The Order of Saint Benedict (O.S.B.) is not a religious order in the usual sense, i.e. with a superior-general, a central council and headquarters, frequently but not necessarily, in Rome. The basic unit of Benedictine life is the individual independent monastery. Most of these are abbeys, with an abbot as superior, but some which have not yet reached abbatial status are called conventual priories with a conventual prior as superior. These superiors are elected by their respective comunities. The usual way a monastery is established is by foundation from an existing abbey or conventual priory and it is usual for these foundations to become independent houses in their turn. Until this happens they remain dependent on the founding house. For a Benedictine monk his major superior is usually his abbot or conventual prior.
Monasteries are grouped in loose federations called Congregations of which there are 20 in the world. The purpose of these is for general oversight of monastic life and for mutual assistence. Some Congregations are nationally based as, for example, the Bavarian and Brazilian Congregations. Other Congregations, such at the Congregation of the Annunciation to which Glenstal Abbey belongs, have houses all over the world. Every Congregation has an elected Abbot President whose jurisdiction is very limited and only in exceptional circumstances can supersede that of the local abbot or conventual prior. The main functions of an Abbot President is to arrange for the regular visitation of the monasteries to check monastic life and discipline and give any help that may be necessary. He also presides at the election of an abbot or conventual prior. The Abbot President is expected to respect and facilitate the legitimate diversity that exists between individual monasteries while guaranteeing its adherance to the general Benedictine ethos.
In 1886, Pope Leo XIII united the then existing Congregations into the Benedictine Confederation. At the head of this is the Abbot Primate who is based in the Abbey of Saint Anselm (Sant’Anselmo) on the Aventine Hill in Rome. This monastery also houses a Benedictine university and serves as a centre of unity for men and women Benedictines from all over the world. Sant’Anselmo is the property of the Benedictine Confederation and the superiors of the monasteries and Congregations that make up the Confederation meet every four years to discuss and decide matters relating to Sant’Anselmo itself and to Benedictine life in general. It is this congress that elects the Abbot Primate. Like an Abbot President he has limited jurisdiction and is regarded as the first among equals. His main roles are to represent Benedictines to the Holy See and to civil authorities in Italy and abroad and to foster the unity of Benedctines. Along with the Abbey of Sant’Anselmo and its university, unity is fostered by the presence, on invitation, of the Abbot Primate at Benedictine gatherings, local, regional and international, all over the world. Four monasteries that belong to no Congregation are under the direct jurisdiciton of the Abbot Primate.
Women Benedictines, both enclosed nuns and sisters involved in apostolic or other work, are grouped in the Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum (C.I.B.) which is under the aegis of the Abbot Primate but is responsible for the conduct of its own business.