Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Monastic Authority and Equality

by Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB

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If any ordained priest asks to be received into the monastery, do not agree too quickly."  Rule of St. Benedict 60.1

In early Christian monasteries, there was a certain wariness of those who held hierarchical rank in the institutional church. In his Rule, St. Benedict counsels that the admission of priests (RB 60) to the community is something to be careful about.

There are stories in early Christian literature about great monastic saints who, once they attained a certain reputation for holiness, were sought after to become priests and bishops. In the fourth century, St. Martin of Tours resisted being taken from his solitude as a monk living in the woods around the city of Tours.

A crowd arrived one day to force him to become their new bishop (and he wasn't even a priest!), so he ran away! When he was searched for, he was found hiding in a barn - a  large goose gave him away by its honking racket. In the Archabbey Church, on the west wall, you can see a painted-glass window honoring St. Martin, wherein he is depicted with a goose at his feet!

St. Pachomius, another 4th-century monastic saint, was regarded as a fine orator and teacher. He was also the first to establish a truly communal form of monastic life, and also composed a "rule" long before St. Benedict. He ran away when the local archbishop, St. Athanasius, wanted to ordain him a priest so he could preach to the faithful.

Pachomius ran off into the desert to escape ordination; he thought himself not worthy of such an honor though he was abbot of his community, which by that time had grown to three monasteries, one of which was a community of women. Unlike Martin, he succeeded in his escape! Scholars believe Benedict was not ordained a priest either; to be an abbot did not require ordination, as it does today.

St. Benedict's concern in RB 60 is not so much about priests, as retaining the proper sense of authority and equality among the brothers. Priests, by virtue of their ministry as preachers and teachers, are given authority by a bishop for that purpose, but Benedict wants to remind those who follow his Rule, and those who will become abbots one day, that the only monk to be understood as "taking the place of Christ in the community" is the abbot. Those who serve under the abbot in various positions of authority exercise their authority in obedience to the abbot.

In RB 65 regarding the prior of the monastery, Benedict comments that bishops ought not to appoint either the abbot or the prior. Elected by the community of solemnly professed monks, the abbot alone is believed to hold the place of Christ (RB 2.2) and the monks are brothers and disciples (cf. RB 6.6). Benedict intended his monastery to be highly egalitarian in both structure and in practice, thus hierarchical authority in a Benedictine monastery is minimal.

 

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.


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