Electing the Fifth Abbot

Photo by Matthew Lomanno '99

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.

Leading up to the Election

Saint Anselm’s status as an abbey was confirmed in 1927, before which it was Saint Anselm Priory and dependent upon Saint Mary’s Abbey in Newark. Since that time, four monks have served the abbey and college as abbot. Abbot Bertrand Dolan, O.S.B., served the

community until 1963, when Abbot Gerald McCarthy was elected. Abbot (now Bishop) Joseph Gerry was elected in 1972 and served until he was named a bishop in 1986.

The election of the new abbot will take place June 4 and 5. Br. Isaac Murphy, O.S.B., as prior and election secretary, organizes the election process, summons all the monks who belong to the community, including those of Woodside Priory in Portola Valley, Calif., and calls the roll. The abbey’s senior council, the advisory board to the abbot, acts as the steering committee for the election; decides the monastery’s preparation process (which will include a workshop and speakers); chooses the election location; and prints the ballots. Abbot Matthew is involved in the preparation as he works with the prior and senior council.

In time for the election, the Abbot President will arrive to oversee the process. The current Abbot President, Abbot Hugh Ander-son, O.S.B., of Saint Procopius Abbey, presides over all the Benedictine monasteries of the American-Cassinese Congregation of Benedictine Monks. Originally founded from a house in Bavaria, the congregation has 20 houses in North America, most of them in the United States. The Order of Saint Benedict is composed of 20 congregations, together called a confederation, although each monastery operates autonomously.

To direct the election procedures, the monastery turns to the Guide for Abbatial Elections whose guidelines are in conformity with canon law and the Rule of Saint Benedict.

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.

“People will think very carefully about who they vote for. This will affect their daily lives,” says Br. Isaac.

On the morning of June 4, the monks will congregate in the choir chapel. After prayer and procedural discussions, each monk is given a ballot to nominate up to two candidates.

The nominated candidates are asked to leave one at a time to be evaluated by the group. The remaining group then discusses why the nominated monk would be a good choice. “It is a good way of expressing your feelings about a particular candidate,” says Father Jonathan.

It is the first indication of what each thinks. Although the monks have plenty of time before the elections, there is no open forum to discuss candidates or promote any individual for the position. This type of discussion can take place in private conversations, though no one may campaign for the position. The monks rely on what they have learned during recent months and experienced during their time in the community. After the evaluations, the monks will have an opportunity to pray and reflect on the matter overnight.

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.

Last summer’s Portraits cover story offered an in-depth look at Abbot Matthew’s life, work, and faith. The announcement of his retirement has led to many questions from the college community. Here, he provides the answers to those he hears most often.

What kinds of reactions have you received here at the College on the announcement of your retirement?

I have received many congratulations from the members of the Saint Anselm College community and from many alumni who had been my students or whom I had gotten to know over the years. There were a few interesting reactions here on the campus itself.

I was invited to participate in a seminar class in early February, and the professor said to me, “I can’t believe you are retiring! You were the abbot when I came here as a freshman. You were the abbot who gave a talk during my orientation as a faculty member. And I have been here for a good number of years already. You are like a fixture here!” “Yes,” I replied, “all of the above is true. Now you know why it is high time that I retire!”

Another experience was with a small group of colleagues from the physical plant department who expressed sorrow that I was no longer going to be their abbot. They talked about their fears and concerns that everything was going to change around here. I calmed them down and then told them that there was only one thing that was going to change around here come June 5th. With great interest and seriousness they asked, “And what’s that?”

I pointed to myself and said, “No more Mr. Nice Guy!” They then asked if I might become their “advisor.” “Every other group on campus has an advisor except us!” I replied, “We will have to leave that decision to the new abbot.”

Is it true that you are one of the longest serving abbots in the Benedictine order worldwide? How many abbots are there, anyway, and how long do they serve on average?

Yes, they tell me that I am the second longest serving abbot in the western hemisphere and one of a handful of abbots worldwide who have served this long. I am now in my 27th year. But even before becoming the abbot, I served in roles of monastic leadership for three years, first as subprior and juniormaster, then as prior and novicemaster—all together spanning 30 years, which is nearly half my life. There are nearly 300 Benedictine abbots in the world. As for the average length of service, I do not have any precise statistics, but I am told that the average is between eight and 12 years.

To what do you attribute your longevity of service?

I suppose the flip answer to that question would simply be “stubbornness.” But the real response has more to do with everyone else here at Saint Anselm than with myself. First of all, the quality of the monks I have been serving has everything to do with my longevity of service. Their cooperation, trust, wisdom, support, patience, prayers and good zeal have enabled me to exercise my ministry among them for these many years. Similarly, the trustees, faculty, administrators, staff, students and alumni have been uncommonly supportive over the years. I have, in return, done my best to provide supportive service to all of them. There is, of course, the spiritual dimension, which cannot be overlooked. I believe strongly in the presence and power of God’s grace, which guides and sustains us all from one day to the next, especially in times of challenge.

