In the Catholic Church (both the Latin Rite and Eastern Catholic), Eastern Orthodox, Coptic and Anglican abbeys, the mode of election, position, rights, and authority of an abbess correspond generally with those of an abbot. She must be at least 40 years old and have been a nun for 10 years.The office is elective, the choice being by the secret votes of the nuns belonging to the community. Like an abbot, after being confirmed in her office by the Holy See, an abbess is solemnly admitted to her office by a formal blessing, conferred by the bishop in whose territory the monastery is located, or by an abbot or another bishop with appropriate permission. Unlike the abbot, the abbess receives only the ring and a copy of the rule of the order. She does not receive a mitre nor is given a crosier as part of the ceremony; however, by ancient tradition, she may carry a crosier when leading her community. The abbess also traditionally adds a pectoral cross to the outside of her habit as a symbol of office, though she continues to wear a modified form of her religious habit or dress, as she is unordained- not a male religious- and so does not vest or use choir dress in the liturgy.
Roles and responsibilities
Abbesses are, like abbots, major superiors according to canon law, the equivalents of abbots or bishops (the ordained male members of the church hierarchy who have, by right of their own office, executive jurisdiction over a building, diocesan territory, or a communal or non-communal group of persons—juridical entities under church law). They receive the vows of the nuns of the abbey; they may admit candidates to their order's novitiate; they may send them to study; and they may send them to do pastoral and/or missionary work and/or assist—to the extent allowed by canon and civil law—in the administration and ministry of a parish or diocese (these activities could be inside or outside the community's territory). They have full authority in its administration. However, there are certain limitations: they may not administer the sacraments and related functions whose celebration is reserved to bishops, priests, deacons, or seminarians (the male clergy), namely, Holy Orders (they may make provision for an ordained cleric to help train and to admit some of their members, if needed, as altar servers, Eucharistic ministers, or lectors- the minor ministries which are now open to the non-ordained). They may not fill the clerical role of serving as the Mass celebrant and as a clerical witness to a marriage (they may serve as a non-ordained witness alongside the laity, for example, at a friend's wedding). They may not administer Penance (Reconciliation), Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction), or function as an ordained celebrant or concelebrant of the Mass (by virtue of their office and their training and institution, they may act, if the need arises, as altar servers, lectors, ushers, porters, or Eucharistic ministers of the Cup, and if need be, the Host). They may preside over a simple prayer service such as the Liturgy of the Hours which they are obliged to say with their community, speak about Scripture to their community, and give certain types of blessings not reserved to the clergy. On the other hand, they may not preside over Adoration or Benediction, give a speech that is a homily, or read the Gospel during a Mass or serve as instituted acolytes, a ministry which is now reserved for those preparing for ordained service). As they do not receive Holy Orders in the Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Churches, they do not possess the ability to ordain any religious to Holy Orders, or even admit their members to the non-ordained ministries to which they can be installed by the ordained clergy (females do not serve as clergy anyway, per formal church teaching, in these churches), nor do they exercise the authority they do possess under canon law over any territories outside of their monastery and its territory (though non-cloistered, non-contemplative female religious members who are based in a convent or monastery but who participate in external affairs may assist as needed by the diocesan bishop and local secular clergy and laity, in certain pastoral ministries and administrative and non-administrative functions not requiring ordained ministry or status as a male cleric in those churches or programs).
Historically, in some Celtic monasteries abbesses presided over joint-houses of monks and nuns, the most famous example being Saint Brigid of Kildare's leadership in the founding of the monastery at Kildare in Ireland. This custom accompanied Celtic monastic missions to France, Spain, and even to Rome itself. In 1115, Robert, the founder of Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon and Saumur, France, committed the government of the whole order, men as well as women, to a female superior.
In Lutheran churches, the title of abbess (Äbtissin) has in some cases (e.g. Itzehoe) survived to designate the heads of abbeys which since the Protestant Reformation have continued as Stifte. These are collegiate foundations, which provide a home and an income for unmarried ladies, generally of noble birth, called canonesses (Kanonissinen) or more usually Stiftsdamen. The office of abbess is of considerable social dignity, and in the past, was sometimes filled by princesses of the reigning houses. Until the dissolution of Holy Roman Empire and mediatization of smaller imperial fiefs by Napoleon, the evangelical Abbess of Quedlinburg was also per officio the head of that reichsunmittelbar state. The last such ruling abbess was Sofia Albertina, Princess of Sweden.
The Roman Catholic church has around 200 abbesses at present.
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- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Abbess". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.