June 6: Saint Norbert, Bishop—Optional Memorial
Patron Saint of expectant mothers and Bohemia
Canonized by Pope Gregory XIII on July 28, 1582
…it happened one day that he was hastening secretly to a place called Freden. He was dressed in silk, accompanied by a single servant. While on the way a dark cloud overtook him, lightning flashed, thunder roared, and much more inconvenient, there was no house for shelter nearby. While both he and his companion were unnerved, suddenly the terrifying sound and sight of a thunderbolt struck the ground, opening it to the depth of a man’s height. From here steamed forth a putrid stench which fouled him and his garments. Struck from his horse he thought he heard a voice denouncing him. Returning to his senses and now repentant he reflected on the words of the Psalmist: “Turn from evil and do good.” Thus motivated, he returned home…put on a hair shirt beneath his outer garments…went to the monastery of Siegburg and there…he advanced in fear and love of the Lord. ~Vita of Saint Norbert
Saint Norbert did not begin his life as a saint. He was born in the town of Xanten, within the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Germany, to noble parents. Because of his nobility, he was educated at the Church of Saint Victor in Xanten and later became a canon in that church. Though not ordained, he was considered a cleric, receiving the ministry of subdeacon. In his role as a canon, Norbert prayed the Divine Office each day with the other canons and received a salary for this simple duty—the primary reason he accepted the canonry. However, he soon discovered a way to increase his income. He paid someone to take his place praying the Divine Office each day in Xanten and moved to the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Cologne. Soon after, he became a member of the court of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V and was put in charge of distributing the royal alms. The income from his canonry and his position at the court enabled him to live a very comfortable lifestyle.
In the court of King Henry, Norbert witnessed firsthand an ongoing controversy between the pope and the emperor. In 1111, Henry V traveled to Rome to resolve a dispute called “the lay investiture controversy.” The emperor wanted to retain spiritual authority to appoint and invest bishops, to which the pope was opposed. Once negotiations broke down, Henry apprehended the pope and held him captive until the pope agreed to his terms. The pope finally agreed, but once Henry left, the pope excommunicated Henry. Norbert was sympathetic to the pope’s position and was shaken by this controversy.
Over the next year, Norbert began to have a moral awakening. That awakening came to a head one day as he rode his horse during a violent storm. Lightning struck, knocking him off his horse. In that near-death experience, Norbert sensed God asking him why he was living such a vain life, to which Norbert replied, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” The Lord responded, “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” This experience initiated a profound conversion. He resigned from the emperor’s court and spent the next three years in prayer and penance in the Abbey of Siegburg, just south of Cologne.
After his three-year-long period of prayer and penance, Norbert approached the Prince-Archbishop of Cologne in 1115 and requested priestly ordination, which was granted. He then returned to his hometown, to the church of Saint Victor in Xanten to celebrate Mass and preach. The newly converted Father Norbert was not well received by the younger and worldly canons of that church. His newfound zeal and opposition to worldly living convicted them. They eventually forced him to leave. After leaving, Father Norbert sold all his property and possessions, distributed the money to the poor, and began walking from town to town across Europe, often barefoot, preaching the Gospel, calling for the reform of the Church, and begging for food as he went.
In 1118, controversy with King Henry V continued under the new pope, Gelasius II. Soon after, the pope had to flee Rome for fear of Henry. While the pope was in exile, Father Norbert met up with him in France and sought his direction for his priestly ministry. The pope encouraged Father Norbert and granted him universal faculties to preach and minister anywhere he felt called.
In 1119, after Pope Gelasius died, Father Norbert sought out the counsel of his successor, Pope Calixtus II, who encouraged him to found a religious order. At the invitation of the bishop of the Diocese of Laon, in northern France, Father Norbert and his one companion decided to found their monastery of priests in a remote part of the diocese called Prémontré, a valley within a forest. Upon arriving, they were joined by twelve others. They built small huts around a chapel and later built a larger monastery. They adopted the rule of Saint Augustine and structured their daily life in such a way that they could become true contemplatives so that they could then bring that contemplative union they enjoyed into their priestly ministry to the people. The order was named Canons Regular of Prémontré, or the Premonstratensians. Later, it would become known as the Norbertines after their founder. Within a few years of its founding, women’s branches were established, and more than a dozen monasteries were erected in France, Germany, and Belgium.
Father Norbert continued his traveling, founding, and preaching. While traveling through the city of Antwerp, in modern-day Belgium, Father Norbert came upon a large group of people who had started following a heretical itinerant preacher named Tanchelm. Among his heretical teachings was a denial of the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Tanchelm was so fierce that he even had his followers confiscate, desecrate, and discard the Eucharist in hidden places. To combat that heresy, Father Norbert preached powerfully, won over many of Tanchelm’s followers, and then commissioned them to gather up the desecrated hosts. When they found the hosts, they were discovered to be untouched and unsoiled, despite many of them being thrown into dirt and moisture. The hosts were gathered together, and Father Norbert carried them in procession back to the local church. For this reason, sacred art often depicts him carrying a monstrance or ciboria containing the Blessed Sacrament.
In 1126, Father Norbert and his companions traveled to Rome to obtain final papal approval for his new order from Pope Honorius II. On their way home, they traveled through the city of Würzburg, where Father Norbert cured a blind woman. He also cast out demons and restored peace between feuding noble families. The people were so impressed that they and others from Magdeburg rallied to have him appointed as their bishop. The king of the Germans and the papal legate agreed, and the pope appointed him as Archbishop of Magdeburg, a post Norbert reluctantly accepted.
Bishop Norbert served as archbishop for about eight years until his death. As archbishop, he continued to work on reforming the Church by weeding out immoralities among the clergy, resolving schisms, securing the right of the Church to govern itself without the interference of the civil authority, helping the Premonstratensian Order to grow, and preaching to the people, converting many.
Saint Norbert started his life as a worldly cleric, living a lavish lifestyle. After experiencing a profound encounter with God, he entered a period of deep prayer to more clearly discern God’s will. During this time, God took hold of him and never let go, leading him to great fruitfulness for the Church. If you find yourself pursuing worldly goals, let Saint Norbert’s story inspire you. Choose to focus on that which is eternal, and God will begin to work great spiritual transformations within your soul today.
Saint Norbert, you discovered that a worldly life, one that seeks only selfish goals, is empty. Once God spoke to your heart, calling you close to Himself, you listened and responded. Please pray for me, that I will become keenly aware of God’s will in my life and will respond with total generosity and zeal. Saint Norbert, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Featured Image: Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons