An abbot (from the Aramaic abba, a familiar form of father) is the head and spiritual father of a male monastic community. Depending on the community, he may be either appointed by a bishop or elected by the members of the community. He may or may not be a presbyter. He has wide jurisdiction and authority over the community he leads.
The title had its origin in the monasteries of Egypt and Syria, and it spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean, soon becoming generally accepted in all languages as the designation of the head of a monastery. The word is derived from the Aramaic av meaning "father" or abba, meaning "my father". In the Septuagint, it was written as "abbas".
The position of abbot has existed since the beginning of cenobitic monasteries.
In Egypt, the first home of monasticism, the jurisdiction of the abbot, or archimandrite, was loosely defined. Sometimes he ruled over one community or several, each of which had its own abbot as well. St. John Cassian speaks of an abbot of the Thebaid who had 500 monks under him. By the Rule of St. Benedict, which, until the Cluniac reforms, was the norm in the West, the abbot has jurisdiction over only one community. The rule, as was inevitable, was subject to frequent violations; but it was not until the foundation of the Cluniac Order that the idea of a supreme abbot, exercising jurisdiction over all the houses of an order, was definitely recognized. Monks, as a rule, were laymen, nor at the outset was the abbot any exception. For the reception of the sacraments, and for other religious offices, the abbot and his monks were commanded to attend the nearest church. This rule proved inconvenient when a monastery was situated in a desert or at a distance from a city, and necessity compelled the ordination of some monks. By the close of the 5th Century, nearly all Eastern abbots had become deacons, if not priests. The change spread more slowly in the West, where the office of abbot was commonly filled by laymen till the end of the 7th Century. The ecclesiastical leadership exercised by abbots despite their frequent lay status is proved by their attendance and votes at ecclesiastical councils. Thus at the Second Ecumenical Council in AD 448, 23 abbots signed with 30 bishops.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council in AD 787 recognized the right of abbots to ordain their monks to the inferior orders below the diaconate, a power usually reserved to bishops.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the abbot is referred to as the igumen. The Superior of a convent of nuns is called the igumenia. The title of archimandrite (literally, "chief of a sheepfold") is an honorific title given to monastics, one level lower than a bishop. The principle set forth in the Corpus Juris Civilis still applies, whereby most abbots are immediately subject to the local bishop. Those monasteries which enjoy the status of being stauropegiac are subject only to a primate or his Synod of Bishops, and not the local bishop.
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