Term derived from abbot (Aramaic abba, father), "abbess" is the title of a female superior of a monastic community of nuns. Superiors were referred to as mater monasterii, mater monacharum, praeposita ; the term "abbess" appeared for the first time in the West on the tomb of a certain "Serena, abbatissa" (d. c. 514) in the Roman church of St. Agnes-Outside-the-Walls. Growing Benedictine influence endowed the office of abbess with a liturgical character, making it elective by vote of the community, prescribing episcopal benediction, and granting the right to the ring, pectoral cross, and crosier. During the Middle Ages, abbesses of great monastic houses exercised practically all the temporal power of abbots and feudal lords, ranking among the nobles of the realm, sitting in parliament and in councils, and recognizing no ecclesiastical authority other than the pope. Many abbesses assumed spiritual power over their nuns also, to the point of incurring stern papal prohibitions against interference in the administration of penance, conferring the veil, and giving benedictions and even sacramental absolution. For such abuses innocent iii rebuked abbesses of the royal monasteries in Burgos (see huelgas de burgos, abbey of) and Palencia, Spain. The abbess of Conversano in Apulia, Italy, had the right to a quasi-episcopal authority over her clergy until 1810, when pius vii abolished her privileges. The abbess of fontevrault had jurisdiction over both monks and nuns of this monastic establishment, typical of other double monasteries. With the breakdown of the feudal system, the temporal power of abbesses declined.
The title abbess continues to be used in older monastic orders such as Benedictines, Poor Clares, Bridgettines and canonesses, but not in all. In some orders the name is used only in formal communication, and there is no universal legislation concerning the use or non-use of the term. Instead, it is left to each order to state in their Rule or constitutions the title to be used. The 1983 Code of Canon Law of the Latin church uses the generic term "Supreme Moderator" for the person who has authority over all provinces, houses and members of the institute. The term Superior is used for others who have authority according to the constitutions and within the limits of their office. The Code leaves to each institute the right to decide what title to use for those who exercise authority in it, and stipulates only that those in authority are to be in office for a given period of time according to the nature and needs of the institute, unless the constitutions establish otherwise for the Supreme Moderator and for the Superiors of an autonomous house.
Bibliography: t. j. bowe, Religious Superioresses: A Historical Synopsis and a Plain Commentary (Washington 1946). j. beal, j. coriden and t. green, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (New York, NY/Mahwah, NJ 2000).
[m. f. laughlin/