By Sara Kraft
CONCEPTION — On Tuesday, November 22, Fr. Benedict Neenan, O.S.B., was elected the 10th Abbot of the Benedictine monks of Conception Abbey in Conception, Missouri. The former Abbot Gregory Polan, O.S.B., was elected Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation in early September. Polan had served as abbot of Conception Abbey for nearly twenty years. Abbot Benedict immediately assumes his responsibilities as the spiritual and temporal leader of the community. As is custom, a formal blessing will take place on Sunday, January 15 at 2 pm in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
Ordained a priest in 1988, Abbot Benedict has a wealth of experience, but understands his election is a work of the Holy Spirit. “God has prepared me by giving me faith in the power of His grace. I trust in the good sense of my brother monks (in electing me). They trust in me,” explained Abbot Benedict.
Over the years, he has overseen the management of Conception Abbey’s apostolates and development in numerous capacities. Most recently, Abbot Benedict was appointed Business Manager of Conception Abbey in 2008 and Development Director in 2014. He served as Prior of Conception Abbey from 1990-1993. After earning a Ph.D. in Church History from the Catholic University of America in 1996, Abbot Benedict served as President-Rector of Conception Seminary College until 2008. He has also taught a theology and Church history at Conception Seminary College since 1990. Additional duties have included spiritual direction for seminarians and lay people, serving as the monastic Vocations Director, and leading retreats in the Abbey Guest Center.
Abbot Benedict, age 67, is a Kansas City, Missouri native who grew up in a large and strongly religious family and attended Visitation Parish in Kansas City. He originally wanted to be a parish priest but eventually discerned that community life was very important to him (probably due to his large family he admits). Abbot Benedict visited a couple of religious communities while living in Europe and saw the historical footprint of monasticism, and discovered it fit his personality. After exploring different monastic communities, Abbot Benedict ended up at Conception Abbey, where he had spent the 1967-1968 school year as a student.
“The hospitality and warmth of Conception Abbey made me feel like I had come home,” Abbot Benedict explained, “and I am convinced more and more I have.” He professed vows as a Benedictine monk in 1980.
Abbot Benedict asked for prayers for the future work of the Abbey. “We work in the church by forming priests, who will one day be working in their parishes. We provide them with a good formation and strengthen them in ministry,” explained Abbot Benedict. “Conception Abbey’s main ministry is prayer. We pray for our priests and laity. We hope our diocese is consoled by the fact we are praying for them six times a day.” In addition to prayer, the fifty-four monks of the Conception Abbey community form future priests and permanent deacons at Conception Seminary College, run the Printery House, and welcome guests for retreats and spiritual nourishment at the Abbey Guest Center.
Abbot Benedict is known in the Conception Abbey community for his sense of humor. Over the years, he especially enjoyed teasing the former Abbot Gregory Polan, O.S.B at events to try to get a rise out of him so others could see his human side. “I can be a rather serious man at times,” explained Abbot Benedict. “Humor is always a help in dealing with people. If humor doesn’t interject, we take ourselves too seriously. Despite what the monks might think, I do not intend to play practical jokes.”
The election of Abbot Benedict was overseen by Right Rev. Vincent Bataille, president of the Swiss-American Congregation of the Benedictine Confederation and took place within a private meeting of the monks of Conception Abbey. Prior to the election, the monks of Conception Abbey celebrated a Mass of the Holy Spirit to invoke the Holy Spirit for wisdom and guidance in the election process. All monks who have professed solemn vows voted. In order to be elected abbot, a monk must receive a two-thirds majority vote on the first three ballots or a simple majority on one of the possible next six ballots. Once Abbot Benedict was elected, the five tower bells were rung to show the monks’ joy and hope for the future. In the Conception Abbey congregation, an abbot is appointed for an indefinite amount of time, until the abbot steps down or dies.
“I express my gratitude and congratulations for the election of Fr. Benedict Neenan, O.S.B. as 10th Abbot of the Benedictine monks of Conception Abbey,” stated Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr.. “Abbot Neenan heads a group of religious men vitally important to our local diocese and beyond. The Benedictines of Conception Abbey have long pastored parishes in our diocese, educated our seminarians and provided a welcoming atmosphere for spiritual retreats, among many other blessings. I ask the faithful of our diocese to join me in praying that the Benedictines will continue to thrive under the leadership of Abbot Neenan.”