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The monks go to the polls: Archabbot enters final year of term

By Jonathan Meilaender

The news is already filling with stories of the 2020 presidential race. But another election will take place next year, one particularly relevant to Saint Vincent students: the election of a new Saint Vincent Archabbot. Archabbot Douglas R. Nowicki is entering the final year of his term. According to the regulations of the American- Cassinese Congregation of Benedictines, of which Saint Vincent is a part, Nowicki’s term ends with his 75th birthday next May. He will have served for 29 years.

Saint Vincent’s Archabbot is not merely a figurehead; he is responsible for a slew of important tasks, explained Br. David Kelly, director of the Latimer Family Library and canon lawyer, a term that refers to someone with a degree in Canon Law which is the internal legal regulations of the Catholic Church.

“We’re really looking at someone who represents a leadership position in the Church. [The Archabbot is] not a bishop, but considering the size of Saint Vincent, he’s a significant actor in the Church […] and in the entire Benedictine world,” Kelly said.

Indeed, Kelly added, Saint Vincent “may well be” the world’s largest Benedictine monastery at this point, which only adds to the Archabbot’s influence.

“It has to be someone who can speak to bishops--not necessarily give the Pope a Steelers-signed football, but certainly interact with people at that level--and someone [of whom] we would be proud to say, ‘he is my archabbot,’” he said.

The tradition of electing abbots goes back over a thousand years to the Rule of Saint Benedict, making it one of the oldest continuous democratic processes in the world.

“At the election of an abbot let this principle be always observed, that he be appointed whom the whole community, being of the same mind and in the fear of God, or even a part albeit a small part of the community shall with calmer deliberation have elected," the Rule says.

More importantly, though, the Rule has much to say on what makes a good abbot. He must be not merely a skilled administrator, but a holy man. He must show no favoritism, Benedict writes, but be fair toward all, and gentle to those who make mistakes. Above all, he must lead by example, lest he become responsible for the faults of those placed in his care.

“The abbot ought to know,” Benedict said, echoing the Bible, “that to whom more is committed, from him is more required.”

The process to find a candidate capable of filling such a daunting position is far from simple.

“Voting is extended to every solemnly professed member of the community who is in good standing,” Kelly said, meaning that monks who have not yet made their solemn vows, called novices, are not permitted to vote. This, however, includes most monks at Saint Vincent.

The requirements to be elected abbot, on the other hand, are more stringent. In addition to being “solemnly professed” for at least seven years, a potential abbot must be at least 30 and an ordained priest, Kelly explained. The last requirement is a Vatican regulation, not a Benedictine one, in light of the prominent position the abbot occupies in the broader church. Saint Vincent could elect a lay brother, a monk who is not a priest, but his election would need to be approved by Rome, after which he would be ordained.

Archabbot Douglas has served so long because, at the time of his election, abbots were elected for life. Now, however, abbots only serve a term of eight years, Kelly explained.

Beyond the requirements for electors and eligible candidates, the system of election is carefully designed to ensure that a suitable candidate is chosen.

Kelly explained that official notice is sent to every eligible voter about six to nine months before the date of election. The recipients are required to send back a written receipt indicating that they have received notification. Then, the first process occurs: the election of the tellers, who officially open and count the ballots, of which there are three.

When the date of the election arrives, the entire community convenes. Monks who can’t attend can cast a vote by proxy. First, the monks have a nominating vote, to narrow down the number of candidates. Only those who receive a certain number of nominations can go on to the next round.

“The next step is called a scrutinium. In the scrutinium, the electors present are given an opportunity to express their opinion on the suitability of an individual for the office of archabbot. The discussion is under a promise of confidentiality, kind of like what they do when they elect a pope, so that there’s an open and free discussion,” Kelly explained.

Now, finally, the monks are finally ready to vote. In order to be elected on one of the first three ballots, a candidate must receive a two-thirds majority. If no candidate receives enough votes, a simple majority—that is, at least fifty percent—is sufficient on the next three ballots. If no one has been elected after six ballots, the election is suspended and an administrator appointed, said Kelly. But that rarely happens, he added.

But Kelly doesn’t know yet where the election will go.

“There are going to be 150 different opinions,” he said. “I know that the process of preparation for us will be to bring those 150 different opinions together […] one of the things we have to do is to look back at the last several years. We’ve accomplished a lot of things; are there some things we would like to look at to accomplish in the next five years? There’s still a lot of thinking to do.”

In the end, he hopes that God will guide him and his brother monks to make a wise choice.

“We rely very heavily on prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit to help us find the right person. . . In the years since I’ve been here, there have been occasions when we, as a community, were making decisions that were difficult. . . [But] when you rely on prayer, and you turn to God as a higher power, you kind of say: I have to trust that my fellow brothers [confreres] may understand this better than I do, may have a better insight than I do, and I’m going to rely on their judgment and let go of what I want.”

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