h/t to Rocco over at Whispers in the Loggia, I found this photo to be perfect to illustrate this point. It's a picture of Archbishop Tim Dolan of New York surrounded by some of his deacons. And this is how it should be!
From the earliest scriptural references to deacons as ministers in the ancient church, deacons are always, always, always -- did I write that enough? -- ALWAYS associated with the bishop. The letters of Paul, the pastoral letters (such as 1 Timothy, which gives the famous list of qualifications for bishops, followed immediately by the qualifications for deacons), even the famous passage from Acts 6 which is traditionally associated with deacons with the selection of the Seven: all associate the ministers we have come to know as deacons with the apostolic ministry of the bishop. Here's the famous passage from 1 Timothy 3: 1-13:
1 This saying is trustworthy: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task.
2 Therefore, a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach,
3 not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money.
4 He must manage his own household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity;
5 for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the church of God?
6 He should not be a recent convert, so that he may not become conceited and thus incur the devil's punishment.
7 He must also have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, the devil's trap.
8 Similarly, deacons must be dignified, not deceitful, not addicted to drink, not greedy for sordid gain,
9 holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
10 Moreover, they should be tested first; then, if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
11 Women, similarly, should be dignified, not slanderers, but temperate and faithful in everything.
12 Deacons may be married only once and must manage their children and their households well.
13 Thus those who serve well as deacons gain good standing and much confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus.
The patristic literature is just as emphatic in this relationship; you can read all of them in any good text on the history of the diaconate, such as some of the books on my bookshelf to the right of this posting. My own particular favorite citation is from Syria in the 3rd century, the Didascalia Apostolorum. Here are a few samples:
Let the bishops and the deacons, then, be of one mind; and do you 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 [Christ]. . . . 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 [bishop and deacon] of one counsel and of one purpose, and one soul dwelling in two bodies."One soul in two bodies"! Wow! Here's the tough bit: Does that sound like the relationship the deacons you know have with your bishop? I rather doubt it. The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Deacons in the United States, however, promulgated in 2004, repeatedly stresses the relationship of the deacon with the bishop, and it's critically important to remember that the National Directory is a text written BY the bishops of the country FOR the bishops of the country. This means that the bishops themselves wish to stress this relationship. Still, it's one thing to put something like that in a book; it's quite another to live out that relationship in real terms during the day-to-day life of diocesan ministry.
So, for reflection, if you are already a deacon: How is your relationship with your bishop? What can you do to improve it, to strengthen it? If you are a bishop: What are you doing to improve relationships with your deacons? Are there opportunities to have honest, forthright conversations with your deacons? Is there a forum to receive the pastoral insights of these men whom you have ordained to be your eyes and ears, heart and soul throughout the diocese? And if you're a baptized disciple or a presbyter, what are you doing to strengthen the relationship of deacons with the bishop?
I often tell the true story of a bishop who, while literally standing in the middle of his deacons, said, "When I ordained you as deacons, I ordained you to share with me the burdens on my heart for the people who live in this diocese; today I want to share what's on my heart, so it can be on yours as well." I've always remembered that, because it seemed to me that this bishop truly captured the relationship that should exist. If the diaconate is going to be strong and effective, it is critical that this relationship be healthy and vibrant.
What can YOU do about that?