OUR HOLY FATHER ST. NORBERT
Memorial: June 6th
Norbert of Gennep was born around the year 1080. He was a secular canon at St. Victor's Collegiate Church in Xanten (present-day Germany) and was ordained to the order of subdeacon without making any real effort to live the clerical life. Somewhere between 1108 and 1109 he became chaplain at the court of Archbishop Frederick of Cologne and already in 1110 he was a chaplain at the court of Emperor Henry V. He accompanied the the Emperor to Rome in 1111 where there was great turmoil on account of the question of investiture, the conferral of bishoprics by kings and laity. Norbert returned to Germany very troubled. In 1113 he declined to accept the diocese of Cambray from the emperor.
In the spring of 1115, while riding to the village of Freden, he was thrown from his horse during a sudden thunderstorm. This event gave Norbert the impetus to convert his way of life. He gave up his chaplaincy at court and dedicated himself to meditation. At this point he began seeking direction from holy men in religious life and came under the influence of Abbot Conon, a reform-minded abbot of Siegburg. Finally, in December 1115, he was ordained deacon and priest on the same day. Immediately after the ordination he returned to Siegburg where he spent forty days in prayer. He celebrated his first Mass at Xanten where he informed the canons of St. Victor that he had a reform of the community in mind. However, his fellow canons did not want to hear of it; one going so far as to spit in the young priest's face. Experiencing this rejection, Norbert withdrew and continued seeking advice from other reform-minded clerics, including a hermit named Ludolph, and the canons regular of Klosterrath at Rolduc.
After this he began his journey as a wandering preacher. Some admired his actions while others became perturbed and irritated. Norbert consequently had to justify himself at the Council of Fritzlar where he decided to relinquish everything and resign his canonical title and all his benefices. He then started to lead the life of a pilgrim. In St.Giles in Provence he was received in audience by Pope Gelasius II from whom he received permission to work as an itinerant preacher. During, the winter he went barefoot to Valenciennes where two of his companions died of exhaustion and where he met Bishop Burchard of Carnbray, his old friend at the imperial court. The chaplain of the bishop, Hugh of Fosse, was so impressed by Norbert that he asked to be allowed to join him. Norbert attended the Council of Rheims in 1119 where the new pope, Callixtus II, asked his nephew, Bishop Bartholomew of Laon, to take Norbert under his protection.
Norbert used this occasion to visit the famous cathedral school in Laon. At the request of the pope he agreed to reform the chapter of St. Martin. However, this attempt of his was as unsuccessful as that of a few years back in Xanten. The bishop recommended that he look for a place in his diocese where he could settle. He chose the solitary valley of Premontre, even though he continued his preaching apostolate. On one such occasion, Evermode of Cambray and Anthony of Nivelles followed him. After a sermon in Laon, seven young men joined him. At Easter, 1120, they all settled in Premontre where they now numbered fourteen. They chose the Rule of St. Augustine and considered themselves canons regular. On Christmas Day, 1121, thirty men professed their solemn vows. They promised to live according to the counsel of the apostles, inspired by the apostolic community of Jerusalem and the-y strove to adhere to the spirit of the Gregorian Reform. They chose white unbleached wool for their religious garment, instead of the usual black. Norbert justified this choice by the example of the angelic witnesses of the resurrection who were clothed in white. The celebration of the Mass was the center of the day. They had a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin who was chosen patroness of their church. Beside the canons, a great number of lay brothers and sisters lived at Premontre. They took care of the hospice which Norbert established for the pilgrims and the poor. All these contributed to the reform of the Church.
Norbert appointed Hugh of Fosses prior of the community and continued his preaching journeys. Before Christmas of 1121, he went to Cologne to obtain relics for his new foundation. On his return journey he promised the Count of Namur to establish an abbey in Floreffe. In the year 1123, Norbert was in Westphalia where Count Godfrey of Cappenberg gave him his castle to establish a monastery. Cappenberg was to be the first Norbertine monastery in German territory. At the request of Burchard of Cambray, Norbert went to Antwerp to preach against Tanchelm. There he founded the abbey of St. Michael. In 1125 he made a pilgrimage to Rome where he received papal confirmation for eight monasteries.
The second part of the life of St. Norbert will appear in next week's e-newsletter.