Prior’s Journal: The Upcoming Abbatial Election

Many people have been recently asking about how an abbot is elected – what is the process? do monks run? what happens during the election? I wanted to take a few minutes to clarify the process and how the community has been preparing for all of you – our friends.

Abbot Gregory’s election to the position of Abbot Primate in Rome was a gift to the Benedictine world but left us without an abbot. The process of electing an abbot is a serious and yet wonderful experience of trusting that the Spirit will guide us through the process. It couldn’t be more different from what we have experienced in our national presidential election. There are no debates, campaigning, or lobbying. In fact, it’s pretty tame; CNN needs not send reporters with microphones in hand.  

But this doesn’t mean we don’t prepare for this special event set for November 22, Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. On the contrary, everyone knows that the position of the Abbot as the Spiritual Father of the Community lies at the heart of our monastic community and our Benedictine spirituality. As soon as the position was vacant, we as a community began to refocus on the awesome role of the abbot and our response to that unifying role.

Discernment doesn’t happen only on the day of the election. It has been going on as we monks composed a special prayer for guidance which we recite in common after each evening meal. It goes on in special petitions added to the Prayers of the Faithful at Lauds, Vespers and of course the daily Eucharist. The Rule of St. Benedict gives extra weight to discerning the qualities of the abbot when it says: “Goodness of life and wisdom in teaching must be the criteria for choosing the one to be made abbot,” (Chapter 64: The Election of an Abbot). In addition to listening to the Holy Rule at meal time selected articles are read which spin out the gifts and talents needed in an abbot to face the challenges of today.

As in all communities, there is wisdom to be shared when all the members, from the youngest to the oldest, speak from their heart at community discussions. We have had a series of community discussions honestly looking at themes such as: what are our strengths and challenges, our hope for the future, and most importantly what qualities are necessary for an abbot who can lead us forward.

A picture from outside the monastic chapter room of the pipe from the stove used to announce abbatial elections.

A picture from outside the monastic chapter room of the pipe from the stove used to announce abbatial elections.

So you’re probably dying to ask, “What happens in the chapter room when the monks vote for their abbot?” Here’s a little tidbit of history: As late as Abbot Anselm’s election in 1961 we still used a small pot-bellied stove to produce black and white smoke coming out the window to announce a successful election! Alas, fire safety and efficiency has snuffed it out!

But here are some of the real details: Any monk who is solemnly professed can vote in an election. A monk who is eligible to be elected as abbot must be a priest, at least 35 years old, and in solemn vows for at least five years.  In exceptional cases with proper permissions, it is possible for a candidate who is outside the community or does not meet the stated qualifications to be a candidate for election.

At the actual election, voting is secret, and the monastic community takes an oath declaring that we would vote for the monk we feel will be the most fit to lead the community – a true shepherd. Once a ballot has been cast, the tellers (monks who have been selected to count the votes) will say aloud each name for which a vote has been cast. To be elected abbot, a monk must receive at least two-thirds majority on the first three ballots, and a simple majority on one of the possible next six ballots. A conclusive ballot will be met with applause, a sigh of relief and gratitude while the five tower bells will ring out our joy and hope for the future.

We ask that you keep the monastic community in your prayers during these special days – and know of our continued prayers for you, our friends and benefactors, and the entire world!


Fr. Daniel Petsche, OSB