Br. Giles: Here comes the abbot!!!!


Br. Joel: I am Br. Joel Blaize.


Novice Tony: I'm Novice Tony Wolniakowski. And this is our podcast, Echoes from the Bell Tower.


Br. Joel:  Stories of wit and wisdom from Benedictine monks who live work and pray in Southern Indiana.

This is our fifth and final episode of this season. We hope you've enjoyed learning a little bit about our lives as monks. We are hoping to return with a second season next spring. And we might have a couple of short teaser episodes this coming fall.


Novice Tony:  Today, we are talking about the election of an abbot, which is a perfect topic, because we'll be holding an abbatial election on June 2.

Back in January, Archabbot Justin announced that he was going to step down as the abbot of our community, and so the community has been preparing for the election of the next abbot, the tenth abbot in Saint Meinrad's history.


Br. Joel:  The abbot serves as the spiritual father of the community. In theRule of St. Benedict, it says the abbot holds the place of Christ in the community. Here's Archabbot Justin…


Archabbot Justin: I think that summarizes everything that an abbot is pretty well. He is to be the father figure to the community, but when I hear the phrase "he holds the place of Christ," I also think it means that he holds the place open so that no one, including himself, thinks that he should step in and fill it, because it is Christ's place. I think the abbot is not a job. It is clearly an office that a man holds in the monastic community.


Br. Joel:  The abbot is a man who reminds us of who we are, what we're about and he keeps us moving forward.


Fr. Julian: But for a place as large and as complex as Saint Meinrad, …


Novice Tony:  This is Fr. Julian Peters. During the last election, he served as secretary to the abbot, to the council and chapter, and as master of ceremonies.


Fr. Julian:  That means that he is also necessarily chairman of the board of trustees for our Seminary and School of Theology and, if you will, the president and CEO of Saint Meinrad Archabbey Incorporated. He has the ultimate authority.


Novice Tony:  TheRule of St. Benedictgives the abbot a lot of responsibility, but St. Benedict also says repeatedly that, on the Day of Judgment, the abbot must render God an account not only for himself, but for his monks.


Archabbot Justin:  I think when St. Benedict says that, he doesn't say it to frighten the abbot. He says it to remind him of the tremendous opportunities and gifts that have been placed in his disposition. And he must be accountable to it, like any good servant is accountable for that.


Br. Joel:  While we are preparing to elect the leader of our community, the country is preparing to elect the leader of the United States.


Novice Tony:  The process is a little bit different, though. The archabbot has no term limits and there's no campaigning.


Br. Joel:  And the whole process is prayerful and civil.


Novice Tony:  When Archabbot Justin announced that he was going to step down, it created a chain of events.


Br. Joel:  First, a task force was created, and it's in charge of making sure everything is prepared for the election and the blessing of the new abbot after the election. They've planned some community meetings, prayer opportunities and they've introduced reflections from readings or articles at the dinner table.


Fr. Thomas: Before we ever talk about, as a community, as a whole, what we want the next abbot to be, to really reflect instead on Abbot Justin's leadership, and to thank him, and to name all of the good things that he's done, and to kind of put ourselves in a place of gratitude for how well things have been going these last 11 years.


Novice Tony:  That was Fr. Thomas Gricoski. Archabbot Justin was elected about eight months before Fr. Thomas entered the monastery, so this is his first experience with an abbatial election. He is a member of the task force and so is Fr. Julian.


Br. Joel:  So the monks are discussing current and future needs of the community and what they're looking for in the next abbot. A day or two before the election, the community will hold ascrutinium, which is basically a straw vote.


Novice Tony:  Each monk will submit two names of men they are considering, and the top six or so will be discussed. During the discussion, the monk being discussed leaves the room. A monk can also say he doesn't want to be scrutinized, but he can still be voted for.


Archabbot Justin:  It is a chance for the monks to speak candidly, but charitably, and to speak both positively and voice any reservations they might have about this particular monk.

When the scrutinium is over, we have a fair idea of who it is that people are thinking about, but it does not mean that the election is limited only to those who emerged in thescrutinium.


Br. Joel:  To be eligible to be elected as abbot, a monk must be 35 years old, fully professed for at least five years and he must be a priest.


Novice Tony:  So Br. Joel, you cannot be an abbot.


Br. Joel:  Aww, man! Well, so anyway this year's election will have roughly 58 names on the ballot.


