Dispelling a Myth: The Church is not a Democracy


My wife and I are on a few mailing lists for monasteries. Places we’ve visited hold a special affection, and I read their newsletters completely when they arrive at our home. A bit of reading has piled up this summer, so as the house endures its fall cleaning, one of its inhabitants read of new leadership near the banks of the Mississippi:

May 7 is our election day, and this year, by God’s providence, it fell on Good Shepherd Sunday–a wonderful sign, we all felt! Our procedure for election has an almost liturgical character, surrounded with ritual and great care, and is held right in the abbey church. Fr Brendan presided, and two of our brothers were the witnesses. After a formal roll call each sister comes forward and takes an oath to vote for the person she believes would be the best abbess for the community. All the members of our Chapter are electors; we may elect any member not only of our Chapter, but of other communities in our Order.

One by one, in rank by date of entrance, the sisters fill out their ballots. After she has voted, each sister leaves the church, but stays nearby. The votes are counted by two sisters elected as ’scrutators’, who then summon the sisters to return. The scrutators announce either ’we have an election’ (if someone has received over half the votes), or ’we do not have an election’, and list the vote totals. The balloting continues until there is an election; if, after many ballots, there is still no election, the presider may appoint a temporary superior.

Since none of us was at all sure who would be abbess at the end of the process, it was quite exciting, as you can imagine! When M. Nettie’s election was announced, she was asked if she accepted the election. As one of the most junior members of our Chapter, she was seated near the back, and had to walk up the center aisle past all the other sisters as the reality of what had happened began to sink into her mind. Then we rang the bells to summon the sisters who had not been present at the election (novices, visitors) for M. Nettie’s installation as abbess. She made her profession of faith (the Apostles’ Creed) in the presence of all, received the abbatial cross and the keys, and then sat at the foot of the sanctuary as one by one we knelt before her and promised our obedience to her as our lawful abbess. The ritual concludes with the chanting of the Te Deum to praise God for providing us with a new shepherd. Then we had a great celebratory meal!

Putting a few monastery links on the computer is a good thing. The sisters in Iowa make a lot of delicious candy, but I value the monastic witness itself above good eats. Their daughter establishment in Norway, Tautra Mariakloster, seems to be thriving as well. Check out some nice pictures, from which I’ve extracted their new chapel over on the left. The image gallery is rather extensive and worth viewing.

I’m continually surprised at the vast numbers of Catholics who have never visited a monastery. Small numbers of believers worship regularly at nearby monasteries. If I weren’t working for a parish and I lived reasonably nearby, I’d probably opt for Sunday Mass and a good portion of the Hours in a monastery chapel instead of a parish church.

Back in the 80’s, when I grew particularly frustrated with my home parish, I found a welcome change and sense of peace at the Genesee Abbey.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
This entry was posted in Church News, Commentary, Monasticism. Bookmark the permalink.

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