The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Friday, June 3, 2016

How is the abbot elected?

Over the last several months, a number of people have asked me how the election of an abbot occurs here at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. Is there campaigning? Are there nominations? Are there debates?

No. No. And no.

I have told people to consider the American presidential election process as we experience it today—and then imagine the complete opposite to have some idea of what it’s like to elect an abbot. More than anything, it is a prayerful process of discernment and discussion. At least that’s the way it seemed to me (this was my first experience of an abbatial election here at Saint Meinrad—or anywhere, for that matter).

Now that the monastic chapter (those monks who are solemnly professed, with voting rights) have elected Fr. Kurt Stasiak, O.S.B., as the 10th abbot of Saint Meinrad, I thought I would try to briefly outline what the process here looks like. Please understand that by oath, I cannot reveal the discussions that took place behind the Chapter Room doors, the identity of the main contenders, how many ballots took place, or what the final vote count was. However, I can try to provide a general glimpse of the process itself as it unfolded.

As I’ve written here before, the process actually began in January, shortly after Archabbot Justin DuVall announced his resignation. At that time, he appointed a Task Force of monks to oversee all the details in preparation for the election. Meanwhile, as abbot’s secretary, I was charged with sending out official summons to community members who are assigned away from the monastery for purposes of various ministries or studies. Each had to confirm that he had received notice of the election, and also provide documentation if he had received approval from the Abbot President of the Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation to be absent on the day of election. If that was the case, those monks had to supply further documentation regarding whether and how they would vote by proxy or abstain (much of these, and other, election regulations are stipulated either by canon law or by the constitution and statutes of our congregation).

By and large, every capitular was expected to be here for the election, no matter where in the world he was stationed (some were overseas), unless he had a valid excuse approved by the Abbot President. I can tell you that almost everyone was here. On the day of the election, we had 75 capitulars present in person, by proxy, or voting from the infirmary for our next abbot.

In the months leading up to the election, we had a series of community meetings—not to nominate candidates or have them debate, but to discuss who we are as a community of Benedictine monks, and in what direction we would like to see ourselves going in the near future. These discussions involved a number of things, such as the changing demographics of our community (in the next decade or two, we expect to grow smaller, but younger), and how that may affect our various ministries, our monastic charism, etc. We also discussed things like the characteristics we would like to see in a new abbot, what our strengths are as a community, and what some challenges are that we are facing or expect to face. So, as you see, the process had less to do with personalities and more to do with ourselves as a community of Benedictine monks living in the 21st century—and what kind of leader we believed was needed given all those factors.

Also during this period, at our evening meals, we listened to contemporary articles being read that addressed the present and future states of monastic life, leadership qualities of an abbot, etc.

And, of course, there was prayer—not only by each monk privately, but communally in liturgy. During Lent, we had weekly periods of Eucharistic adoration specifically designated for the election process, and a prayer was added to the litany typically sung each Saturday evening before the shrine of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in the Archabbey Church. This prayer, and also prayers added to the general intercessions for Lauds and Vespers in the nine days leading up to the election, addressed in various ways our discernment, the election process, and the individual chosen as abbot.

Things began to heat up on Tuesday afternoon this week, when the capitulars held the first part of what is called a scrutinium. At this first meeting (held behind closed doors of the Chapter Room) we voted by secret ballot to suggest the names of certain monks we thought should at least be considered as possible candidates. Up to six names of the monks with the largest numbers of votes could be presented for scrutiny, and each of those named had the right to withdraw his name for consideration.

Naming these monks did not constitute official nominations or a ballot. It was only to introduce certain individuals for consideration. On the day of election, each capitular was still free to vote for any monk eligible to be elected as abbot (any community member at least 35 years old, who is a priest, and has been solemnly professed at least five years—though there are rare circumstances under which a candidate can be postulated, such as a non-ordained member of the community, who if elected and confirmed would then be ordained).

On Wednesday morning we held the second part of the scrutinium. This was really the only point in the whole process during which individual personalities were discussed—in thoughtful, discrete, and charitable terms. This involved the opportunity for everyone (again, behind closed doors, with each of the monks named the day before excused from the room while he was scrutinized) to offer observations—positive or negative—on each of the potential candidates.

