Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Point to Ponder #2: The Bishop and his Deacons

Moving on to point #2: How healthy is our relationship with our bishop?  We are supposed to be the "eyes, ears, heart, soul" of the bishop, extending his ministry throughout the diocese.  How's that going?

With a 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?


  1. I think the deacons often see their parish pastors as their primary connection with the rest of the hierarchy, largely because those pastors are the ones who recommended them for the diaconate, subsidized their formation, and now give direction to their ministry in the parish. The pastors themselves may perceive any more direct connection with the bishop as an attempt to "break rank." An obvious way to change this pattern is to assign every deacon to at least some diocesan responsibilities outside of his own parish.

  2. Dear Ron,

    I agree that this can often be the case, but that is precisely what is changing. In the mid-1990's the bishops conducted a four-part survey of deacons, wives of deacons, pastors/parochial vicars, and parish leadership. Among some other very interesting data, lay leaders (parish pastoral council presidents, e.g.) identified priests as "diocesan ministers currently serving in our parish", while deacons were identified as "parish ministers." The US bishops saw this with great concerned and set up as one of their major initiatives efforts to change this misperception.

    So, in most dioceses around the US, deacons now receieve a dual assignment: one to a parish, usually for mnistries of word and worship, and another to an extraparochial assignment, often for a ministry of charity. The last time this was measured, about 2004, more than 2/3 of all deacons in the US reported that they had one of these dual assignments, with only 1/3 of deacons serving only in parish ministry alone.

    The other thing that is changing is the financial. Whenever bishops would ask me at the USCCB about the funding of the diaconate, I would always remind them something they already knew: "the one who buys, owns" and that if the bishop wanted his deacons and priests to understand that deacons are diocesan ministers, then the parish should NOT be paying for diaconate formation. One new bishops even instituted a "deacon buy back" program in his dioceses, reimbursing the pastors for the money they had spent on formation, and re-issuing the deacons' assignment letters to make sure that everyone understood that deacons were diocesan ministers being assigned as the bishop deemed most responsive to local need.

    Once priests (especially PASTORS) get used to this new idea, they're fine with it. This kind of relationship of the order of deacons with the bishop is similar and analogous the relationship the order of presbyters is to have with the bishop, so it is familiar to them.

    So, while I agree that for many of us deacons and pastors, things are still a struggle, I do believe that things are evolving. There's still a long way to go, but the National Directory (written BY bishops, FOR bishops) gets it right, and as it continues to influence things, I'm hoping these relationships will continue to mature.

    Then again, I've always been an optimist!

    God bless,