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The Election of A Prioress or Abbot

Tuesday, August 20, 2024

In choosing an abbot or prioress, the guiding principle should always be that the one placed in office be the one selected either by the whole community acting unanimously out of reverence for God, or by some part of the community no matter how small, which possesses sounder judgment. Goodness of life and wisdom in teaching must be the criteria for choosing the one to be made abbot or prioress even if they are the last in community rank.

The way an abbot or prioress is chosen is, like most other things in the rule, left up to the changing needs of the group. Why an abbot or prioress is chosen is not. As far as the rule is concerned, only "those who show goodness of life and wisdom in teaching" are fit for the position. Fund raisers and business people, efficiency experts and pious ascetics, administrators and philosophers are not ruled out, they are simply not defined in as categories that demand consideration. The implication is that if we choose those good of life and wise of heart then everything else will follow. We, of course, are always tempted to look for short cuts to success: we look for the people who can trim our organizations or shape up our projects or stabilize our ministries. Benedictine spirituality cautions us always to follow only the good and the wise, only those who call us to our best selves, our fullest selves, knowing that if we live according to the scriptures and choose according to the deepest and highest and greatest of human ideals, then life cannot fail for us, whatever its struggles, whatever its cost. "If I do not acquire ideals in my youth, " Maimonides wrote, "when will I? Not in old age."

Benedictine spirituality tells us to choose for ideals at every turn, even at those times when management seems more important than vision.

May God forbid that a whole community should conspire to elect a prioress or abbot who goes along with its own evil ways. But if it does, and if the bishop of the diocese or any Benedictine leaders or other Christians in the area come to know of these evil ways to any extent, they must block the success of this wicked conspiracy, and set a worthy person in charge of God's house. They may be sure that they will receive a generous reward for this, if they do it with pure motives and zeal for God's honor. Conversely, they may be equally sure that to neglect to do so is sinful.

There is no such thing as a private life in a globalized world. For a monastery, there never was. The monastery is that model of a place where the doors are always open, the environment is always gentle, the rhythm is always ordered and God is always the center of life. A monastery is to be a light to remind all of us how beautiful the world would be if we shaped our own lives out of the same values. A Benedictine monastery is not of the church in the sense that a diocesan seminary or diocesan college is. It is not built by the church or operated by local diocesan officials. But it is definitely in the church and for the church. What happens in a Benedictine monastery should touch the spiritual life of an entire region. For that reason, whatever might erode monastic life--a breakdown of lifestyle, a contrived election, a loss of authenticity--is definitely everybody else's business. And the Rule takes care to guarantee and to maintain that sense of public acknowledgement and accountability. "The voice of the people is as the voice of God," a Jewish midrash writes. In this paragraph, Benedict requires the people to be the voice of God so that the house of God can be saved. If the monastery calls the public to commitment, there is no doubt that Benedict intends the public to call monasteries to authenticity as well so that Benedictine spirituality can continue to permeate the Church. We are all guides for one another.