Prior, a monastic superior. In the Rule of St. Benedict the term prior occurs several times, but does not signify any particular superior; it is indiscriminately applied to any superior, be he abbot, provost, dean, etc. In other old monastic rules the term is used in the same generic sense. With the Cluniac reform the term prior received a specific meaning; it supplanted the provost (praepositus) of the Rule of St. Benedict. In the congregation of Hirschau, which arose in Germany in the eleventh century, the term prior was also substituted for provost, and the example of the Cluniac and Hirschau congregations was gradually followed by all Benedictine monasteries, as well as by the Camaldolese, Vallombrosians, Cistercians, and other offshoots of the Benedictine Order. In the Benedictine Order and its branches, in the Premonstratensian Order, and in the military orders there are two kinds of priors,—the claustral prior (prior claustralis) and the conventual prior (prior conventualis). The claustral prior, in a few monasteries called dean, holds the first place after the abbot (or grand-master in military orders), whom he assists in the government of the monastery and whose place he supplies in his absence. He has no ordinary jurisdiction by virtue of his office, since he performs the duties of his office entirely according to the will and under the direction of the abbot. His jurisdiction is, therefore, a delegated one and extends just as far as the abbot desires, or the constitutions of the congregation prescribe. He is appointed by the abbot, generally after a consultation with the capitulars of the monastery, and may be removed by him at any time. In many monasteries, especially larger ones, the claustral prior is assisted by a subprior, who holds the third place in the monastery. In former times there were in larger monasteries, besides the prior and the subprior, also a third, fourth, and sometimes even a fifth prior. Each of these was called circa (or circator), because it was his duty to make the rounds of the monastery to see whether anything was amiss and whether the brethren were intent on the work allotted to them respectively. He had no authority to correct or punish the brethren, but was to report to the claustral prior whatever he found amiss or contrary to the rules.
The conventual prior is the independent superior of a monastery that has no abbot; he rules in temporals and spirituals just like an abbot. Ordinarily he is elected by the chapter of his monastery and holds his office for life, though in former times he was often elected for a specified period of time. He may be assisted by a subprior, whose office is similar to that of the claustral prior in an abbey. In the Congregation of Cluny and others of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries there was also a greater prior (prior major) who preceded the claustral prior in dignity and, besides assisting the abbot in the government of the monastery, had some delegated jurisdiction over external dependencies of the abbey. The appellation of simple, or obedientiary, prior (prior simplex or prior obedientiarius) is often applied to the superior of a monastic establishment which is a dependency of an abbey. He is an obedientiary of the abbot, is appointed by him, and may be removed by him at any time.
The Augustinian Hermits, Carmelites, Servites, and Brothers of Mercy have three kinds of priors,—the conventual prior, the provincial prior, and the prior general. The conventual prior is the first superior over a monastery. He is generally elected by the chapter of the monastery for a specified time, and his election requires the approbation of the provincial prior. The provincial prior is the superior over a number of monasteries that are united into a province. He is generally elected for a specified time by the conventual priors and delegates from the various monasteries of the province, and his election requires the approbation of the prior general. The prior general is the superior over the whole order; he is elected in the general chapter for a specified time and resides in Rome. The Dominicans also have conventual and provincial priors, but the superior of the whole order is not called prior general, but master general. The Carthusians have conventual priors and a prior general,’ but no provincial priors. Their prior general is the only superior of an order who does not reside in Rome. Before their suppression in France the prior of the Grande Chartreuse was always prior general, an office now filled by the prior of Farneta near Lucca in Italy. In all these orders the second superior of a monastery is called subprior and his office is similar to that of the claustral prior in the Benedictine Order.