The Relationship between Pastors and Deacons
Exploring the visions, realities and possibilities for brothers in ministry
Among the many blessings of my nearly three decades as a deacon have been the wonderful partnerships formed with pastors. Since we have moved a lot during those years, due to military as well as ecclesiastical assignments, there have been many such opportunities to form those relationships. These men have been as different as the parishes we were serving. Some have been quiet and reflective, others gregarious and instinctive; some have been good leaders and poor managers; others have been good managers and ineffective leaders; some have understood the diaconate well, while others have had no clue. All, thank God, have been strong men of faith in love with the Lord.
In this In Focus, I want to review three questions. First, what are the visions articulated by the Church about this critically important relationship of pastor and deacon? Second, what are the realities associated with that relationship? Third, how might we continue to renew that relationship in the future?
Life is all about relationships; ministry is no different. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Pastores Dabo Voris, his 1992 encyclical on the formation of priests, that “the ordained ministry has a radical ‘communitarian form’ and can only be carried out as ‘a collective work’” (No. 17). The papal magisterium and the Holy See consistently have echoed this conciliar teaching. In 1998, the Congregation for the Clergy wrote extensively about “the relations of Holy Order” in its document Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, which highlights the three relationships of the deacon with Christ, the Church and his bishop. Deacons “necessarily depend on the Bishops, who have the fullness of the sacrament of orders. In addition, they are placed in a special relationship with the priests, in communion with whom they are called to serve the People of God” (No. 8). The document goes on to state that a key ability of deacons must be “their capacity to relate to others. This requires that they be affable, hospitable, sincere in their words and heart, prudent and discreet, generous and ready to serve, capable of opening themselves to clear and brotherly relationships, and quick to understand, forgive and console” (No. 67).
The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States also describes the ministerial relationships of the permanent deacon. Building on the fundamental relationship to the bishop, the relationship of priests and deacons is covered extensively in paragraphs 50-53. The bishops of the United States teach that “the diaconate is not an abridged or substitute form of the priesthood, but is a full order in its own right” (No. 50), echoing the Vatican’s Basic Norms. Paragraph 52 stresses that priests and deacons “should develop a genuine respect for each other, witnessing to the communion and mission they share with one another and with the diocesan bishop in mutual service to the People of God.”
This is the vision of the relationship of deacon and priests (and in a special way, priests serving in the office of pastor). What is the reality?
The experience of deacons with our pastors is as diverse as we are. [See the sidebar “My Pastor, the Bishop.”] For every account of a strong partnership there seems a commensurate horror story. Clearly much remains to be done to develop the mutual support and respect called for in our magisterial vision.
One of the most affirming comments I have ever received as a deacon took place after Sunday Eucharist. As the pastor and I (one of three deacons serving the parish) were standing outside of the church waiting to greet the assembly, the pastor remarked that during the Mass he had been struck by the mutual and collaborative dimensions of our two ordained ministries, and that he had never felt more a part of a team than when he celebrated Mass with a deacon. He’d had a “Eureka!” moment during the Mass about his relationships with us, and that opened the door to an even more effective partnership in ministry.
On the other hand, deacons (and priests) report situations in which deacons request transfers because they can’t get along with the pastor, or because the pastor won’t let him exercise his faculties, and pastors demanding the deacon be transferred because of incompetence in homiletics or some other reason. Sometimes these situations can be worked out successfully; other cases require more drastic measures.
Often, conflicts emerge when there is an inadequate understanding of each other’s roles. During my years at the USCCB, I was asked to spend four days discussing the diaconate with the presbyterate of a Southern diocese. At the end of our very first session, one of the pastors approached me; he was quite upset. I thought he might have been concerned about something I had said, but it was something else entirely. He was angry because, while there had been deacons in the diocese for more than two decades, no one had explained the history, nature and expectations of the diaconate to the priests. Why were they just hearing this now? What really had him upset with himself was the fact that, because of his lack of understanding, he had been treating the deacons poorly for many years. In tears now, he asked, “How can I ever seek their forgiveness?” For the good of the Church, and for the good of both priests and deacons, how can we continue bringing the vision into reality?
The Directory lists a number of opportunities to develop this relationship: “It is important for the diocese to offer opportunities annually for shared retreats, days of recollection, deanery meetings, continuing education study days, and mutual work on diocesan councils and commissions, as well as regularly scheduled occasions for socialization” (No. 52).
We are truly brothers in ministry, and the bishops of the United States wish to encourage the development of a filial relationship between priests and deacons that is both professional and truly fraternal. This idea of being truly fraternal shines light on a nugget of wisdom from the horrors of the concentration camp.
