The Priesthood Is a Heroic Vocation

Catholics around the world will celebrate the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe on Monday. His story is one the church’s finest, though too few people—Christian or not—have heard it.

Kolbe was born to a German father and Polish mother in 1894. He entered the seminary at 13 and was ordained a priest in 1918. With a special devotion to the Virgin Mary and a talent for writing and publishing, the bearded, bespectacled Franciscan founded monasteries and media outlets in Poland and Japan during the 1930s.

When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, German forces arrested Kolbe. Although he refused to sign a document giving him the privileges of German citizenship, he was released after three months. His monastery continued to issue anti-Nazi publications. It was shut down in 1941, and Kolbe was arrested again. Eventually he was taken to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

There Kolbe carried out his priestly ministry while enduring humiliation and abuse. After a small group of prisoners escaped in July 1941, the camp’s notorious disciplinarian, Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch, decided to set an example by starving 10 others to death. Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish army sergeant, was among those selected to die. Gajowniczek begged that his life be spared on account of his wife and children. Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

“I want to go instead of the man who was selected,” Kolbe said. “He has a wife and family. I am alone. I am a Catholic priest.” For whatever reason, Fritzch agreed.

Kolbe outlived the other condemned prisoners, but after two weeks of hunger and prayer, he was near death. On August 14, 1941, a guard was dispatched to finish him off with an injection of carbolic acid. As the executioner approached, the frail priest extended his arm. He died with the Hail Mary on his lips. Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982. Gajowniczek, whose children did not survive the war, lived to be 94. He died in 1995.

Catholic history is replete with heroic stories like Kolbe’s. The church could do a better job of telling them. Many Catholics, including this one, have much to learn.

After 9/11 the Archdiocese of New York launched a website aimed at young men discerning a vocation to the priesthood. The banner across the top of the landing page read, “The World Needs Heroes.” The slogan made an impression on Andrew Vill, who was then a teenager but is now a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn.

“Every young man wants to be a hero,” Father Vill told me last month. “We dream about saving the day.”

Vocations have been drying up for half a century. In 1965 the American Catholic Church ordained 994 new priests, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. By 2000, the number had fallen to 442. Ordinations have rebounded somewhat—in 2016 there were 548—but not nearly enough to replace the priests who die, retire or leave their ministries every year.

The vocations crisis is not only a human-resources problem for the bishops. It has real spiritual consequences for the people in the pews. Some 3,500 American parishes have no resident priest. Without a servant of God living among them and ministering to their sacramental and catechetical needs, Catholic communities are unlikely to thrive, if they even manage to survive.

Every diocese has a vocations office staffed by at least one priest whose sole job is to identify and encourage good seminary candidates. These vocations directors are well-intentioned and in some cases successful. The relatively small Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., for instance, routinely outpaces the ordination rates of jurisdictions many times its size.

Recruiting good men remains a challenge. The sexual abuse scandal dealt a considerable blow to the priesthood’s once-sterling reputation. Gone are the days when Spencer Tracy could win an Oscar playing tough-but-fair Father Flanagan in “Boys Town.” A priest who shows up in a Hollywood movie these days is as likely as not to be the villain.

One thing hasn’t changed: Young men still want lives of heroic virtue, and the priesthood offers that in abundance. My advice to parents, teachers and vocations directors everywhere is to tell heroic stories like that of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Appeal to the romantic aspirations of young men by highlighting the courageous lives of the many martyrs and saints of the church.

“When God calls you to serve as his priest, he is inviting you to go on this mission with him,” Father Vill said. “You will literally be saving souls. As a young man, when you look at your vocation like that, who wouldn’t want to pursue the priesthood?”

Mr. Hennessey is an associate editorial features editor at the Journal.