Why Abbots Used to Make Good Bishops

This list of abbots-who-became-bishops goes on and on.

Bartolomé Bermejo (1440-1500), “Santo Domingo de Silos”
Bartolomé Bermejo (1440-1500), “Santo Domingo de Silos” (photo: Public Domain)

Every now and then, very rarely, a priest belonging to a religious community will become a bishop. But an even more rare episcopal nomination was once a common practice in the Latin Church — the appointment of an abbot to become a bishop.

On paper this should seem almost a no-brainer: after all, abbots are, more or less, bishops in the domain of their abbeys, and they must possess the very same qualities of bishops: well-educated, good administrators of men and material, and true shepherds of souls. Not for nothing can abbots and bishops alike have miters, pectoral crosses, rings and croziers.

In the history of the Church, in fact, it was a common occurrence for an abbot to be removed from his abbey and made a bishop—usually against his will. 

We see a good example in this in St. Anthelm (d. 1178) who was the “second founder” of the Carthusian Order and Prior of the Grand Chartreuse — Carthusians don’t use the term “abbot”, preferring that of “prior”, though it amounts to the same thing) — before Pope Alexander III appointed him Bishop of Belley, France. It was a post he dreaded so much that he wept openly in the hopes that the pope would reconsider. (He didn’t.)

But Anthelm is just one example of very many abbots-turned-bishops. Another is St. Cuthbert (d. 687) who was the Prior and then the Abbot of Lindisfarne (also known as “The Holy Island of England”) before retiring to a hermitage to fly from the world. That didn’t last long: he was called out of retirement and consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury by St. Theodore in 685.

Five hundred years later — about the same time of St. Anthelm — St. Norbert (d. 1134) was busy founding the first Abbey of the Canons Regular of Prémontré in a remote area of France, where they observed the Rule of Saint Augustine. However, since (a) Pope Gelasius II had given Norbert permission to preach the Gospel anywhere, and (b) he was so well-liked by the Emperor Lothair, Norbert was named Archbishop of Magdeburg, Germany (having turned over the duty of running the motherhouse of all Norbertine Abbeys to Blessed Hugh of Fosse). St. Norbert never saw his blessed Premonstratensian brothers or abbey again, dying in central Germany.

St. Godehard (d. 1038) was originally a canon in Salzburg, but became a Benedictine monk and eventually the Abbot of Nieder-Altaich (on the Danube River in Bavaria) in 990. In 1022 Godehard was nominated by the Emperor Henry (and the populace) to become the bishop of Hildesheim which, we are told, he ruled as if it were one big giant monastery.

Further to the East, St. Savas (d. 1237) founded themonastery at Studenitsa (in modern-day Ukraine), before being ordained “Bishop of the Serbs” in 1217, when he was also crowned as papal legate before making two trips to the Holy Land.

In France in the fifth century, St. Honoratus founded Lérins Abbey, whose rule was based mainly on that of St. Pachomius, the founder of Western Monasticism, pre-St. Benedict. However, he was compelled to accept the Archbishopric of Arles in 426, which he ruled by apostolic labor to the poor for three years until his death.

St. Dunstan (d. 988) was the Abbot of Glastonbury in England, but was then driven into exile to Belgium before returning to Britain — where he was successively the bishop of Worchester, then of London, and finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Back on the continent, St. Germanus was chosen Abbot of St. Symphorian. However, he happened to be in Paris when that see became vacant and much to his consternation he was nominated by King Childebert to fill that bishopric, which he did.  He died at the age of 80 in 576 in Paris, known to all the people as a peacemaker during a time of upheaval and fratricidal infighting in Gaul.

This list of abbots-who-became-bishops goes on and on. So why has it become so rare?

For one thing, despite the Latin Church being universal and catholic, this practice was hardly found outside western Europe. Second, abbots—one thinks of the famous Abbot Suger—were, during medieval and feudal times, temporal leaders as well as spiritual ones, and functioned as such. (It’s good to recall that the Papal States continued in existence well into the 19th century.)

For another thing, bishops are in charge of diocesan priests, so it makes sense that he himself is a diocesan priest as well.

Still given the almost endless lists of saint-abbots-who-became-bishops, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to consider when raising a man to episcopate for the following reasons:

  • The experience of leading a small(er) group of men — Abbots, as mentioned above, are not dissimilar to bishops to begin with, and they are already shepherds of souls. Since they have been good in faithful in small matters it stands to reason that they would be successful in larger (diocesean) ones, too.
  • The experience of living in community — No bishop, no matter how “powerful”, rules his diocese alone. Rather, he relies on his auxiliary and assistant bishops, the vicar general, and long-time pastors of prosperous parishes—all the time working along with the religious priests in his diocese. An abbot, who has worked—and lived with—his prior and sub-prior (house superior), already possesses this similar life experience. 
  • Abbots already exist within a diocese — Although an abbot is the head of an abbey, the ones I’ve known were very much involved in the diocese they resided in—if not in actual decision-making, then at least in an advisory role. In short: an abbot is not off on some island, aloof from the cares of the diocese within which his abbey exists, but is an active member of that same diocese. 
  • Abbots are usually from the diocese itself — One of the ironies here is that most  American bishops have been moved around, chess-piece-like, to dioceses that they not only were not born in, but know next to nothing about. But abbots are, for the most part, members of the diocese itself already, and not an “import.” One here thinks of the aforementioned Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, Scotland.

All of this is not a rallying cry that abbots must become bishops — that’s for others to decide — but it would be nice to see them considered for the post. After all, there’s a long history of their saintly predecessors!