained by him in his writings.
Apparently, the “cause of the Immaculate” is something not easy to grasp, nor can it be pursued apart from a serious quest for personal holiness and a radical disposal of one’s entire self to Our Lady. St. Maximilian patiently confronted serious opposition and misunderstanding from within his own ranks as he strove to expound and advance this cause. The following passage from Fr. Domanski, a contemporary of St. Maximilian who was a student of his thought, is telling:
In most cases, some years are necessary in order to understand in-depth the ideal of the Militia of the Immaculate. The first reaction, as soon as one begins to understand something, is often negative. How Fr. Alphonsus, the brother of the Founder of the
Militia, struggled, and he was a Conventual Franciscan!
Here is a page from his diary: “Still the Franciscan ideals are only these: poverty, total gift [of self]. And [St. Louis] Grignion [de Montfort]? Our Father St. Francis was another Christ without this, even though he knew and loved Our Lady immensely! What more can there be, then, for me? Apply myself on a unknown way that exceeds my powers and is contrary to what I have lived up to now? Why always, literally always: “Go only to Mary, and if you go to Jesus, go to Him only with her”? … Moreover, I do not understand why the reform of the [Franciscan] Order (we can add: and the world) must be connected with it … For me, the substantive element is natural, while the supernatural order is something added on! For them (Maximilian and his followers) the latter is their ordinary life! … There is an abyss between us! An unfathomable abyss! … Only now have I come to terms with this fact… why did I deceive myself in thinking that we differed only in quantity and not in quality!” (Diary entry, January 5, 1929.)
Nevertheless, when Fr. Alphonsus considered this problem with greater peace of mind, it dawned on him that, to understand Fr. Maximilian, “it was indispensable to consider the thing in greater depth, or to live with greater simplicity and humility.” (Diary entry, March 3, 1929.) With time, having been entirely vanquished by the “fool of the Immaculate,” he confessed: “I am at Fr. Maximilian’s side, like Brother Leo with our Father St. Francis.”
Having been won over to the cause of the Immaculate, Fr. Alphonsus died a holy death a short time
afterward, on December 3, 1930.
How are we, after the manner of the Saint’s brother, to undertake and persevere in such a seemingly forbidding, yet necessary task for our times, namely, advancing the cause of the Immaculate? In his letter to the seminarians, the Saint tells us what we must do: “Let [the Immaculata] preach to us such penance. Let us open our hearts, let her come in, and let us generously give up our hearts, our souls, our bodies and all to her without any restriction or limitation. Let us devote ourselves to her completely without any limitation, to be her servants, her children, her unconditional possession and her property, so as to become, somehow, herself living, speaking, acting in this world.”
The “era of the Immaculate,” or the “era of the Spirit,” is one in which human hearts—one heart at a time—are won over to the cause of the Immaculate, so that the supernatural order becomes “their ordinary life.” The Saint envisioned that this conquest of hearts will one day reach universal proportions—the realization of what Our Lady of Fatima referred to as the triumph of her Immaculate Heart. It is in this way, St. Maximilian envisions, that the era of the Immaculate will hasten to its fulfillment in her Son, as His throne is established in those same hearts dedicated to her.
But why does Our Lady want to make use of us to advance her cause? “She has chosen us,” the Saint responds, “because we are weak… so that we will know that we are not the ones doing this work, but rather she working through us.” Or again, he tells the seminarians, “It is a mystery of her love.”
 Cf. KW 664, 1242, 1248.
 Cf. KW 664. The editors of the English and Italian versions of St. Maximilian’s writings cite as one example St. Louis Grignion de Montfort’s Treatise on True Devotion, 47-59. Although the French Saint does not employ the exact term, he does offer a fascinating and prophetic insight into Mary’s role in the “latter times.” He does use the term, “age of Mary,” an age during which he says the “many souls, chosen by Mary and given her by the Most High God, will hide themselves completely in the depths of her soul, becoming living copies of her, loving and glorifying Jesus” (217). He envisioned such an age as unfolding in a time posterior to his own day.
 Cf. KW 1242, 1248.
 KW 21.
 Cf. P. D. Fehlner, “The Other Page,” Miles Immaculatae 24 (1988), 512-531. A Conventual Franciscan by the name of Fr. Filippo Rossi published a work in 1854 illustrating how the newly declared dogma of the Immaculate Conception is the crowning glory of what was set in motion by St. Francis with his founding of the Order of Friars Minor, and the full expression of the Poverello’s own Marian devotion. Fr. Fehlner demonstrates that St. Maximilian was familiar with Fr. Rossi’s work, on one occasion citing it verbatim (cf. KW 1081, note 2).
 Conference, February 18, 1933.
 KW 637.
 P. Fehlner, “Thesis of St. Maximilian Concerning St. Francis and the Immaculate in the Light of Recent Research,” Civitas Immaculatae 6, August 1987, 3.
 KW 1184.
 cf. The Legend of the Three Companions, chapter 12, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents II—The Founder, (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 2000), 97-98.
 Gregory IX, Bull Quoniam Abundavit, April 6, 1237, reproduced in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents I—The Saint (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1999), 576.
 Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution, Lumen Gentium , 9.
 St. Francis of Assisi, Salute to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Redemptoris Mater, 1.
 P. D. Fehlner, “Mary in the Franciscan Tradition: The Virgin Made Church, Civitas Immaculatae 1 (March 25, 1985), 2.
 P. D. Fehlner, “Mary and Franciscanism,” unpublished manuscript.
 KW 382.
 KW 991/O, April 14, 1933.
 O. van Asseldonk and H. Pyfferoen, “Maria Santissima e lo Spirito Santo in S. Francesco d’Assisi,” in Mariano Saeculis XXL-XV, Rome 1980, 438, trans. in English and cited in Fehlner, “Thesis of St. Maximilian,” 10.
 G. Domanski, Il pensiero mariano di P. Massimiliano Kolbe, tr. C. Zambelli (Rome: Centro Nazionale M.I., 1971), 91, fn. 416; English trans. by the author.
 Conference, September 4, 1937.