Difference between Abbesses and nuns (are they the same)

As a theologian, I am always interested in the different Christian denominations and their unique practices. I became interested in knowing the major roles of different positions in the Catholic Church after I visited one of the local Catholic dioceses for some research and saw many leaders taking various roles. I mainly wanted to understand the roles of an Abbess and how it differs from nuns. I approached the Abbesses and the nuns in the local Catholic Church one afternoon, and we had a session of tremendous enlightenment. Last month, someone asked the difference between an Abbess and a nun in our online interdenominational group. They had seen these roles being discussed in another group and wanted to hear my take. Based on my research, I was able to answer comprehensively. So, is there a difference between Abbesses and nuns?

Yes, there is a difference between Abbesses and nuns. An Abbess is a superior leading a group of twelve nuns or more. On the other hand, a nun is below the Abbess and forms only part of the group under an Abbess.

Join me as I delve into the differences between an Abbess and a nun in terms of roles and responsibilities. I will also write about the requirements to be an Abbess. Read on to find out more.

What is an abbess?

An Abbess could be defined as a qualified and experienced female superior who heads an Abbey of nuns. She practices equal authority to Abbots over nuns but no spiritual authority. The name Abbess comes from the Aramaic name called Abba, which means father. Therefore, Abbess is taken to mean mother, mother of her group of nuns. She could lead a group of 12 or more nuns.

How is an abbess descriptively different from a nun?

Difference between Abbesses and nuns
How is an abbess descriptively different from a nun? Image source: Pixabay

An Abbess could be more elderly than a nun. You can tell that she is an Abbess by her age, strictly above 40 years old. On the other hand, you can get nuns as young as 18 years. Also, most Abbesses have a pectoral cross outside their habit to symbolize their office. On the other hand, nuns can only wear pectoral crosses after an award of honor on rare occasions.

What is the difference in roles and responsibilities between Abbess and nuns?

An Abbess is allowed to punish the nuns who do not follow the rules lightly. However, she cannot conduct ecclesiastical penalties such as censures because they are above her. On the other hand, a nun’s responsibility is to follow the rules and adhere to her leader, the Abbess.

An Abbess presents a yearly statement pertaining to their temporalities to the Bishops of their specific diocese. On the other hand, nuns are not supposed to report to Bishops; they might report to the Abbess, but there is no official report that they must hand the Bishop.

The Abbess is responsible for issuing commands to the nuns she leads. The commands are to be taken with respect and obedience among the nuns only if they align with the rule of order. On the other hand, a nun is supposed to follow the commands of the Abbess with total obedience, which might gradually become the conscience of each nun under the specific Abbess.

Also, an Abbess is responsible for maintaining discipline among the nuns she leads. This may include prescribing the necessities that lead to discipline and ordaining each necessity for her nuns. On the other hand, nuns are required to follow all that the Abbess says when it comes to maintaining discipline.

An Abbess is also responsible for maintaining peace and order in her community of nuns. The role may involve encouraging her group to live in harmony with each other. On the other hand, the nuns are supposed to help the Abbess in her role by being peaceful from an individual level and striving to be harmonious with others.

Is an abbess higher ranking than a nun?

Yes, an Abbess is a higher ranking than a nun. You need to become a nun first, then meet the requirements and become an Abbess. A nun is always under an Abbess because an Abbess is the leader of an Abbey of nuns. This could mean that nuns report to an Abbess because she is a rank higher.

Can a nun become an abbess?

Difference between Abbesses and nuns
Can a nun become an abbess? Image source: Pixabay

Yes, a nun could become an Abbess too. The nun should have been a nun for at least ten or more years first before trying to be an Abbess. Also, she must be 40 years and above to become one. After a nun has proved to have all the requirements, she is blessed by the Bishop of their specific Diocese by following the Abbess rites in the Church. She is blessed by the Bishop and can now have a certain pontifical insignia which could be a ring or a crosier.

What are the requirements for a nun to become an abbess?

As mentioned above, one must have become a nun for at least ten years before trying to be an Abbess. Ten years requirement is a minimum for those who started being nuns in their late 20s or early 30s. However, since many people become nuns from eighteen, you need a minimum of 22 years of practice as a nun first.

Also, a nun must be at least 40 years or older. At 40, a nun is most likely to have matured in their calling and knows how to handle other nuns and any activities and issues involving them. As Saint Benedict says: An Abbess should be well-versed in the divine law and able to practice it. At 40 years and above, a qualified Abbess can live by the divine law. Hence, she can easily lead others.

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