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Prioress election process puts needs of community first

From left are pictured prioress election facilitator Sister Sharon Nohner, St. Joseph, Minnesota; congregation president Sister Lynn McKenzie; new prioress Sister Mary Elizabeth Schweiger; and facilitator Sister Kimberly Porter, Covington, Kentucky.

by Sister Judith Sutera, OSB
Special to The Leaven

ATCHISON — Have you ever wondered how a monastic election is conducted? First and foremost, it is nothing like the kind of posturing, politicking and negativity that unfortunately is characteristic of elections in the secular world. From the very beginning, the whole process is inverted.

Rather than a candidate presenting a platform and promises, the discernment begins with every Sister in the monastery participating in a process of determining what the current needs and goals of the community are. This takes place over many months before the actual election and involves many discussions and times of prayer.

Every Sister expresses what she thinks is most important at this time and a committee shapes the responses into a few high priority categories. In this election cycle at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, every Sister could choose to participate in a group that would explore one of the areas and dream big regarding potential goals and actions in that area.

Those who did not join a group promised their participation through prayer and moral support.

In a subsequent meeting, each group offered its dreams for the community to consider and, eventually, came to a consensus about which goals seemed to elicit the most energy. From this came directional statements that would form the basis for choosing leadership that could embrace and implement the community’s direction. It is only after these months of prayer and deliberation that the Sisters begin the actual election process.

It is always amusing to hear reporters complain that they can’t be present at the conclave when a pope is being elected. They would probably be very disappointed because, if it’s anything like the election of a prioress, a good part of the time is spent in communal prayer and long periods of silent personal prayer as each member calls upon the Holy Spirit for guidance.

 The Spirit is the most important presence in the room for what is called a “discernment,” not a mere “deliberation.”

For this election of a prioress, outside facilitators assist in the process. Sister Sharon Nohner of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, was one of them. She describes discernment in this way: “St. Benedict says to listen with the ear of the heart, and discernment is not just listening to words but to the Spirit speaking in each Sister.”

The other facilitator, Sister Kimberly Porter from St. Walburg Monastery in Covington, Kentucky, had this to add.

 “It is a beautiful convergence of all that a community is about,” she said. “The actual days of discernment are a coming together of all the hours of prayer and listening.”

Something especially unique about this process is the selection of candidates. It is only after the community has extensive conversation about the needs and desires of the community that names begin to surface. Everyone from the oldest to the youngest is asked to fill out a form with the names of any three Sisters and why they would be good candidates. One of the great blessings of an election is that everyone gets to hear about, and rejoice in, the gifts of a wide variety of Sisters. When the nominations are tallied, the Sisters receive a list of numbers but with no names attached. They can then decide how many nominations are a sufficient number to continue to consider that Sister. But because they do not know who that Sister is, they cannot let their personal preferences influence how many names to consider.

Next, they are given the names, but with no numbers, so that they are not influenced by consideration of who already has the most support.

These Sisters then have an opportunity to address the community, a process that involves great honesty and humility. After this, anyone can submit an anonymous question, so even greater honesty and humility are required from the candidates.

After as many straw polls are taken as might be needed, with much more prayer, the community comes to a sense of the direction in which the Spirit might be leading them. It is only after there is a strong consensus that the actual canonical election is held.

It is an ancient and beautiful formal ritual held in the monastery chapel. After roll call, each Sister processes in rank order according to the day she entered, oldest to youngest, to deposit her ballot in a special urn. The ballots are then read aloud; the prioress elect comes forward to accept, and the Sisters individually come to her to give their support.

The president of the Monastic Congregation of St. Scholastica presides and confirms the election. Sister Mary Elizabeth Schweiger will be installed at a Mass of thanksgiving on July 9 and will serve a six-year term as leader of the nearly 100 Sisters at Mount St. Scholastica.

Mount elects new prioress

ATCHISON — The Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica here announced that on June 11, they elected Sister Mary Elizabeth Schweiger as the 13th prioress in their 160-year history.

A native of Lenexa, Sister Mary Elizabeth entered the monastery in 1963. She received her bachelor’s degree from Mount St. Scholastica College, Atchison, in education and earned master’s degrees in theology from St. John’s University (Collegeville, Minnesota) and in spirituality from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

She has served as teacher and pastoral minister primarily in the Kansas City area. Within the monastic community, she has previously been vocation minister, coordinator of oblate directors and subprioress. She is currently on the staff of Sophia Spirituality Center, Atchison, and director of its Souljourners program for training of spiritual directors.

The Sisters invite the public to celebrate with them at a Eucharist for her installation on July 9 at 11 a.m. in St. Scholastica Chapel.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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