Last September the Benedictine Confederation, more commonly referred to as the Order of St. Benedict, elected its 10th Abbot Primate since the institution of that office by Pope Leo XIII in 1893. They elected the fourth American monk to hold that office by choosing the Abbot of Conception Abbey in Missouri, Rt. Rev. Gregory J. Polan, OSB (67). He succeeded Notker Wolf and became Abbot of Sant’Anselmo and the Most Rev. Abbot Primate on September 10, 2016.
Seven of his eight predecessors bore a coat of arms as abbots and as Abbots Primate. Two of the Americans, Jerome Theisen, OSB a monk of St. John’s in Collegeville and Marcel Rooney, OSB also a monk of Conception chose not to be armigerous either as abbot or as Abbot Primate. (the fourth American was Rembert Weakland, OSB a monk of St. Vincent Archabbey in Pennsylvania and the Archbishop-Emeritus of Milwaukee)
At the time he became Abbot of Conception in 1996 Abbot Gregory wasn’t particularly interested in a coat of arms. But the community had a heraldic tradition and one of the monks there devised arms for him to assume keeping it very simple. The plain gold field with the single charge of a black bull’s head is a symbol associated with the abbot’s family. This was then quartered with the arms of the abbey.
Upon his election as Abbot Primate the same monk who originally designed the arms decided to prepare something the abbot could use as Abbot Primate. The personal arms are “Or, a bull’s head erased Sable; on a canton Azure a fleur-de-lis Argent”. The addition of the small augmentation of the blue canton charged with a silver fleur-de-lis, borrowed from the arms of Conception Abbey, are employed as a way of paying homage to the abbot’s Motherhouse by augmenting his personal arms rather than changing the design entirely. These personal arms are then impaled with the arms used by the Order of St. Benedict, “Azure, issuing from a trimount a patriarchal cross, overall the word “PAX” all Or“. Note that sometimes the trimount is depicted as Vert (green) rather than Or (gold).
The shield is ensigned with the usual ornaments of an abbot: black galero with twelve black tassels and a veiled crozier. The previous Abbot Primate, Notker Wolf, commissioned an artist who depicted his arms with twenty black tassels. The thinking was that, as the head of the Order the Abbot Primate should have an ornament that indicated a higher rank like an archbishop’s hat having twenty tassels instead of the twelve used by other bishops. The problem with that line of reasoning is that the Abbot Primate is not the Abbot General of the Order of St. Benedict. He is merely a figurehead; a nominal “head” but really just a visible figure to promote communication within the Order and to act as a liaison between the Order as a whole and the Holy See. Leo XIII didn’t like the decentralized nature of the Benedictines. In reality each house under its own abbot is autonomous. What binds Benedictines together is that they follow the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. Eventually, houses began to band together into federations, now called Congregations, and each of those Congregations, some of which are international but many of which are structured along national lines, adopts Constitutions and a customary observed by all the houses within the Congregation. In addition, they elect a Praeses, or Abbot President, who acts as their canonical superior with jurisdiction. The Abbot Primate, however, does not have jurisdiction over the whole Order the way a Superior General does in other Religious Orders. So, he is merely a figurehead elected by the Abbots gathered in Congress.
Not possessing a higher rank, or greater authority, or jurisdiction over all Benedictines it makes no sense for the Abbot Primate’s galero to suggest so. The Abbot Primate remains an abbot like any other, indeed during his tenure (which is a four year term renewable by re-election) he is the abbot of the Abbey of Sant’Anselmo on the Aventine Hill housing the Anselmianum where students study about the sacred liturgy. Outside of heraldry the Abbot Primate is accorded certain honors to mark his position as the Primate, namely, he is permitted to wear the purple zucchetto instead of a black one and he is addressed as “Most Reverend” instead of the usual “Right Reverend” used by other abbots.
Bruno Heim mentions in his book, Heraldry In The Catholic Church that the Church never made provisions for Archabbots, Abbots General or Abbots Primate to use a galero different from other abbots. However, some authors argue that it is Archabbots (a title of honor that confers no greater jurisdiction or powers) should use a galero with twenty tassels like archbishops. The point is open to debate. I have always believed archabbots should use the galero with twenty tassels but I know of no instances where one actually does so. Therefore, despite the compliment paid to him by the artist who depicted Abbot Primate Notker’s coat of arms Abbot Primate Gregory’s arms use the traditional galero of an abbot with twelve tassels.
Both the design and the very nice artwork were done by Dom Pachomius Meade, OSB of Conception Abbey in Missouri.