Name and title of the superior of an autonomous monastery of one of the old monastic orders such as the benedictines, camaldolese, vallombrosans, and cistercians. basilian monks sometimes employ the term "hegumen" (Greek ἡγούμενος), while Russian and other Oriental monasteries style their superior an archimandrite.
The term is derived from the Hebrew abba, meaning father, a word found in the Bible often with reference to God. It was employed in the early 4th century as descriptive of the role of some of the Egyptian hermits as guides and teachers of religious life for younger monks who came to live under their direction. The original idea of the abbot's spiritual fatherhood of his monks developed ultimately into the juridical office of abbot, vested with authority as set forth in the benedictine rule. In Chapter 2 of the rule St. benedict portrays the ideal abbot, and the traits of both father and officer are recognized in the double form of address the author dictates for him, dominus et abbas. As the representative of Christ the abbot is the father of the monastic community and exercises a father's jurisdiction over those under his care. He will be held accountable to God, Benedict points out, for the spiritual welfare of his charges. Chapter 64 of the rule goes on to describe the authority of the abbot over his monks and emphasizes encouragement and understanding, as much as firmness and discipline, in the administration of his office. The monks, for their part, owe the abbot reverence and obedience because they should see in him Christ's deputy in their midst.
The abbot is usually elected by the monks of the monastery, the constitutions of the various congregations setting forth the qualifications of electors, the time and manner of voting and the qualifications for the office itself. It was originally intended that the abbot would hold office for life, although in modern times it is not unusual for his term to be limited to 6, 8, or 12 years (as with the English Benedictines). The election must be confirmed by proper authority, either the Holy See, frequently acting through the superior of the monastic congregation, or the local ordinary. The abbot must then seek episcopal benediction according to the rite prescribed in the Roman pontifical. Monastic founders who were religious often assumed the position of superior in their foundations and in the Middle Ages, as monasteries came to assume an increasingly important role in the economic and political life of their day, feudal lords often dictated the choice of abbots for houses within their territory. The Benedictine Rule envisioned an abbot ruling a single, independent community, but during certain periods, especially those of great monastic reform, one man came to rule a number of widely scattered houses (benedict of aniane, john of gorze, odo of cluny) and later great monastic congregations came to develop (cluny in the 10th and 11th centuries, the maurists in the 17th century). The privilege of exemption, granted since Merovingian times, gave the abbots more freedom from the control of local bishops and feudal lords and a number of houses established themselves as subject only to the Holy See. Among the Cistercians the father abbot and the abbots of the daughter houses have always had a strong influence on each other's abbatial elections while the modern Benedictines have formed themselves into national congregations. Certain privileges are attached to the office of abbot and he may be granted the right to the use of pontificals such as the ring, pectoral cross, miter, and crozier.
Canon law distinguishes between the following types of abbots. The abbas regularis de regimine has de jure and de facto government of an abbey. Enjoying episcopal exemption, he has ordinary jurisdiction in the external and internal forum over all persons belonging to the abbey. An abbas nullius has actual episcopal jurisdiction over all clergy and laity in a specified territory subject directly to the abbey. Archiabbas (archabbot), abbas praeses, or abbas generalis is a designation for an abbot who is head of a monastic congregation. The abbas primas or abbot primate is the head of the modern Benedictine confederation. A titular abbot is one who has the rank, title, and insignia of an abbot but does not himself govern the abbey whose name he bears.
A commendatory abbot, or abbot in commendam, refers to a personage who was allotted the usufruct of a monastic benefice and its revenues. Such an arrangement was much employed in the late Middle Ages but was forbidden by the Council of trent (see commendation).
See Also: abbess; abbot (canon law).
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