November 2017 Print

The Authority of the Benedictine Abbot

by a Benedictine Monk

One of the most precious gifts that St. Benedict left to his monasteries is his notion of authority. In his Rule, the monastery looks like the extension of the Catholic family. His concept of the abbot’s authority is that of paternity. It is to be firmly and gently exercised over the monks who are his spiritual sons. Several chapters of the Rule deal with spiritual or material corrections and, if necessary, punishments administered to those monks who refuse to submit to the common rule of the house. Monks, like children, are not always good! They need a father to help them grow and to embrace their responsibilities manfully. They need encouragement and occasionally strong corrections for having made bad choices.

The art of being a good father is to know how to apply the proper correction to each soul that God has confided to him. In his chapter concerning the abbot, St. Benedict describes the souls that are in need of their father’s attention. Some are “obedient, meek and patient, these he should exhort to advance in virtue.” Others are “... negligent and rebellious, we warn him to reprimand and punish them.” All must receive his instruction, but not all are equally disposed. St. Benedict teaches the father to be balanced in his relationship with his sons: “He must adapt himself to circumstances, now using severity and now persuasion, displaying the rigor of a master or the loving kindness of a father.” ... “Let him realize also how difficult and arduous a task he has undertaken, of ruling souls and adapting himself to many dispositions. One he must humor, another rebuke, another persuade, according to each one’s disposition and understanding, and thus adapt and accommodate himself to all in such a way, that he may not only suffer no loss in the sheep committed to him; but may even rejoice in the increase of a good flock (Ch. 2).”

The authority of the abbot, according to St. Benedict, is to be used for the good of the subject and not for his personal gain. He is actually the servant of his sons following the example that Our Lord gave His disciples at the Last Supper when He washed their feet. The father has a strict obligation to show his children the example of how to live according to the will of God. “The abbot himself, however, should do all things in the fear of God and observance of the Rule, knowing that he will certainly have to render an account of all his judgments to God, the most just Judge (Ch. 3).”

In his chapter on ‘The appointment of the Abbot’ St. Benedict shows some of the most necessary qualities that the authority must possess in order to be able to govern his subjects. “Let him always set mercy above judgment, so that he himself may obtain mercy. Let him hate ill doing but love the brethren. In administering correction let him act with prudent moderation, lest being too zealous in removing the rust he break the vessel. Let him always distrust his own frailty and remember that the bruised reed is not to be broken. By this we do not mean that he should allow evils to grow, but that…he should eradicate them prudently and with charity, in the way that may seem best in each case. And let him study rather to be loved than feared. Let him not be turbulent or anxious, overbearing or obstinate, jealous or too suspicious for otherwise he will never be at rest.”

Modern man has essentially rejected God and thus rejected the order established by God. Today’s education develops individuality. Slogans such as “be all you can be” and “develop your self-potentiality” have replaced a spirit of self-sacrifice for the beloved. Modern man is taught that happiness is sensuality without the responsibility of fatherhood. If a child is conceived, the parents are permitted legally to abort the child. They are taught that their personal wellbeing is more important than the family therefore divorce can sometimes be necessary. To abandon the child to be raised by a single parent is to reject one’s responsibility to exercise paternal authority. The order established by God has been reversed. Man seeks and loves himself and rejects anything that may disturb his self-love. Outside of God’s plan for authority, man can find no peace.

The crisis of authority is most easily seen in the father of the family, although it is not limited to the material family, but extends to the spiritual family as well. The paternity of the priest is also severely attacked. Unfortunately it is the priest himself that can be his worst enemy. He often refuses to exercise his authority as a priest for fear of offending his faithful. He is tempted to listen to them, in order to say what they want to hear rather than to preach the truth concerning faith and morals.

The solution to this crisis is the same today as in the time of St. Benedict. Those in authority must love their subjects as a father loves his son. They must eliminate the rust without breaking vessel. The father of a family must make time to be with his children and correct them through charity. The priest in his parish must love his faithful and correct them without destroying them. Pray for priests and fathers of families. It is through their authority that God transforms souls.