Abbot (Canon Law)

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The title applied to the religious superior of an abbey; derives from the earliest years of Oriental monasticism when the aspirant to holiness chose a suitable monk, whom he called his abba (father), to teach and guide him. Later, monastic rules, especially that of St. Benedict, introduced the term into Western Canon Law and liturgy. Since the mendicant orders and the more modern religious institutes adopted another nomenclature for their superiors, the title of abbot is also found among the Canons Regular and in the monastic orders, particularly those that follow the Benedictine Rule.

Election and Privileges. An abbot is usually selected by the secret vote of the community he will govern. The constitutions of each institute establish the specific requisites in the electorate, candidate, and electoral procedure. Generally the requirement is for a majority vote of the solemnly professed religious, taken by secret ballot, for a priest who has been a professed member of the order for at least ten years, is of legitimate birth, and is at least 30 years of age. Upon acceptance of his election and its confirmation by the competent ecclesiastical authority, the new abbot receives the abbatial blessing from the diocesan bishop. While this rite closely resembles an episcopal consecration, it confers no power of orders, but is a requisite for the use of some prelatial powers.

Although in some communities the term of office is limited, an abbot is elected for life. In the event of old age or other incapacity, he may request a coadjutor, or he may even resign. Some resigned abbots are made titular abbots and hold in empty title an abbey no longer active. In very rare cases the title of abbot is directly granted by the Holy See as an honor.

Since the Middle Ages, abbots have received, by papal privilege, the use of insignia and ceremonial proper to bishops. These prelatial prerogatives are recognized in law and liturgy. An abbot is allowed the use of a ring, pectoral cross, and zucchetto. Vested for pontifical functions or assisting in formal choir, he wears the garb of a bishop, except that its color is proper to his religious order. Thus a Norbertine abbot wears white, a Benedictine abbot wears black. An abbot celebrates Holy Mass and performs other liturgical functions according to the ceremonial of a prelate. He uses a throne with a canopy, wears complete prelatial vesture, and observes the rubrics for a pontiff. While there remain no restrictions on the frequency of his use of these prerogatives, an abbot is normally allowed their use only in churches of his own order, although privilege and custom have modified this limitation. Unless the abbot is a bishop, however, he is not authorized to perform those consecrations that require episcopal power. Thus he does not ordinarily prepare the holy oils or ordain to major orders. He is allowed, after having received the abbatial blessing, to confer tonsure and minor orders on his own religious.

An abbot may be honored by being allowed to wear the cappa magna, a cloak and train, in processions. Less frequently the use of a violet zucchetto is permitted as a special distinction.

In formal address, an abbot is titled "right reverend abbot," but his religious would speak to him as "father abbot." In an assembly of their own institute, ruling abbots take precedence according to the time of their election after officers of the assembly, abbots nullius, and archabbots. The name of the abbot is not mentioned in the Canon of the Mass unless he is an abbot nullius. For his funeral, an abbot is vested in full pontifical garb, but the Mass is celebrated as for a priest.

Right to Govern. The abbot is, first of all, the religious superior of his community. His authority to instruct and command the religious is ideally a father's care for his sons. Monastic communities cherish their abbot not only as the superior or administrator, but also as the wise and solicitous parent who recognizes in each member of the family his particular talent and endowment, and by means best suited to the individual, develops that potential. Although the work of the apostolate and the care of temporalities demand consideration, the abbot is ever to be aware of spiritual goals as his first concern. The dominative power of the abbot arises from the religious profession of vows.

The authority of the abbot as a major superior in a clerical exempt institute is also jurisdictional. As the ordinary for his religious, he grants faculties for the hearing of their confessions and he can dispense them from certain obligations of the common law, such as fasting. An abbot possesses exclusive authority and responsibility for his community and for each member of it. He chooses the several officials of the monastery, who are responsible to and remain dependent upon him. He has direct and immediate control of each member of the house, while these have the right to approach him directly. This relationship, while sometimes difficult in very large abbeys, is the significant characteristic of abbatial rule.

While each abbey is a separate and independent juridic entity, most are associated into monastic congregations. The authority of its abbot president is specified in the constitutions. Pope Leo XIII provided for the confederation of Benedictine monastic congregations with an abbot primate, whose authority is described in the Lex propria of 1952.

If an abbey is to be specially distinguished, particularly as the motherhouse of many abbeys, it may be honored as an archabbey and its abbot called the archabbot. Unless the title is used for the head of a monastic congregation, an archabbot possesses almost no authority over other abbeys and their religious, but does enjoy some precedence. In the United States there are the Archabbeys of st. vincent (Latrobe, Pa.) and of st. meinrad (St. Meinrad, Ind.).

Bibliography: m. dlouhy, The Ordination of Exempt Religious (Catholic University of American Canon Law Studies 271; Washington 1955) 6887.

[m. j. dlouhy]

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Abbot (Canon Law)

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