St. Norbert of Xanten: ‘Apostle of the Blessed Sacrament’ and ‘Peacemaker’
Today, June 6 the, Catholic Church honors Saint Norbert of Xanten, who began his adulthood as a worldly cleric, but was transformed by God’s grace into a powerful preacher and an ardent reformer of the 12th century Church. He is also the founder of the Norbertines.
Norbert was born around the year 1080 in Xanten near Cologne, Germany. He was the son of minor nobility and entered the diaconate to obtain a position at the court. As an adult, he began a career at the Court of the Emperor Henry V.
Although a cleric, Norbert lived as a “playboy” for many years. A religious vocation was far from his mind until he experienced a dramatic conversion, similar to that of St Paul on the road to Damascus. While riding one day, he was overtaken by a thunderstorm and nearly killed by a lightning bolt. His frightened horse threw him and he lay unconscious for some time. He heard the voice of Christ reprimanding him for his conduct: “Turn away from evil and do good. Seek peace, and pursue it.”
As in the case of St. Paul, the experience produced a complete transformation. From being a cleric in ‘name’ only, Norbert was ordained a priest in 1115 and began a process of trying to tighten the discipline and zeal of his fellow Canons at Xanten. However, he met with indifferent success. Norbert resigned from his position, sold his possessions, gave the proceeds to the poor and began to live according to the Gospel. He made a pilgrimage to Rome and met Pope Gelasius II, who gave him a mission to preach the Gospel anywhere he wanted. His reputation as a preacher grew especially on the French/German borders and soon attracted the like-minded cleric Hugh of Fosses, who joined him as a fellow preacher.
St Norbert was invited to reform the lifestyle of the Cathedral Canons of Laon and the diocesan bishop, Bartholomew, gave Norbert and Hugh a piece of land in a remote area called Prémontré, and here they settled with eleven others in 1121. A new Religious Order was being born – the Canons Regular of Prémontré, or the Norbertine Canons. On Christmas Day in 1121, they celebrated by dedicating themselves to a life of prayer, meditation and apostolic work in the Church, following the Rule of St Augustine. 885 years later, the Order is now a worldwide presence in the Church, ‘Prepared for all good works’ as St. Norbert intended.
St Norbert was primarily a preacher and a reformer in a Church, which had become complacent, lax and open to the influences of the secular rulers of the age, who tried to subvert the Church for their own purposes. Norbert was the obvious choice for the Archdiocese of Magdeburg and both Emperor and Pope approved of his appointment to the Archdiocese in 1126. Hugh of Fosses was left in charge of the monastery of Prémontré as its first abbot.
Prémontré had become a thriving community of priests, brothers, nuns and lay associates and from there the Order spread throughout Europe, reaching England in 1143. Meanwhile, Norbert exercised great pastoral care in Magdeburg, encouraging and teaching orthodox Catholic doctrine in the face of local heresies and misunderstandings. His defense of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and his success in resolving conflicts earned him the titles ‘Apostle of the Blessed Sacrament’ and ‘Peacemaker’.
When a argument arose over the papal succession in 1130, Norbert traveled to Rome to support the legitimate Pope Innocent II. In 1133, the Emperor Lothar II made St Norbert Chancellor of the German Empire. His loyalty to both his ecclesiastical and civil responsibilities, his fidelity to the reforms of the Church, and his inspiration in founding a new Religious Order of Canons Regular have made St Norbert one of the most influential churchmen of his time. He died on June 6, 1134 in Magdeburg.