By Sara Kraft
Abbot Gregory Polan, O.S.B. had served as Abbot of Conception Abbey in Conception, Missouri for nearly 20 years. On September 10, Abbot Polan was elected Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Order. The Abbot Primate is the highest office in the 1500 year old order. In order to accept this position, Abbot Polan (called Abbot Gregory by the monks) will resign as Abbot of Conception Abbey.
“This is a major transition for us. Abbot Gregory is like a father to our community. We are very happy he is elected, but the downside is he is no longer abbot,” explained Fr. Daniel Petsche, O.S.B, Prior of Conception Abbey. Conception Abbey currently consists of 53 men, both priests and brothers, with around 45 men residing at the Abbey full-time. The other monks are residing in parishes or away at school. There are also additional elderly monks at the infirmary with a full-time nursing staff.
Abbot Primate Gregory’s new role in Rome is very important to the 7,000 Benedictine monks around the world. As Abbot Primate, he will not have any administrative authority. Instead, he will be the liaison with the Holy Father and provide connections between various Benedictine monasteries. He will bring the spirit of the Benedictine order to the world. He will also be the Abbot of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, where he will reside when he is not traveling to various monasteries. Abbot Primate Gregory is the tenth Abbot Primate since the office of Abbot Primate was created by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and the fourth American to be elected. Abbot Primate Gregory will serve an 8 year term after which the Benedictines have an option to extend his term for two additional four year terms for a total span of 16 years. Since Benedictine Confederation rules do not allow monks to choose a man over 75 as abbot primate, Abbot Primate Gregory does not expect to serve multiple terms.
“This is tough,” Abbot Primate Gregory said during a Catholic News Service interview September 13. “I’m going to miss my community very much. I love them very much. I’ve worked with them for 20 years and we’ve accomplished many things together. It’s a very talented group of men and very generous, prayerful, sacrificial and good-hearted men.”
The monks at Conception Abbey will also greatly miss Abbot Primate Gregory. He will be remembered as “a fine teacher, administrator, and musician,” stated Fr. Benedict Neenan, O.S.B., Development Director of Conception Abbey. Conception Abbey has two accomplished organists, but occasionally Abbot Primate Gregory would take a turn at the organ when the others were unavailable. The monastic and greater community especially looked forward to the tradition of Abbot Gregory playing “Shepherds of the Crib” for the monastic community on Christmas night.
Abbot Primate Gregory also gave conferences on Tuesday nights on Scripture and on the Order of St. Benedict.
“Abbot Gregory brings many years of leadership experience and spiritual wisdom to the role of Abbot Primate. We are happy that his gifts, which he has given so freely at Conception Abbey for many years, will now be shared with the entire order and Church,” commented Fr. Daniel Petsche. “I believe his gifts will reach fulfillment in this new role.”
Before becoming abbot, Abbot Primate Gregory was rector of Conception Abbey Seminary for 10 years. He is a linguist, who has learned Italian, Greek, and Hebrew, which are great qualities in an Abbot Primate. As a scholar in Scripture and Theology, Abbot Primate Gregory has been prominent in the field of Biblical translation. Recently, his work has included translations for the New American Bible and a complete translation of the Psalms resulting in the Revised Grail Psalter.
Former Conception Abbey student Daniel Chinn stated, “Abbot Gregory was one of my most challenging professors at the seminary. He is a very busy man, but you always felt very important when you talked to him.”
In his previous role as President-Rector of Conception Seminary College, Fr. Benedict went to many events with Abbot Gregory, and people were always very impressed with his many accomplishments. Fr. Benedict enjoyed teasing him in public to get a rise out of him so others could see his human side. Fr. Benedict said people would “Be a little shocked that someone would tease an Abbot!”
Abbot Gregory encouraged the monks in more than just spiritual matters. Maintaining his health is very important to Abbot Gregory, and he was continually challenging the rest of the monks to get on the bandwagon. Abbot Gregory was born on January 2, 1950 in Berwyn, Illinois to the late Edward and Martha Polan. Abbot Gregory entered the novitiate at Conception Abbey in 1970. He professed vows as a monk of Conception Abbey in 1971, and was elected the ninth abbot of Conception Abbey on November 6, 1996.
Soon, Conception Abbey will undertake the election of a new abbot. Abbot President Rt. Rev. Vincent DePaul Bataille, O.S.B., of Marmion Abbey will preside at the election, which will likely occur in a couple months. The community will prepare for it and the election. All monks who have professed solemn vows will have a vote. The first monk to receive 50 percent of the votes will be elected. Just like a papal election, it may take several ballots before a consensus is reached. In the Conception Abbey congregation, an abbot is appointed for an indefinite amount of time, until the abbot steps down or dies. The two abbots prior to Abbot Gregory have also been tapped for greater church leadership – Abbot Marcel Rooney was elected Abbot Primate in 1996, leading to Abbot Gregory’s election as Abbot at the age of 46. Archbishop Jerome Hanus stepped down as abbot when he was named Bishop of St. Cloud, and then was later made Archbishop of Dubuque.
While truly a joyous occasion, Conception Abbey now looks to the future. “This is a very important time in our community. We are asking for prayers as we elect an abbot to lead us into the future,” requested Fr. Daniel Petsche.