Of Patron Saints

Since yesterday, when I heard about a senior journalist ‘going on a sabbatical’ — rubbish — I’ve had a passage from Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil buzzing around my head. This bit is from a monologue of sorts, spoken by an alcoholic painter-poet named Francis Xavier. He’s speaking to a eunuch prostitute named Dimple (with whom he’s just had a rather disturbing sexual marathon). 

It might interest you to know that the patron saints against sexual temptation are all women, the Marys of Edessa and Egypt, Mary Magdalen and Mary Magdalen of Pazzi, Angela of Foligno, Margaret of Cortona, Catherine of Siena and Pelagia of Antioch, who martyred herself at fifteen with the help of a ladder, a house and a small battalion of Roman soldiers. Then there’s Maximilian Kolbe, the patron saint of drug addicts and journalists, which, if you ask me, is an inevitable pairing.

The first time I read this, I thought Thayil must be making this up. There can’t be a patron saint for journalists, can there? Yes, there can. Saint Maximilian Kolbe is, as some would put it, da man. Journalism was probably under his, erm, saintly jurisdiction because he started a magazine back in 1922, called the Knight of the Immaculate. Apparently, at the peak of its popularity, Knight of the Immaculate had a print run of 750,000. Kolbe also started a Catholic newspaper, printed a Japanese version of Knight (which was quite popular) and set up a radio station for a monastery he’d founded. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, he kept the monastery and printing press running. Jews and Polish refugees were given refuge. His printing press printed stuff that was considered anti-Nazi, which is why Kolbe was arrested in 1941. He was about 47 at that time.

Maximilian_KolbeKolbe was prisoner number 16670 in Auschwitz. When three prisoners escaped from Auschwitz, the camp’s commander ordered 10 prisoners be put in an underground bunker and left to starve to death. Kolbe offered himself in exchange for a man who had a family in the camp. Kolbe was in the bunker for two weeks. The other nine died, but he didn’t. At the end of two weeks, however, the guards wanted the bunker emptied so they injected carbolic acid in Kolbe to kill him. His remains were cremated on 15 August, 1941.

But it isn’t just the printing press and the radio that Kolbe a neat fit with journalism as its imagined though not always practiced (particularly in India). He kept following the lead he’d chosen for himself, regardless of what interruptions came his way. Kolbe’s were minor world events like the atomic bomb and Nazi invasion. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and kept going even when it was a patently stupid thing to do. He threw himself under the bus for what he believed was right. He refused to give up. And he managed to generate a degree of controversy with his story (when he was canonised, some questioned whether he should be considered a martyr because he wasn’t a victim of the hatred for Christian faith. It was heroic and Christian charity rather than martyrdom, some argued. Pope Paul VI did not agree).

Considering the snatched whispers I’ve heard over the past couple of days, I can’t help but hope that there are such things as patron saints and they do look out for those who need a little … extra care.

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