Archabbot Justin:  If people think the current presidential field for election is wide, they've not seen anything yet with 58 names. But clearly, although those names appear on the ballot, not everyone would be equally qualified or considered.

So, for example, Father Cletus, who is a wonderful man, but at 97 probably would not want to be the abbot, and we would not put that burden on him, but his name will be on the ballot because he meets the three criteria.


Br. Joel:  The whole community is expected to be home for the election. And this year, a community retreat is planned the week before the election. If a monk can't return home, he can still vote by proxy.


Novice Tony:  The election is kind of like a homecoming. Several monks have assignments away from the Hill or are away studying. The election also serves as an opportunity for spiritual growth and community building. Like many monks, the abbatial election gives me an opportunity to meet many members of the community who I haven't had a chance to meet yet.


Archabbot Justin:  In the election in 1978, my first election, there was one monk whom I had never seen, and he came home for the election. So when I saw him, I had seen the whole community. That may be the case now for some of our younger monks who have not been here long enough to personally have met a couple of the monks who are stationed at a greater distance from Saint Meinrad and don't regularly have the opportunity to return. If they come home for the election, they will be able to say, "Now, I've seen Father So-and-so or Brother So-and-so."


Br. Joel:  So after all this time preparing and discerning, the community is finally ready for the day of election.


Fr. Julian:  And then on the morning of June 2nd, we will have Mass together, presided over by the abbot president of the Swiss-American Congregation. And then the chapter will gather, and we'll begin the election process. We'll begin marking ballots.


Br. Joel:  The Swiss American Congregation is an organization of Benedictine monasteries of which Saint Meinrad is a member and that shares a common monastic heritage.


Novice Tony:  The chapter is the group of community members eligible to vote. To be a member of the chapter, a monk has to have made his final profession. So the junior monks and us novices will be in the church waiting to be notified of the new abbot.


Br. Joel:  The election is presided over by the abbot president of the Swiss-American Congregation. When the community assembles in chapter, the monks sit in order of seniority. They cast their vote and they walk up, one by one, to place their ballot in the box.

And what happens in chapter stays in chapter. So there's a certain level of confidentiality throughout the community meetings,scrutiniumand the election itself.


Novice Tony:  In the first three rounds of voting, a monk must receive 2/3 of the votes. Starting in round 4 and on, a monk must receive a simple majority.

After nine ballots, though, if no one is elected, the abbot president will appoint a monk to serve as administrator for a designated period. Once a monk receives the majority vote, the abbot president asks if he accepts the election, and he does have a right to refuse.

However, if he accepts, he immediately receives full and complete authority. At this time, the novices and junior monks are notified and we start ringing the bells to announce the election.


Fr. Julian:  So then he will make his profession of faith and oath of fidelity there in the chapter. And then the community will process to the church and we will sing the "Te Deum," hymn of thanksgiving. And each of the monks will come forward, and kneel in front of the abbot, place our hands in his, and affirm our promise of obedience. And then we go to lunch. And then we kind of go back to work.


Br. Joel:  Then the preparations begin for the rite of blessing, which is the Catholic Church's official recognition of his election. He becomes a prelate, or high-ranking church official, and as a symbol of his new office, he receives a ring, the miter, which is a big hat also worn by bishops, and his pastoral staff, which is like a shepherd's crook.


Novice Tony:  Really, he just looks like an abbot now.


Br. Joel:  The election process follows canon law and the laws of the Swiss American Congregation. And so the process is not too different from the election of a pope.


Novice Tony:  However, there is no white smoke. But Fr. Thomas said there used to be a chimney in the chapter room for burning ballots, but that did not work very well. So they got rid of it.

The election is similar to the election of a pope, because the community really gets to choose its own abbot instead of finding out from a higher authority who the abbot will be. Here's Fr. Thomas….


Fr. Thomas:  It's a very democratic thing. We get to elect our abbot, and we really know who we're getting and what we're getting beforehand. And we kind of have the chance to set the pace and set the tone for the future. And that means that, just like we hope the Holy Father is being inspired by the Holy Spirit when he appoints a bishop, and a bishop is inspired by the Holy Spirit when he appoints a pastor, we hope that we ourselves, as the voting monks, are being inspired, somehow, by the Holy Spirit in who we vote for, for abbot.