Father Otto Pies, the German Jesuit who served as informal leader of the Catholic clergy incarcerated in Dachau during World War II, reported on discussions held by the priest-prisoners of Dachau, including the need for permanent deacons in the postwar Church. He suggested traditional areas in which deacons could be of great assistance, and he also included something so subtle it largely has gone unnoticed. He wrote that deacons could provide valuable fraternal and emotional support to the priests with whom they serve. Deacons who report positive relationships with their pastors often remark that they have become good friends and that this friendship has been mutually enriching, honest and supportive.
Obviously this is not attainable in every instance. After all, there are divisions even within our respective orders. Nonetheless, it suggests that if we work at developing an honest friendship with each other, we will find a common foundation upon which to build the partnership. In short, we are challenged to believe in each other as brothers and not simply learn about each other as priests or deacons. It goes to the common expression that we all know so well: that we are both (priests and deacons) more than the sum of our functions; it is about who we are.
So, what are we doing to enhance and nourish this relationship? Does the diocese offer opportunities for priests and deacons to share spiritual, formational and social events? Granted, both priests and deacons need time to themselves in their respective orders, but what about other occasions in which both orders can spend time together? Some dioceses design overnight clergy convocations in which the bishop, priests and deacons gather together to study, pray and support one another. Are there opportunities for priests and deacons to collaborate on various charitable and pastoral projects? Locally, what chances might the priests and deacons (at a large parish) or the pastor and deacon (at a smaller parish) have to get together outside the office for a meal or other social time outside of the office? The point is to find chances to be together more intentionally and fraternally.
In nurturing our fraternal and ministerial relationships as priests and deacons, we offer still another witness to the communio of the Church, modeling both unity and diversity within the Sacrament of Holy Orders itself, as both orders work to build up the Body of Christ.
DEACON BILL DITEWIG, Ph.D., is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington, a retired Navy commander and past executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
My Pastor, the Bishop
By Deacon Greg Kandra
On a snowy Sunday morning last winter, I arrived at the parish to serve Mass and saw a familiar figure shoveling the steps of the rectory. It was my pastor, bundled in overcoat, boots and scarf, bravely trying to stay ahead of the drifts.
I waved and called out, “Look at you! Smelling like the sheep! And shoveling like them, too!”
It was just another Sunday at my church with my pastor — but not just any pastor; Paul Sanchez also happens to be an auxiliary bishop. It’s not as unusual as it sounds. As of this writing, the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, has five other auxiliary bishops who also serve as pastors of parishes. With vocations in decline, but work increasing, Bishop Paul Sanchez is part of a growing number of bishops doing double duty.
As if that weren’t enough, he also happens to be the son of a deacon — a very small and exclusive club that includes Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond, Virginia. Periodically, when people hear that my pastor is a bishop, they ask me if he’s just a figurehead. Does he actually do anything, you know, like a pastor?
Does he? Where do I begin?
While he has the help of a priest administrator, who handles a lot of the temporal headaches of running a big and busy urban parish — broken heater, leaky roof? He’s your guy — Bishop Paul is very hands-on. He runs the parish council meetings, visits ailing parishioners, does wedding intakes and marriage preparation, presides at funeral Masses and wakes, manages staffing and personnel issues (including how best to keep his deacon busy and out of trouble) and is on hand most Sundays to help distribute Communion during all the Masses. He’s also generous in sharing the pulpit; if he’s celebrating multiple Masses on a weekend, he will ask me if I’d like to preach one of them. (I almost never say no.)
For me, as a deacon, one of the real treasures of Bishop Paul is his own personal connection to the diaconate. His father was ordained a deacon in one of the first classes in my diocese, in the late 1970s; then-Father Paul had the privilege of vesting his own father at his ordination.
What this means, in a practical sense, is that my bishop-pastor “gets it” — he knows what it means to be a deacon, he understands the challenges of the wife of a deacon, and he sympathizes with the dexterity needed to spin a lot of plates (and a lot of priorities) while ministering to the People of God. He’s generous in thanking me for everything I’m able to do around the parish, and always makes a point of including my wife in any party, dinner, celebration or clergy event. He recently hosted a dinner for a visiting archbishop and made a point of inviting not only the other priests in the rectory, but also my wife and me.
I know that’s not the case for every deacon. I am blessed.
I suspect we will be seeing more bishops serving as pastors in the years to come. From my experience, it’s a welcome trend. It keeps the shepherd close to his sheep — and vice versa.
It helps on snowy days, too, when the man who carries a crosier can also use a shovel.