St. Norbert: Apostle of the Blessed Sacrament and Peacemaker
June 6 is the memorial of St. Norbert, a convert, priest, preacher, and reformer of the Church in the 12th century. He is the founder of the Norbertines and the patron saint of peace.
Norbert was born around the year 1080 in Xanten, a town near the Holland-German border. He was the son of nobility. Through the influence of his family he obtained a financial subsidy from the parish church at Xanten when he accepted ordination to the subdiaconate. His only task was to chant the Divine Office at the Church, but he apparently paid someone a small fee to take his place in the choir, because he gained an appointment as a chaplain-religious counselor to the emperor, Henry V in Cologne. As a young man, he was wealthy and committed to worldly pleasures. The thought of a religious vocation was the furthest thing from his mind until he had a dramatic conversion experience.
One day in the spring of 1115, while riding his horse, a thunderbolt from a sudden storm struck at the horse’s feet. The animal threw him and he lay unconscious for nearly an hour. After this near-fatal accident, his faith deepened, he relinquished his appointment at Court and returned to Xanten to lead a life of penance, placing himself under the spiritual direction of Cono, Abbot of St Sigebergne. He decided to withdraw from imperial service and go into seclusion at the Abbey of Siegburg to permit himself a thorough self-evaluation. After three years of self-scrutiny and prayer, he concluded that he should seek ordination to the priesthood and commit himself to Jesus and the ideals of the Gospel. In gratitude to Cono, he founded the Abbey of Fürstenberg and donated it along with a portion of his property to Cono and his Benedictine successors.
Norbert was ordained to the priesthood at the age of thirty-five. He was known for his deep devotion to the Eucharist and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Following his ordination, Norbert began a process of trying to tighten the discipline and zeal of his fellow canons of Xanten. He set high standards for his time and experienced little success. He then resigned his Canonry, 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 assigned him the mission of preaching the Gospel anywhere he wanted. For the next several years he travelled through western Germany, Belgium and France, preaching repentance, peace and moral reform. His reputation as a preacher grew particularly 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 an isolated 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 of the secular Rulers of the age, who tried to subvert the Church to their own purposes. The Church and State both had their rights and it was important not to blur the differences. 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’.
At a time of disputed Papal election and Imperial interference, St Norbert was a loyal defender of the legitimate Pope, a true man of peace and one who sought justice when it was in danger of being overlooked. The Emperor Lothar II made St Norbert Chancellor of the German Empire in 1133. 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. Saint Norbert was canonized by Pope Gregory XIII in the year 1582, and his statue appears above the Piazza colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.