Then, on Wednesday afternoon, the canonical pre-election meeting was held, with the Abbot President of the Swiss-American Congregation presiding (Abbot Vincent Bataille, O.S.B., of Marmion Abbey). For the most part, this involved explanation of all the logistics for the actual election the following day. This meeting also included the official appointment and swearing in of the chapter secretary, reading the roll call of electors, the assignment of proxies for absent members, and the appointment and swearing in of three tellers. I was one of the tellers, who on Thursday morning during the actual election, helped to distribute and count ballots, also inspecting them once the senior teller announced each vote that was cast. During the election, I and another teller also took ballots down to the monastery infirmary for those few monks who were too infirm to come up to the Chapter Room; after they had marked their ballots, we returned to the Chapter Room.

Each of these meetings began with an opening prayer, and on Thursday the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit was specifically sought by the community. This began with a 7:30 a.m. Mass of the Holy Spirit in the Archabbey Church. Then the capitulars convened (in seniority) at 9 a.m. in the Chapter Room for the election. Again, this began with prayer, and then a hymn, Veni, Creator Spiritus (“Come, Holy Spirit, Creator Blest”).

After the hymn and the roll call, Abbot President Vincent addressed us as following:

My dear confreres, we stand before this sacred moment. I urge you to fulfill your responsibility before God and this community by voting for the person you consider most fit to lead this community as abbot—a shepherd worthy to be placed over the Lord’s flock. So that this is clear to us, all will take an oath.

Then, together, we took an oath declaring that we would do this, with our right hands over our breasts, and the right hands of the two senior electors (the abbot and prior) placed in our stead on the Book of the Gospels.

It seemed to me that the election, in many (yet not all) respects, was conducted very much like a papal conclave. The capitulars were sequestered in the Chapter Room, with no phones or electronic devices allowed. Everything was done with precision regarding the roll call, distribution and collection of ballots, etc. After the ballots had been counted to ensure that the number collected corresponded with the number of electors present (conflicting counts would have made the ballot null and void), everyone hung on the words of the teller as he called out the name of each monk for whom a vote had been cast, with the secretary recording each vote.

To be elected abbot, a monk had to receive at least two-thirds majority on one of up to three ballots, and a simple majority on any ballot after that. If no one obtained the necessary majority on a particular ballot, the whole procedure had to be repeated. (Sorry, I cannot provide further details than that.)

When the necessary majority was obtained, the senior teller announced the result of the balloting based on the votes counted by the secretary. Then the Abbot President affirmed to the Chapter the lawful results of the election, and asked the newly elected—Father Kurt—whether or not he accepted the office. He did. So, the Abbot President then confirmed him as the lawful abbot of Saint Meinrad, and asked the newly elected to make the Profession of Faith and the Oath of Fidelity. After this, the new abbot was invested with the cuculla and the Einsiedeln pectoral cross.

Unlike a papal election, there is no “Room of Tears” to which the newly elected could retreat momentarily to absorb what had just happened, get his bearings, and ask for God’s assistance before being introduced publically. Instead, Abbot Kurt had to do this is the presence of his confreres as the ceremony began migrating into the church.

While all the above was happening (once the Abbot President had confirmed the election), word was sent to the junior monks and novices (they don't have chapter voting rights yet) to start ringing all six bells in the church (no white smoke). Word also was sent to our communications office to make the official announcement through social media so that news of the election would be from an official source and not a rumor. I can say that this began at approximately 10:15 a.m.

The community then processed from the Chapter Room into the church and lined up on either side of the main (west) doors. Meanwhile, the new abbot, the Abbot President, the cross bearer and candle bearers (I was one of them) went outside and came through the main doors of the church. Once inside, we sang antiphons in honor of Our Lady of Einsiedeln and Saint Meinrad. Then, after Abbot Kurt was seated in the presider’s chair, we all knelt individually before him (including former Abbot Justin, now Fr. Justin and sans pectoral cross) to promise our obedience and receive the sign of peace.

After singing the Te Deum together and receiving the new abbot’s blessing, the entire community processed out of the church. A group photo and lunch followed.

As the abbot’s secretary, the rest of my day was full. I had to send out a flurry of emails to notify the monks who had been absent, monasteries around the country, bishops in the immediate region, etc. There were papers to be signed (many of them). And Abbot Kurt and I had to coordinate on many logistical items. In the next few days and weeks, he will have a lot to take care of—including the appointment of a new prior (since that was the position he had been holding).

So, that is how the abbot was elected. I think it’s safe to say that we all slept well Thursday evening. The day had been full of a lot more excitement, ceremony, and frenetic activity then is typical around here. The past week or so, especially these last few days, was a little tense, simply because of the uncertainty of it all. Now that we know, it’s back to ora et labora—though there are sure to be adjustments for both Abbot Kurt and each one of us.

Please keep Abbot Kurt and our community in your prayers as we begin this new chapter in the history of Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

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