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Electing The Fifth Abbot

June 04, 2012

The following is an excerpt from Portraits spring 2012 issue: "Electing The Fifth Abbot" by Laura (Rossi) Lemire '06. The full story is available on the Portraits blog.

On June 5, 2012, an important period of monastic and college leadership comes to an end. Abbot Matthew Leavy, O.S.B., will step down as abbot of Saint Anselm Abbey and chancellor of the college. He was elected by his confreres in March 1986, just over 26 years ago, making him one of the longest serving abbots in the Benedictine Order worldwide.

Undertaking the Care of Souls

The abbot of Saint Anselm Abbey plays many roles, including spiritual leader, steward, teacher, shepherd, father, administrator, and chancellor of Saint Anselm College. In the monastery, he is believed to hold the place of Christ, and is responsible for every member of the community.

As the monks at Saint Anselm Abbey prepare for a new leader, they consider the spiritual qualities of an abbot and what it means for their future. Fr. Peter Guerin, O.S.B., participant in three past abbatial elections, emphasizes the seriousness of the matter.

"Every abbot has a strong influence on the monastic observance of the community and on the individual lives of his monks, an influence that outlasts his abbatial service," he says. "For example, Abbot Bertrand provided a strong monastic foundation in forming our community that has had lasting effects on our basic values."

However, the monks have the luxury of time for this fifth election. In 1963, 1972 and 1986, the monks had only weeks to accept and prepare for the election. Now, Abbot Matthew's January announcement of his retirement allows the community to consider and pray for the kind of abbot they need at this point in their history.

The elected abbot brings a different personality and style. "It affects the life of the community in a day-to-day way," says Father Jonathan DeFelice, O.S.B., president of the college.

Marking the Ballot: an act of Faith

The Abbey has 28 community members, 25 of whom will vote on 21 possible candidates. There are several requirements one must meet to be elected. Candidates must be an ordained priest, be at least 30 years old, and have been in solemn vows for at least seven years. A monk who does not meet the requirements can be postulated-meaning his selection would be sent to the Vatican for approval. Bishop Joseph and two junior monks will not participate in the voting.

On June 5, the election session begins. There are up to six ballots. The first three require a two-thirds vote, and the final three a 50%-plus-one vote. The two elected "tellers" publicly count the secret ballots. If there is not a clear majority reached by the sixth ballot, the Abbot President chooses an interim administrator who can be in place for as long as three years.

If there is a clear majority, and the elected monk accepts the honor, then the Abbot President immediately confirms him. "It takes an act of faith and in that moment, he will be the abbot," says Father Jonathan.

The group then proceeds to the Abbey Church for a simple prayer service of thanksgiving. The church bells peal throughout campus and the community joins to welcome the abbey's new abbot and the college's new chancellor.

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