Our Abbot, Our Spiritual Father
Jul 5, 2018
As you must know by now, on June 8, the monks of Saint Louis Abbey elected a new Abbot. Fr. Gregory Mohrmann, the first graduate of the Priory School to enter the monastery, has now become our first home-grown Abbot.
One of the questions I am often asked is “What is the difference between a Monk, Brother, Father, and Prior?” Everyone seems to know that the Abbot is at the top of the hierarchy of those things, but you may well ask “What exactly is an Abbot?” You may well ask that if you are an aficionado of medieval history.
Abbots like Saint Odo of Cluny, pictured above in white, were really big cheeses. They were lords of large estates. They controlled large amounts of wealth and land and people. They were powerful. The Abbey church of Cluny was the largest in Europe outside of Saint Peter’s in Rome. If you look at places like Westminster Abbey or Mont St. Michel, you can get a sense of the grandeur of the Abbots of those times.
It’s safe to say contemporary Abbots have come down to earth; they have gotten back to the roots of the office. The word “abbot” comes from the Aramaic word “abba,” that same word Jesus used for His Father. And the word does mean “father.” The word was applied by semi-hermit monks in the Egyptian desert to the elder, their spiritual father, who was teaching them “the way.”
Saint Benedict spells out the qualities needed by such a spiritual father in Chapter 2 of his Rule.
To be worthy of the task of governing a monastery, the abbot must always remember what his title signifies and act as a superior should. He is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, since he is addressed by a title of Christ, as the Apostle indicates: You have received the spirit of adoption of sons by which we exclaim, abba, father (Rom 8:15). Therefore, the abbot must never teach or decree or command anything that would deviate from the Lord’s instructions. On the contrary, everything he teaches and commands should, like the leaven of divine justice, permeate the minds of his disciples. Let the abbot always remember that at the fearful judgment of God, not only his teaching but also his disciples’ obedience will come under scrutiny. The abbot must, therefore, be aware that the shepherd will bear the blame wherever the father of the household finds that the sheep have yielded no profit. Still, if he has faithfully shepherded a restive and disobedient flock, always striving to cure their unhealthy ways, it will be otherwise: the shepherd will be acquitted at the Lord’s judgment. Then, like the Prophet, he may say to the Lord: I have not hidden your justice in my heart; I have proclaimed your truth and your salvation (Ps 39 :11), but they spurned and rejected me (Isa 1:2; Ezek 20:27). Then at last the sheep that have rebelled against his care will be punished by the overwhelming power of death.
Furthermore, anyone who receives the name of abbot is to lead his disciples by a twofold teaching: he must point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by words, proposing the commandments of the Lord to receptive disciples with words, but demonstrating God’s instructions to the stubborn and the dull by a living example.
The Rule has much more to say about the practicalities of how the Abbot must go about this spiritual fatherhood, how he must care for the sick, be attentive to guests, give the strong something to work toward, protect the weak from discouragement. It is a daunting task.
Saint Louis Abbey is not a great landed estate. But it is a great responsibility. The Abbot has the governing power of a Bishop over our 150 acres and those of us who live here. So he wears a mitre just like a bishop and wears a pectoral cross close to his heart. Under Canon Law, he is a major superior of a religious institute. He is the CEO and Chairman of the Board of the business of the school and monastery.
Fr. Gregory is our Abbot. He is our big cheese, even if our barrel is smaller than Cluny was. Wish him well, and pray for him.