Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 1.djvu/35

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councils in the midst of the bishops and abbots and priests, as did the Abbess Hilda at the Synod of Whitby in 664, and the Abbess Elfleda, who succeeded her, at that of the River Nith in 705. Five Abbesses were present at the Council of Becanfield in 694, where they signed the decrees before the presbyters. At a later time the Abbess "took titles from churches impropriated to her house, presented the secular vicars to serve the parochial churches, and had all the privileges of a landlord over the temporal estates attached to her abbey. The Abbess of Shaftesbury, for instance, at one time, found seven knights' fees for the King's service and held manor courts, Wilton. Barking, and Nunnaminster, as well as Shaftesbury, 'held of the king by an entire barony,' and by right of this tenure had, for a period, the privilge of being summoned to Parliament." (Gasquet, "English Monastic Life," 39.) In Germany the Abbesses of Quedimburg, Gandersheim, Lindau, Buchau, Obermünster, etc., all ranked among the independent princes of the Empire, and as such sat and voted in the Diet as members of the Rhenish bench of bishops. They lived in princely state with a court of their own, ruled their extensive conventual estates like temporal lords, and recognized no ecclesiastic superior except the Pope. After the Reformation, their Protestant successors continued to enjoy the same imperial privileges up to comparatively recent times. In France, Italy, and Spain, the female superiors of the great monastic houses were likewise very powerful. But the external splendour and glory of medieval days have now departed from all.

Confession to the Abbess.—Abbesses have no spiritual jurisdiction, and can exercise no authority that is in any way connceted with the power of the keys or of orders. During the Middle Ages, however, attempts were not infrequently made to usurp this spiritual power of the priesthood, and we read of Abbesses who besides being guilty of many minor encroachments on the functions of the sacerdotal office, presumed to interfere even in the administration of the sacrament of penance and confessed their nuns. Thus, in the Capitularies of Charlemagne, mention is made of "certain Abbesses, who contrary to the established discipline of the Church of God, presume to bless the people, impose their hands on them, make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of men, and confer the veil on virgins, employing during that ceremony the blessing reserved exclusively to the priest," all of which practice the bishops are urged to forbid absolutely in their respective dioceses. (Thomassin, "Vetus et Nova Ecclesae Disciplina," pars I, lib. II, xii, no. 17.) The "Monastieum Cisterciense" records the stern inhibition which Innocent III, in 1220, placed upon Cistercian Abbesses of Burgos and Palencia in Spain, "who blessed their religious, heard the confession of their sins, and when reading the Gospel, presumed publicly to preach." (Thomassin, op. cit., pars I, lib. III. xlix, no. 4.) The Pope characterized the intrusion of these women as a thing "unheard of, most indecorous, and highly preposterous." Dom Martene, the Benedictine savant, in his work "De Antiquis Ecclesiae Ritibus," speaks of other Abbesses who likewise confessed their nuns, and adds, not without a touch of humour, that "these Abbesses had evidently overated their spiritual powers a trifle." And as late as 1658, the Sacred Congregation Rites categorically condemned the acts of the Abbess of Fontevrault in France, who of her own authority, obliged the monks and nuns of her obedience to recite offices, say Masses, and observe rites and ceremonies which had never been sanctioned or approved of by Rome. (Analecta Juris Pontificii, VII, col. 348.) In this connection it must, however, be observed, that when the older monastic rules prescribe confession to the superior, they do not refer to sacramental confession, but to the "chapter of faults" or the culpa, at which the religious accuse themselves of ordinary external fault patent to all, and of minor infractions of the rule. This "confession" may be made either privately to the superior or publicly in the chapter-house; no absolution is given and the penance assigned is merely disciplinary. The "chapter of faults" is a form of religious exercise still practised in all the monasteries of the ancient orders.

But reference must be made to certain exceptional cases, where Abbesses have been permitted, by Apostolical concession and privilege, it is alleged, to exercise a most extraordinary power of jurisdiction. Thus, the Abbess of the Cistercian Monastery of Santa Maria la Real de las Huelgas, near Burgos, in Spain, was, by the terms of her official protocol, a "noble lady, the superior, prelate, and lawful administratrix in spirituals and temporals of the said royal abbey, and of all the convents, churches, and hermitages of its filiation, of the villages and places under its jurisdiction, seigniory, and vassalage, in virtue of Bulls and Apostolical concessions, with plenary jurisdiction, privative, quasi-episcopal, nullius diæcsis." (Florez, "España sagada," XXVII, Madrid 1772, col. 578.) By the favour of the king, she was, moreover, invested with almost royal prerogatives, and exercised an unlimited secular authority over more than fifty villages. Like the Lord Bishops, she held her own courts, in civil and criminal cases, granted letters dismissorial for ordination, and issued licenses authorizing priests, within the limits of her abbatial jurisdiction, to hear confessions, to preach, and to engage in the cure of souls. She was privileged also to confirm Abbesses, to impose censures, and to convoke synods. ("España sagrada," XXVII, col. 581.) At a General Chapter of the Cistercians held in 1189, she was made Abbess General of the Order for the Kingdom of Leon and Castile, with the privilege of convoking annually a general chapter at Burgos. The Abbess of Las Huelgas retained her ancient prestige up to the time of the Council of Trent.

A power of jurisdiction almost equal to that of the Abbess of Las Huelgas was at one time exercised by the Cistercian Abbess of Conversano in Italy. Among the many privileges enjoyed by this Abbess may be specially mentioned, that of appointing her own vicar-general through whom she governed her abbatial territory; that of selecting and approving confessors for the laity; and that of authorizing clerics to have the cure of souls in the churches under her jurisdiction. Every newly appointed Abbess of Conversano was likewise entitled to receive the public "homage" of her clergy,—the ceremony of which was sufficiently elaborate. On the appointed day, the clergy, in a body repaired to the abbey; at the great gate of her monastery, the Abbess, with mitre and crosier, sat enthroned under a canopy, and as each member of the clergy passed before her, he made his obeisance, and kissed her hand. The clergy, however, wished to do away with the distasteful practice, and, in 1709, appealed to Rome; the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars thereupon modified some of ceremonial details, but recognized the right of the Abbess to the homage. Finally, in 1750, the practice was wholly abolished, and the Abbess deprived of all her power of jurisdiction. (Cf. "Analecta Juris Pontificii," XXXVIII, col. 723: and Bizzari, "Collectanea," 322.) among other Abbesses said to have exercised like powers of jurisdiction, for a period at least, may be mentioned the Abbess of Fontevrault in France, and of Quedlinburg in Germany. (Ferraris, "Biblioth. Prompta; Abbatissa.")

Protestant Abbesses of Germany.—In some