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St. Maximilian Kolbe and the Young People
The courage to dream


GIOVANNA CREA *

There are places that represent real turning points in people's lives: they mark a change of direction in their path, often with unpredictable outcomes, which ends up influencing even that of the people they will meet or who, after some time, will know that place and its history.

One of these places is the Convent of Friars Minor Conventual located in the historic centre of Rome, between the Capitoline Hill and the Palatine, in the area of the ancient Forum Boarium, where St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe lived between 1912 and 1919. In those years, he studied philosophy at the Gregorian University and theology at the Seraphic College, but at the same time, he also studied physics and mathematics, coming to design new types of aircraft, rockets, radio equipment and other scientific machinery. The professors remember him as a gifted and curious young man, who asked them many questions and scrupulously respected the rules of the Order and the College, convinced that obedience was a fundamental prerequisite for understanding and fulfilling God's will in one's life

The heart of the convent is the cell where, on the evening of October 16, 1917, Father Kolbe and some of his confreres signed the program of the Militia of the Immaculata, a movement that aimed to convert sinners and lead all men on the road to holiness through the mediation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Among the visitors of the Convent of St. Maximilian there are also many young students, especially preadolescents, who are fascinated by the history of this saint, and they admire his talent, resourcefulness, persistence, tirelessness, and above all his heroic charity, which contrasts sharply with the dominant values in today's society, conveyed by the mass media: individualism, success, wealth, fun. The fact that there may be, today, someone willing to spend his own life for others until the extreme sacrifice of himself is absolutely unimaginable for them.

Every year I accompany students who attend the eighth grade in the school where I teach in the visit of the Kolbean places in Rome. I insert this initiative in the broader framework of a teaching unit dedicated to the Day of Memory (27 January), an occasion in which the victims of the Holocaust, but also all those who at risk of their lives worked to save the persecuted Jews are remembered. I devote particular attention to the "Righteous Among the Nations", as the National Association for the Memory of the Holocaust "Yad Vashem" of Jerusalem defines them, presenting every year to my students various Italian and foreign characters. I think that this is not only a duty, but very necessary, considering the fact that today's young people do not have positive models to refer to and end up having a strongly negative idea of life, imbued with pessimism and resignation. When, instead, we tell them stories (still often unknown to most) of ordinary men and women, who in their small way, in hiding and without asking anything in return, have spent their lives for others, we see that their faces enlighten, that they are moved and open up to hope. On these occasions they do not distract, listen carefully, ask questions, come alive, as if everything awaken in them something dormant: a passion, a rush, a desire to fight for what is good and right, which is typical of youth and that the adult world tends to repress. Among the Righteous I always remember St. Maximilian, I tell his life, I show the photographs that portray him, and at the bottom I quote some of his sentences, as ideas to reflect on ourselves, think about our life and ask ourselves in which direction we are going, as if the young Maximilian spoke to the young people of today and asked them how they live their relationship with God, with themselves and with others. Then we go out to meet him where he lived: let's go to meet - I tell them - a special friend. Later, when I read the texts in which the students tell the visit to the Convent of St. Maximilian, I am always very impressed by the descriptions full of details, the depth and the truth of the thoughts and feelings expressed, which show how the experience has shaken them in the intimate. As soon as they cross the entrance gate of the convent they have the sensation of having made a leap in time, so much so they are struck by the silence and the simplicity of the place, against the noise and excess that characterize our frenetic, alienating, consumerist, daily lifestyle. That silence, the sober beauty of the front yard, the pleasant meeting with the friars and the Missionaries of the Immaculata, who guide them in the visit, instill serenity, peace and trust in the soul of the students; they understand, as perhaps rarely happens to them, that they are expected, welcomed, loved, not judged, and this reassures them: they can be themselves, they can be true. These are their words: "As soon as I crossed that gate I felt protected: I was sure that nothing bad could happen there" (Martina). "Our guide was very nice and made us feel at home" (Ermonela).

The entry into the cell of Maximilian is an opportunity to enter his dream, to relive it, to dress his clothes (in a corner his sackcloth is exposed), imagine him bending over the desk while he draws up the Militia's program and waits anxiously the approval of his confreres. On one wall are portrayed their faces: faces of young people full of hope and trust in the future, looks that push far in time and space and even today seem to question visitors with these words: "And you, what is your dream?" . At this point, in fact, the guide invites the students to write their dreams on a piece of paper and they are often amazed that someone is interested in their desires, that gives them importance and value. The sheets are then collected, placed in a small box and entrusted to the Immaculata, whose statue, small in size, placed on the desk, remembers Her constant, thoughtful, maternal and gracious giver presence in the life of every man. The students remember that moment in this way:

"It is amazing! I entered the place where Maximilian and his confreres changed the lives of many people, but above all he made many people who had lost their faith or did not have it believe in the Virgin Mary and in her Son Jesus. It was exciting to see their faces and the act of foundation of the Militia with their signatures. To understand that in that small room he could do everything we could not even imagine, for me it was like touching the sky with a finger!" (Ermonela). "I really liked the atmosphere of that room: there was calm and silence. Our guide asked us to write our dream on a sheet. While I was talking, I noticed how much effort he put into explaining what he meant by 'dream' and I appreciated it, because I understood that it was very important" (Giulia).

May the Lord bless your dreams.


* L'autrice insegna nella scuola ed Volontaria dell'Immacolata Padre Kolbe.