Pope John Paul II today declared the Rev. Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who died at Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941, a saint and martyr and used the occasion to sharply condemn the Polish government for dissolving the Solidarity independent trade union.
At the close of the three-hour canonization ceremony that was attended by a delegation of high Polish government officials, the pontiff angrily criticized the government in Warsaw for what he said was "a violation of the fundamental rights of man."
An estimated 10,000 Poles, many wearing traditional red and white folk dress, had come to Rome for the canonization of the 17th Polish saint, a man the pope once described as a symbol "of our difficult century."
Kolbe, whose death in Auschwitz came when he volunteered to take the place of one of 10 men condemned by the Nazis to die by starvation, has increasingly been viewed in Poland as a symbol of Polish spirituality and patriotism.
Many among the crowd of 150,000 broke into applause and shouted, "Long live Solidarity," when Pope John Paul, his voice breaking with emotion, referred to "the deprivation of the legal rights of the Solidarity union."
The pope said that both the Vatican and the church in Poland had "done all that is in their power to keep such a violation from occurring." Raising his voice, he pledged that "even now they will defend the legitimate rights of working men."
"On the solemn day of the canonization of St. Maximilian Kolbe," the pope added, "I ask all men of good will in the world to pray for the Polish nation."
The canonization of Kolbe, who was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971 -- the last formal step before declaring sainthood -- came only two days after Solidarity was banned by the Polish parliament. The parliament's deputy chairman, Jerzy Ozdowski, was one of the eight-man government delegation that was seated in the front rows of the benches filling most of St. Peter's Square.
Missing was Polish primate Archbishop Josef Glemp, who, fearing that the expected move against Solidarity might cause violence, last week announced he would not be able to attend the canonization ceremony as planned.
Speaking in Warsaw at an open-air mass to mark the canonization, Glemp said Poland is living through a period of bitterness, but added that "each bitterness entails hope and this is how we must look at reality," Reuter reported. His comment was seen as tacit acceptance that the ban on Solidarity, which the church strongly opposed, is irreversible.
Also attending the canonization ceremony here was 82-year old Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose life was saved by Kolbe. The Fransiscan priest was sent to Auschwitz in 1941. In August of that year, following an escape by one prisoner, 10 men were chosen by the camp commandant to die by starvation.
According to Gajowniczek, Kolbe, 47, stepped foreward and asked to take Gajowniczek's place. The Fransiscan told the commandant that Gajowniczek had a family but, "I am a Catholic priest. I am alone." Ten days later on Aug. 14, Kolbe and three other men who were still alive were killed with injections of carbolic acid.
"He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love," the pope told a crowd that included more than 300 bishops and cardinals from Poland and other countries, including Japan and several African nations, where Kolbe had worked as a missionary.
"Maximilian did not die but gave his life for his brother. In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the definitive greatness of the human action and the human choice," said the pope. John Paul termed Kolbe's death "a victory . . . for what is divine in man, a victory like that achieved by Jesus Christ on Calvary."
"We pray that in our country the values for which St. Maximilian gave his life will prevail," the pope continued.
During most of the ceremony, after which he gave communion to dozens of people, including Gajowniczek and Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the pope sat on his throne on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica over which hung a large tapestry depicting Kolbe.
The pope is known to have given special importance to Kolbe's canonization, speeding up the process by waiving some of the requirements for miracles and using his "apostolic authority" to declare Kolbe a martyr even though his death was not a direct result of his defense of the faith. During his 1979 visit to Poland, Pope John Paul prayed in Kolbe's Auschwitz cell and described him as "the patron of our difficult century."