Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 1.djvu/34

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ABBESS
ABBESS
8

checking the vote. In case no candidate should receive the require number of votes, the Bishop or the regular prelate orders a new election, and for the time appoints a superior. If the community again fails to agree upon any candidate, the Bishop or other superior can nominate the one whom he judges to be the most worthy and depute her as Abbess. The newly appointed Abbess enters upon the duties of her office immediately after confirmation, which is obtained for non-exempt convents from the diocesan, and for exempt houses either from the regular prelate, if they be under his jurisdiction, or from the Holy See directly. (Ferraris, Prompta Bibliotheca; Abbatisa.–Cf. Taunton, The Law of the Church.)

Eligibility.—Touching the age at which a nun becomes eligible for the office, the discipline of the Church has varied at different times. Pope Leo I prescribed forty years. St. Gregory the Great insisted that the Abbesses chosen by the communities should be at least sixty—women to whom years had given dignity, discretion, and the power to withstand temptation. He very strongly prohibited the appointment of young women as Abbesses (Ep. 55 ch. xi). Popes Innocent IV and Boniface VIII, on the other hand, were both content with thirty years. According to the present legislation, which is that of the Council of Trent, no nun "can be elected as Abbess unless she has completed the fortieth year of her age, and the eighth year of her religious profession. But should no one be found in any convent with these qualifications, one may be elected out of another convent of the same order. But if the superior who presides over the election shall deem even this an inconvenience, there may be chosen, with the convent of the Bishop or other superior, one from amongst those in the same convent who are beyond their thirtieth year, and have since their profession passed at least five of those years in an upright manner.… In other particulars, the constitution of each order or convent shall be observed." (Conc. Trid., Sess, xxv, De regular. et monial., Cap. vii.) By various decision of the Sacred Congregation of the Council and of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, it is forbidden, without a dispensation from the Holy See, to elect a nun of illegitimate birth; one not of virginal integrity of body; or one who has had to undergo a public penance (unless it were only salutary); a widow; a blind or deaf nun; or one of three sisters alive at the same time in the same convent. No nun is permitted to vote for herself. (Ferraris, Prompta Bibliotheea; Abbatissa.-Taunton, op, cit.) Abbesses are generally elected for life. In Italy, however, and the adjacent islands, by the Bull of Gregory XIII, "Exposcit debitum" (1 January, 1583), they are elected for three years only, and then must vacate the office for a period of three years, during which time they cannot act even as vicars.

Rite of Benediction.—Abbesses elected for life can be solemnly blessed according to the rite prescribed in the Pontificale Romanum. This benediction (also called ordination or consecration) they must seek, under pain of deprivation, within a year of their election, from the Bishop of the diocese. The ceremony, which take place during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, can be performed of any day of the week. No mention is made in the Pontificale of a conferring of the staff, customary in many places at the installation of an Abbess, but the rite is prescribed in many monastic rituals, and as a rule the Abbess, like the Abbot, bears the crosier as a symbol of her office and of her rank; she has also a right to the ring. The induction of an Abbess into office early assumed a liturgical character. St. Radegundis, in one of her letters, speaks of it, and informs us that Agnes, the Abbess of Sainte-Croix, before entering on her charge, received the solemn Rite of Benediction from St. Germain, the Bishop of Paris. Since the time of St. Gregory the Great, the blessing was reserved to the bishop of the diocese. At present some Abbesses are privileged to receive it from certain regular prelates.

Authority of Abbess.—An Abbess can exercise supreme domestic authority (potestas dominativa) over her monastery and all its dependencies, but as a female, she is debarred from exercising any power of spiritual jurisdiction, such as belongs to an abbot. She is empowered therefore to administer the temporal possessions of the convent; to issue commands to her nuns "in virtue of holy obedience", thus binding them in conscience, provided the obedience she demands be in accordance with the rule and statutes of the order; and to prescribe and ordain whatever may be necessary for the maintenance of discipline in the house, or conducive to the proper observance of the rule, and the preservation of peace and order in the community. She can also irritate directly, the vows of her professed sisters, and indirectly, those of the novices, but she cannot commute those vows, nor dispense from them. Neither can she dispense her subjects from any regular and ecclesiastical observances, without the leave of her prelate, though she can, in particular instance declare that a certain precept ceases to bind. She cannot publicly bless her nuns, as a priest or a prelate blesses, but she can bless them in the way that a mother blesses her children. She is not permitted to preach, though she may in chapter, exhort her nuns by conferences. An Abbess has, moreover, a certain power of coercion, which authorizes her to impose punishments of a lighter nature, in harmony with the provisions of the rule, but in no instance has she a right to inflict the graver ecclesiastical penalties, such as censures. By the decree "Quemadmodum", 17 December, 1890, of Leo XIII, abbesses and other superiors are absolutely inhibited "from endeavouring, directly or indirectly, by command, counsel, fear, threats, or blandishments, to induce their subjects to make to them the secret manifestations of conscience in whatsoever manner or under what name soever." The same decree declares that permission or prohibition as to Holy Communion "belongs solely to the ordinary or extraordinary confessor, the superiors having no right whatever to interfere in the matter, save only the case in which any one of their subjects had given scandal to the community since … her last confession, or had been guilty of some grievous public fault, and this only until the guilty one had once more received the Sacrament of Penance." With regard to the administration of monastic property it must be noted that in affairs of greater moment an Abbess is always more or less dependent on the Ordinary, if subject to him, or on the regular prelate if her abbey is exempt. By the Constitution "Inscrutabili," 5 February, 1622, of Gregory XV, all Abbesses, exempt as well as non-exempt, are furthermore obliged to present an annual statement of their temporalities to the bishop of the diocese.

In medieval times the Abbesses of the larger and more important houses were not uncommonly women of great power and distinction, whose authority and influence rivalled, at times, that of the most venerate bishops and abbots. In Saxon England, "they had often the retinue and state of princesses, especially when they came of royal blood. They treated with kings, bishops, and the greatest lords on terms of perfect equality; … they were present at all great religious and national solemnities, at the dedication of churches, and even, like the queens, took part in the deliberation of the national assemblies, and affixed their signatures to the charters therein granted." (Montalembert, "The Monks of the West," Bk. XV.) They appeared also at Church