Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bishops and Deacons: Foundations

There are, of course, many references in scripture and in early Christian writings to the relationship of bishops and deacons. The first letter to Timothy, for example, links the qualifications of the two.

The link between bishops and deacons is a profound one, and even when the Second Vatican Council took its own steps to renew a permanent diaconate in the Latin church, its discussions on the diaconate took place right in the middle of the discussions on the nature and role of bishops. In all of the literature since the Council, this relationship has been stressed.

Of all the ancient references, one of my favorites comes from Syria in the early 3rd Century, the Didascalia Apostolorum. This text offers practical directions for early church life in the area. Look at what it has to say about bishops and deacons:

Let the bishops and the deacons, then, be of one mind, and shepherd the
people diligently with one accord. For you ought both to be one body, father and
son, for you are in the likeness of the Lordship. . . . Let the deacon be the
hearing of the bishop, and his mouth and his heart and his soul; for when you
are both of one mind, through your agreement there will be peace in the Church.
. . . And be you both [bishop and deacon] of one counsel and of one purpose, and
one soul dwelling in two bodies.

Most deacons today would say that their own relationship with their bishops is not quite at this level yet! But it certainly gives a wonderful vision of how ordained ministry might be lived out in service of others. We often read and hear about the sacramental relationship that exists between presbyters (priests) and bishops, but we don't hear nearly enough about the analogous sacramental relationship that should likewise exist between bishops and deacons.


  1. As the Church is today, I see no way deacons can have the type immediate relationship with their bishops as depicted here.
    In the early Church(and still in much of Catholic Europe today,I believe) bishops serve much smaller areas making close personal relationships with deacons more possible.
    Here in the U.S., it seems to me, a parish deacon should work on having a close personal, co-operative relationship with his pastor such as deacons had with bishops in the far past.
    I probably am saying this because I have been with two pastors for a good length of time over my 30 years as a deacon and have had a strong personal and co-operative relationship with both.

  2. Also in context of time and place...the relationship of priests with the bishops isn't what it used to be (even if THAT wasn't always the best). The past years of the sex abuse crisis brought much division, mistrust and a more legal "cover my a_ _" than pastoral/father appraoch towards the priests. Deacons: keep standing in line and once the priests accept us as brother clergy perhaps the bishops might as well. Hope springs eternal.

  3. I have been a deacon for some 32 years and served under three different bishops. I had a close and comfortable relationship only with one -- the middle of the three. It may have been that he was a native of the town where I serve, or that I was a student of his in my formation, or even that he was one who not only had an "open-door" and encouraged you to seek him out, he also approached you and sought you out. I can think of a half-dozen times he asked for my personal input on something (not that he always accepted my advice, but he was always very gracious about asking.

    Deacon Norb