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What Is Selfless Love?

Love has a cost

by Brendan Farrelly (revised, originally published in 2009)

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore the concept of selfless love by using an example from Auschwitz.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a student to read the Bible passage, John 15.12–17. It is available at:

  • Optional: you may wish to play Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber during the ‘Time for Reflection’ part of the assembly, in which case you will also need the means to do so. A version is available at: (9.04 minutes long)


  1. Ask the students to consider what they think of when they hear the word ‘love’. Love has many different meanings and interpretations. We may love chocolate, but this is completely different from the way in which we love a person!

  2. Invite a student to read the Bible passage, John 15.12–17.

    ‘My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit - fruit that will last - and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: love each other.’

  3. Explain that this Bible passage talks about love, but what is love? Is it how parents love their child? Or how a brother loves a sister? Is it how a husband loves his wife?

  4. Jesus said, ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ But would anyone actually die to save their friend?

    I suppose if we have a very close friend, some of us might consider that we cared enough to put them first, but would we really be willing to die for them? What about a stranger – would we die for them?

  5. Ask if any of the students have heard of a man called Maximilian Kolbe. He was sent to Auschwitz during the Second World War and while he was there, volunteered to die to save a man he did not even know. This is his story.

    Maximilian Kolbe was a priest in Poland during the Second World War. He provided shelter to refugees who were wanted by the Nazis, including 2,000 Jews who hid in his friary. In 1941, the German authorities shut down the friary and the Gestapo arrested Kolbe and sent him to the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz.

    At the camp, prisoners were housed in large, wooden bunkers, which were cold and inhospitable. There was a rule at Auschwitz that if one man escaped from the camp, ten men from his bunker would be killed in retaliation. In July 1941, a man from Kolbe’s bunker was thought to have escaped.

    Ten men from the bunker were selected to be starved to death, but Kolbe was not one of them. One man selected, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out in anguish, ‘My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?’
    When he heard this desperate cry, Kolbe quietly stepped forward, took off his cap and said to the camp commandant, ‘I am a priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.’

    The camp commandant was astonished, but agreed to let Kolbe take the other man’s place. Kolbe had volunteered to sacrifice his life so that a man whom he did not know could live.

    Kolbe was put in a cell with the other nine men to starve to death. During this time, he lifted their spirits with songs and prayers. He was the last to die, on 14 August 1941.

    The cell at Auschwitz is now a shrine to Maximilian Kolbe, who was made a saint in 1982. Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man he volunteered to die for, lived for another 53 years, dying at the age of 93 in 1995. He never forgot Maximilian Kolbe, and returned to Auschwitz every year on 14 August to honour the man who died instead of him.

Time for reflection

Earlier in the assembly, we heard the Bible verse: ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’

Maximilian Kolbe did not die to save his friend, but to save a man he didnt even know. That is love.

Let’s take the time to think about three questions.

- How does the story of Maximilian Kolbe relate to us today?

Pause to allow time for thought.

- How would the world be different if people really loved one another?

Pause to allow time for thought.

- How would our school be different if instead of fighting, putting people down, being unkind and being rude, we all loved each other and gave each other dignity and respect?

Pause to allow time for thought.

Dear Lord,
Teach us to love one another.
Help us to be patient with one another.
Help us to listen to one another,
To try to see things from other people’s point of view.
Guide us to seek inspiration from those who lead good lives
So that we, too, can live our lives as you would wish.


Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, available at:

Publication date: February 2019   (Vol.21 No.2)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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