Saint Norbert

A Saint's Tale
Brother John Raymond
June 6, 1999

St. Norbert, whose feast day is June 6, was born around the year 1080 in Xanten, Germany. He came from a noble family. His father was related to the Holy Roman Emperor, a definite advantage in those days. As a young man Norbert lived an easy and comfortable life at court. Emperor Henry appointed him his almoner, in charge of giving money to the poor. Like St. Paul Norbert's conversion was sudden and profound. What caused him to change we do not know. He began to live a life of prayer and poverty. Archbishop Frederick of Cologne ordained him a priest in 1115. With the permission of Pope Glasius II St. Norbert preached with much success in northern France. The Saint was very penitential. He even traveled barefoot in the snow, not something I would recommend for imitation.

In Valciennes St. Norbert met a priest named Father Hugh of Fosses and he became a follower of the Saint. Not every mission Norbert undertook ended up successful. In 1119 the Bishop of Laon asked Norbert to help him reform the canons of St. Martin's but they did not accept the Saint's strict regulations.

St.Norbert, with the help of Father Hugh, in 1120, founded a community in a valley called Premontre near Laon. (Other religious men had abandoned the site because of the poverty of the soil for agriculture.) Norbert began with thirteen members and soon the community grew to forty. They all made their profession on Christmas day, 1121. They chose a white habit and the Rule of St. Augustine. They came to be called the Premonstratensians and are now also called the Norbertines, certainly a lot easier to remember and pronounce.

In 1125 when there were eight houses of Premonstratentian men and two of nuns St. Norbert went to obtain from the Pope a more formal approbation. This he received from Pope Honorious II. St. Norbert continued his preaching travels in both France and Germany. Then in 1126 he was chosen to be Archbishop of Magdeburg. The story is told that when St. Norbert arrived at the Archbishop's residence the porter wouldn't let in this humbly attired, barefoot man and called him a beggar. Finally the people convinced the porter that this was the new archbishop. St. Norbert told the porter he had it right the first time. I think I would have fired the porter after that!

When the Saint arrived in his new archdiocese he found much work to do. Some of the laity had wrongly taken Church property. St. Norbert tried to get it back. Because of this more than one attempt was made on his life.

In 1130 Pope Innocent II had to flee Rome because of Pierleone who claimed to be Pope and took his position by force. St. Norbert convinced the Emperor to side with Pope Innocent. The Emperor helped the real Pope come back to Rome. He returned accompanied by St. Norbert and St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

In the breviary we read, "One of the principle goals of Norbert's life was to foster harmony between the Holy See and the German Empire." This was no easy task. One major issue of conflict was that those in authority in the German Empire tried to use their power to appoint those in positions of authority in the Church. St. Norbert's efforts to free the Church from this tyranny along with other issues of conflict were so successful that Pope Innocent II thanked him profusely in a letter in which he called him a 'devoted son' and the Emperor Lothair II made him chancellor of the realm.

The Order that St. Norbert founded was one of canons regular. They combined monastic prayer with an active ministry. St Norbert died at Magdebury in 1134. Father Hugh of Fosses became head of the Order. St. Nobert's relics were later transferred to the Premonstratentian church in Strahan near Prague. He was canonized in 1582.