Br. Joel:  After the election, the former abbot takes a well-earned sabbatical before receiving a new assignment. Archabbot Justin will actually be serving as vice rector at Bishop Simon Bruté Seminary in Indianapolis.


Novice Tony:  The retired abbot can also choose to keep the title and seniority of abbot, or he can ask permission from the abbot president to go back to his place and rank in the community. Abbot Timothy chose to do that and so has Archabbot Justin.


Br. Joel:  Seniority is determined by when a monk enters the monastery. Fr. Lambert and Fr. Timothy were classmates and they've both served the community as abbots. Here's Fr. Julian with a story from Fr. Lambert's election in 1995.


Fr. Julian:  As soon as Abbot Lambert said, "I accept," and the abbot president placed the pectoral cross around his neck, Fr. Timothy took his cross and ring off and put them in his pocket. And they effectively exchanged places. Abbot Lambert came up to the first place in rank and Fr. Timothy, having been a classmate, literally took Fr. Lambert's place in seniority. So there was an exact swapping at that point.


Novice Tony:  Archabbot Justin will be Fr. Justin after the election. Recently, Archabbots Bonaventure and Lambert asked for permission to give up their titles as well.


Br. Joel:  And that's the election process in a nutshell.


Novice Tony:  A really large nut.


Fr. Julian:  Abbot Justin's election was on December 31st of 2004. And that was the year that we had almost two feet of snow the week before Christmas. And so we are all wondering how this was going to impact the election and people traveling in, especially around the holidays. But by December 31st, all the snow was gone. So we were able to hold the election without any complications in that regard.


Novice Tony:  Archabbot Justin is in his 12th year as abbot. Like Fr. Julian said, he was elected on New Year's Eve of 2004.


Archabbot Justin:  That morning I woke up the vice rector of the school. That night I went to bed the archabbot of Saint Meinrad.


Br. Joel:  Because there was ascrutiniumbefore his election, he knew he was being considered. Once he found out he had been elected, the abbot president asked if he accepted the position.


Archabbot Justin:  So I had to say yes or no and, of course, I said yes. I don't know at that moment that I would have rightly felt I could say anything else. This is what the community, I believe, was asking of me, and even an abbot is bound by obedience, and so that's the attitude with which I believe I accepted the election.


Novice Tony:  When Archabbot Justin announced his resignation in January, some people were surprised, some were not, some people were sad and others were excited for the future. I think everyone would agree, though, that we felt comfort in his decision as we believe he discerned this wisely.


Fr. Thomas:  I think the very first reaction that a lot of people, myself included, are still kind of going through is a little bit of sadness that Abbot Justin won't be abbot. He is just a wonderful leader to have, because he has a good blend of giving you direction and giving you space. He's not in any way micromanaging people, telling them how to do their jobs, but he is setting the tone and he is giving a direction for the community.


Br. Joel:  Resigning was something Archabbot Justin had been thinking about for several years.


Archabbot Justin:  And in reflecting on it, I could see looking back that there were actually a couple of stages that began probably on the day of the election when the thought passed through my mind, fleetingly but clearly, "I wonder how long this will last?" But over time, that question changed and it became, "I wonder how long thisshouldlast?" and that's a different question.


Br. Joel:  He turned to the Swiss American Congregation for guidance. The congregation says that if an abbot is considering resignation, he should consider two things: first, the needs of the community and, secondly, his own needs. So those were the two markers Archabbot Justin used when discerning his resignation.


Archabbot Justin:  When I looked at what the needs of the community are, I think I could honestly say that Saint Meinrad right now is in a good place as a monastic community. We are a strong community. We've got good monks. We've got vocations. We have good work, both here and away. I believe there is good order in the community. But what would the need be? I think the need would be to move ahead in a different way with our monastic life. By that, I mean I'd like to think that we need to deepen our monastic commitment for the 21st century.

When I thought about what are my needs, I'm in my twelfth year as abbot. They have been good years, but they have certainly not been without their toll. I think in order to continue well, an abbot would need three things: interest, energy and ideas. I certainly have a degree of interest because I'm committed to Saint Meinrad, but I think it stems at this point more from a sense of duty than it would from an ardent desire. But I have to admit that when it comes to energy and ideas, I'm flagging, and so I just think that the time is right ultimately.


Fr. Julian: And so it's a time of, certainly, promise, of hope-filled expectation. Abbot Justin has done many good things and has served us very well as the abbot. But now it's time for someone else.