I’m sure that throughout the years there have been times of challenge.

Yes, this is true. It is to be expected in everyone’s life that there be times of joy and times of sorrow, times of success and times of challenge. As for myself, to attempt to list them all here would amount to writing a history, which I am not prepared to do.

But I will say without any hesitation that the joys have certainly outnumbered the sorrows.

The death of one of your monks must surely be one of those times of sorrow. How many monks have died since you have been abbot?

Twenty-two monks have died since 1986. Some were older, others younger; some died suddenly, others after lengthy illnesses. But what they all held in common was their commitment to the Lord Jesus in the Benedictine way of life. I must confess that, as abbot, serving the sick and the dying has been a very edifying and enlightening experience for me. It has strengthened me in my vocation as a monk and forced me to reflect deeply upon the mysterious ways of God and his love for us all.

What will you do in your retirement? Is there any kind of transition time?

The truth is, I don’t know right now what I will be doing a year from now. As for transitional time, the custom in the Order is for the retiring abbot to take a year or so sabbatical time away from the community, after which he takes up some form of work in service of the community. Remember, too, that the term “retirement” in a monastery doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in the world of business. I won’t be collecting Social Security checks and living a life of leisure! I have many interests, but whatever my new work will be, it has more to do with the needs of the community at the time than with my particular interests. Transitions are important times in life when we let go of the old to make room for the new. And there will always be new challenges to undertake.

Now, the big one: who is the next abbot going to be?

I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked that question! When I delivered the humanities lecture to the freshman class last month, it was the morning after the SuperBowl. They were all depressed, of course, because they had lost their bets on the Patriots. I lightened their spirits a bit by suggesting that now that the SuperBowl was over, it’s time to begin the AbbotBowl. I am told that there is illegal betting taking place on campus, but I can’t confirm that. Seriously speaking, I do not know who the new abbot will be. But what I do know is that our monastic community is a faithful one and one blessed with a variety of gifts. As Saint Benedict reminds us in his Rule, “Each has his gift from God: one this and another that.” No one has all the gifts. This, then, is a time of discernment. For each age in the life of a monastic and/or a college community calls for a specific constellation of leadership gifts with which to respond to the signs of the times and the future cultivation and enhancement of the mission entrusted to us by the Church. I have no doubt that our community, with the guidance and grace of God, will choose our new abbot who will lead us into the future with both continuity and creativity, in line with Saint Benedict’s advice that the abbot brings forth things “both new and old.”

As abbot, you also are chancellor of the college, so the new abbot will also be chancellor. Will that mean any major changes for Saint Anselm College?

Yes, the abbot is also the chancellor of the college and as our new bylaws state, “He shall exercise ultimate authority in the formulation of the major principles which are to guide and govern the college.” As you know, two of those major principles are that we are both Catholic and Benedictine. I believe that whoever the new abbot and chancellor may be, those two major principles will form the underpinnings of his leadership for the College as it moves into the future. As I think I mentioned earlier, both continuity and creativity are key in the tradition of Benedictine leadership. Whatever changes there may be in the coming years will be rooted in these fundamental values.

And now, abbot Matthew, for the last question. What has been your major source of strength as abbot?

Let me rephrase your question just a bit. My major source of strength has not been a “what” but a “Who.” Let me close with a prayer that I say each morning to the Lord who is the source of my strength. This prayer has its origin in the holy monks of Russia and came to me via my Hungarian monastic connection. Perhaps it will be helpful to others as well.


My Lord, grant that I may accept with a tranquil spirit all that this beginning day will bring.

My Lord, grant that I may fully surrender myself to your holy will.

My Lord, throughout every moment of this day, direct and sustain me in all things.

My Lord, whatever news I receive during this day, teach me to accept it with a quiet mind and firm conviction, knowing that your will is made manifest in all things.

My Lord, reveal your holy will for me and for those around me.

My Lord, may I never forget that it is you who send every unforeseen circumstance.

My Lord, teach me to adapt myself truly, simply and wisely to those with whom I live, to those surrounding me, to the aged, to my peers and to those younger than myself, that I may sadden no one but rather serve the happiness of all.

My Lord, grant me strength to bear the trials of this beginning day and whatever else may happen later today.

My Lord, may You Yourself guide my will and teach me to pray, to hope, to believe, to love, to endure and to forgive.

My Lord, do not let my adversaries get the best of me, but rather guide and direct me because of your holy name.

My Lord, enlighten my intellect and my heart that I may understand the enduring and unchanging laws which govern the world and that I, your sinful servant, may rightly serve you and my neighbor.

My Lord, I give you thanks for everything that will happen to me, because I firmly believe that for those who love you, all things work unto good.

My Lord, bless all my endeavors and tasks; bring my work, my words and my thoughts to fruition. Make me worthy to always praise you with joy, sing psalms to you and bless you, for you are blessed forever and ever. Amen.