ABBOT: The head of one of the larger houses in the Benedictine and other older Western monastic orders. The term originated in the East, where it was frequently used as a title of respect for any monk (being derived from the Aramaic abba, father"); but there it was replaced, as the title of the superior of a monastery, by archimandrite and other titles. In the Western orders founded before the end of the eleventh century the title is still in use. According to the present system, abbots are divided into secular and regular; the former are secular clerics who are incumbents of benefices originally bearing 'the title of abbey but since secularized; the latter are classified according as they have authority only over the members of their house, or over certain of the faithful, or enjoy a quasi-episcopal jurisdiction over a definite territory, or are merely titular abbots, their houses having fallen into decay. They are further divided according to the term of their office, which may be either for life or for three years. A special class known as mitered abbots have permission to wear episcopal insignia. The election of an abbot is commonly by vote of the professed brothers, in most cases only those in holy orders. The candidate must be twenty-five years of age, a professed brother of the order, and a priest. Actual jurisdiction is not conferred until his confirmation either by the bishop or, in the case of exempt abbeys, by the superior in the case, frequently the pope. His benediction is the next step, which takes place according to the office in the Pontificale Romanum, usually at the hands of the bishop of the diocese. He has the power to regulate the entire inner life of the abbey in accordance with the rule, and to require obedience from his subordinates; according to the rule of St. Benedict, however, abbots are required not to exercise their authority in an arbitrary manner, but to seek the counsel of their brethren. In many particulars a quasi-episcopal jurisdiction has in course of time been conceded to them. Since the eighth century they have been allowed to confer the tonsure and minor orders on their subjects, to bless their churches, cemeteries, sacred vessels. etc., to take rank as prelates, and, if generals exercising quasi-episcopal jurisdiction, to sit and vote in general councils.
The practice of granting abbeys in commendam to deserving clerics, or even to laymen, led to the creation of a class of merely titular abbots, who had nothing of this character but the name and the revenues. This practice, which was the source of many abuses, was regulated by the Council of Trent. From it sprang the custom in France of applying the title abbe to any prominent clergyman who might, according to the custom of the time, lay claim to such an appointment, and then to the secular clergy in general. A somewhat analogous custom existed in Italy, where many professional men, lawyers, doctors, etc., though laymen and even married men, retained some marks of the clerical character which had earlier distinguished the majority of scholars in their dress and in the title of abbate. In some Protestant countries the title of abbot still clung to the heads of institutions that had grown out of monasteries suppressed at the Reformation. See MONASTICISM.