Novice Tony:  Archabbot Justin says being abbot has given him a chance to listen to monks and hear from them on a level that might never been possible if he had not been abbot. Many of the monks believe that Archabbot Justin has done a good job at listening to their concerns.


Archabbot Justin:  It is a humbling experience to have a monk come in and trust you enough to tell you that he has some real difficulties that he's facing or some challenges, and he needs some help. And so that puts the abbot in a position of knowing that monk in a way that others may not know him and probably shouldn't know him. So there is the bond of trust that's established there that really has been important to me.


Br. Joel:  When Abbot Justin thinks about what it's been like to govern a community, he compares it to flying a kite.


Archabbot Justin:  You have hold of the string, but you know, like with any kite, if you were simply to stake the string in the ground, the kite would wildly twirl and crash. And if you merely let go of the string, it too will be carried away and crash. So holding on to the string allows the ability of the person flying the kite to sense where the wind is going, not in a bad sense that you're just going wherever the wind blows. But I think it means you discern when you need to reel it in a little bit to keep the kite flying, and when you need to let it out a little bit to give the kite some freedom to ride the wind, because that's what kites do.


I think that there's similarity to that in the community, of just being able to sense when things need to be let out a little bit and when they need to be tightened up a little bit, so that the community can ride the wind of the Spirit and catch it where it needs to be taken.


Novice Tony:  Ultimately, he says the greatest reward he's received during his time as abbot is being able to give back to the community in some small way.


Archabbot Justin:  I hope I gave it back with interest, but at Saint Meinrad, I will have been professed in August, 44 years. It's been really my home for a long time. It is so much a part of who I am. But being abbot gives me the opportunity to make a return for what the community has invested in me, and for what it has brought out of me. I simply wouldn't be the person that I am, were it not for Saint Meinrad.


Fr. Thomas: I would like to add a little image of what I think the experience could be of the man who is elected abbot. It reminds me, somehow, of the story of Matthias in the Acts of the Apostles. So after Judas was no longer living, the apostles realized they needed to replace him to have the full complement of 12 apostles. And so they selected from men who had been with Jesus in the ministry from the beginning, but whose name was not called when Jesus got up on the mountain one day and said, "I am calling these 12 men to myself as the apostles - as the group within the disciples who will be the ones sent out."

But Matthias, he was there when Jesus was calling the name of these 12 men, including Judas. And he was just as eligible as the rest of them were, but his name was not called and maybe he felt grateful that he wasn't singled out. Or maybe he felt a little sad that he wasn't chosen and elected by Christ. But then, years later, when the apostles are meeting to replace Judas, his name is the one that comes up.

And it seems that he must have been a secret apostle the entire time - that Christ must have known that Matthias would be an apostle, just like he would know that Saul, becoming Paul, would be an apostle as well, not among the original 12, but who is an apostle in secret, as it were, because this is calledin pectore.

If the Holy Father wants to appoint a cardinal and he doesn't want to make the appointment public yet, because maybe there is political turmoil in his country, it's said that he holds the appointmentin pectore, that the man has become a cardinal but he doesn't know it yet because it hasn't been made public. And it seems that Matthias was an apostlein pectore, kind of in secret.

And our next abbot was almost definitely at the last election, and did not hear his name called as the one who was elected, and was probably relieved, and perhaps a little wistful about what could have been.

But at the same time, God knows who our next abbot will be, and there is a man walking among us who is the secret abbot, who is the abbotin pectore, and he's been among us for as long as I've been here. We just don't know who he is, but God knows. And this election, I think, is a way for us to kind of sift through and find out who is the secret abbot who is already with us.

Novice Tony:  Thank you for listening. We hope you enjoyed hearing about how our community elects a new abbot. This podcast was produced today by Krista Hall, with help by Br. Joel Blaize, Br. William Sprauer, Mary Jeanne Schumacher, Jim Paquette, Tammy Schuetter, Christian Mocek and myself, Novice Tony. The music for this podcast was written and produced by Br. Joel.


Br. Joel:  We want to give a special thanks to Archabbot Justin DuVall, Fr. Julian Peters and Fr. Thomas Gricoski.

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Br. Joel:  We have some historical photos of past Saint Meinrad abbots and all the past episodes on our blog at



Fr. Meinrad:  So I had two abbots in my class, and it was very nice because I had things on them (laughter) and they had things on me, too. That might not want to be put on tape.