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A warning from history before you vote….

May 3, 2015

5th Sunday of Easter                                              (Sunday 3 May 2015)

Acts 9:26-31              1 John 3:18-24                       John 15:1-8

Something about the history of the deacons this evening. Up until the Reformation in the 16th Century deacons were a common feature in the Church. Indeed, the very first Christian martyr was a deacon, Saint Stephen.

And this is a link to the first reading this evening:

“When Saul got to Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him: they could not believe he was really a disciple.

Those first Christians we heard about this evening didn’t trust St Paul because of what he had done in the past. St Paul had been a major player in persecuting the Church, and was present and approved of the murder of St Stephen.

Another very well known deacon, not a priest, was Saint Francis of Assisi – the man who is the role model for our present pope. St Francis did not want to be ordained as a priest – his ministry was serving people in the wider world, interacting with the broad population, spreading the gospel. Deacons throughout history have fulfilled this role, reaching out beyond just the Christian congregations to outsiders. And through history deacons were often appointed to administrative posts in the Church – running the hospitals, the orphanages, charities, and all that sort of thing – and often becoming bishops because of their wide knowledge of their dioceses. In fact through our history there have been 34 deacons elected as pope.

But, despite being an ancient part of the clergy supporting the bishops, deacons disappeared from public view after the Reformation. This was because the Catholic Church created new seminaries, where priests were trained, and they were ordained as deacons whilst at the seminary before being ordained as priests and sent out into the parishes. So deacons disappeared from Catholic consciousness.

Why then did the Second Vatican Council change things so that once again the diaconate became a very distinct and public ministry in the Church, returning to having the three orders of ordained ministers, just like the early Church – bishops, priests and deacons. Why the restoration of the diaconate in the 1960s.

The answer is very surprising. Nazism.

Contrary to the anti-Catholic propaganda we often hear, the Catholic Church in Germany was implacably opposed to Nazism and many of the clergy – one third of German priests – were imprisoned in concentration camps. Soon the Nazis realised they couldn’t stop the priests evangelizing, so they sent them all to one camp, Dachau, near Munich. During the 12 years of Nazi rule more than 188,000 people ended up in Dachau, including about 3,000 bishops, priests, and other religious, alongside Jews, so-called asocials and political prisoners.

Whilst imprisoned, the clergy in Dachau asked themselves how such a terrible situation could arise in such a civilized country as Germany. How had it been possible for such cold-blooded, ruthless extremists to take over? They didn’t know then how or when the nightmare would end, but they realised that the Church had failed to warn the people of the Nazi danger during the early years after the First World War. They had simply looked on as the Nazi Party got stronger, not saying anything. They realised that the Church had been too inward looking, and had lost touch with ordinary people.

And they concluded that what the Church needed was deacons. Deacons who would be more in touch with the realities and difficulties of modern family life.

So was that at the Second Vatican Council it was the German bishops, together with the French bishops, who made the argument for deacons. They were advised by a young theologian called Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. And so it was that the Holy Spirit moved the Church to reinstate the full order of deacons made up of men who were willing to remained, like St Stephen and St Francis, as deacons with a distinct ministry of their own.

Now, fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, we see many of our deacons working in their everyday jobs across all walks of life. You can look in our Diocesan Directory and see what our deacons have done, are doing, in their working lives – it’s amazing the breadth of experience. And once again, many deacons across this country are taking up their traditional roles again. Our Diocesan Treasurer, responsible for the finances across this Archdiocese, is Deacon David Palmer, a fully qualified accountant; the home when Canon John is recuperating, Aston Hall in Staffordshire, is run by Deacon Trevor Smith; in my own little way, I am Chair of Restore, working for the Ecumenical Christian charity which covers the whole of Birmingham giving support to those desperate people who have escaped from tyranny and seek asylum and refuge in our country.

Thursday is the General Election. We seem to have been flooded with politics on TV for the last month, and amongst the huge numbers of of adverts that come through our doors, the political parties have added a pile of their own leaflets.

As Christians we must ask ourselves what kind of society we want here at home and abroad. As good Catholics we have a duty to take a full part in society, standing as candidates, working for political parties and going out to vote. If you are really keen, you can look up the letter our Bishops published a couple of months ago that lists the key political subjects that we Catholics should be alert to during the election campaign. Obviously things are so complicated it can’t just come down to a single issue or a single individual candidate, but clearly some issues are more central than others, particularly those to do with the dignity and value of human life and human flourishing.

Very conveniently someone from Catholic Charismatic Renewal has taken the time to analyse all the manifestos in this country on the major issues identified by our Bishops. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that there is clearly no such thing as a “Catholic” party. Most of the parties are mainstream, with agreement on broad principles, their aim being to improve and increase the opportunities for our people to flourish in this country and to work to help others in need elsewhere in the world. Of course, as always, it is how to achieve the desired result that is controversial.

I’ll only say one thing. And I say it as a deacon, one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council in the aftermath of a terrible war that was the tragic result of rampant nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe. And my conscience is clear in saying this, because we have a warning from history through the brave martyrs of Dachau concentration camp:

Please, before voting – make sure that a candidate is not, either through naivety or deviousness, playing on our baser instincts – seeking to exclude the stranger in our midst; to blame different sections of society for all our ills; pander to racism or homophobia. Given how things unraveled and so rapidly went out of control when the Nazis managed to get their people into the German Parliament (remember, Hitler came to power in the coalition negotiations after a German general election).

As we heard earlier, when St John wrote to the earliest Christians:

“our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active; only by this can we be certain that we are children of the truth and be able to quieten our conscience in his presence, whatever accusations it may raise against us, because God is greater than our conscience and he knows everything.”

Do come out of the voting booth next Thursday with a clear conscience.

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