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Who Is Norbert of Xanten?

Norbert of Xanten (c. 1075-1134) was a nobleman, courtier, ascetic, legendary peacemaker, and an exemplar of the apostolic way of life; he was a priest of the Catholic Church who founded the Norbertine order in the 12th century. He built the order on the basis of love, selfless sharing and radical hospitality.

Historical Setting
St. NorbertThe 11th-century church was the kind of world where Martin Luther might have felt at home, for it was a church teeming with reforms. Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) set about eliminating the practice of lay investiture, or lay control of the appointment of bishops. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians were revolutionizing the monastic world with a stern return to the primitive Rule of Benedict. And Norbert of Xanten led a thoroughgoing movement to improve the lives of the parish clergy. With the pope focusing on the bishops, Bernard concentrating on the monks and Norbert emphasizing the parish clergy, the times witnessed a resurgence of Christian spirit beneficial to the church and world alike.

Norbert of Xanten did not begin his career as a reformer. In fact, it was quite the opposite, for he seemed bent on being a clerical opportunist of the type that was actually eroding the credibility and effectiveness of the church. Through the influence of his family he obtained a financial subsidy from the parish church at Xanten, a town near the Holland-German border, 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.

The salaries from the Xanten fund and the royal treasury were enough to equip him to live in the pleasurable style of the nobility of the time. He was not, however, a man devoid of idealism and moral sensitivity. The seeds of his moral conversion were planted during a lengthy stay in Rome with Henry V in which he witnessed the breakdown of negotiations over the lay-investiture issue. He saw the pope standing firm on the principle that it was wrong for a secular power to control the appointment of bishops both because it gave the impression that the origin of sacramental ministry comes from a secular source and not from God, and, secondly, because it contributed to the corruption of the episcopacy. At the same time, he noted the emperor would not yield and was willing to keep the pope under house arrest until the pope changed his mind.

Conversion and Early Ministry
Norbert found himself sympathetic to the pope and experiencing the dawn of a moral awakening. This development was accentuated a year later when he was nearly killed by a bolt of lightening during a storm. 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.

St. NorbertA changed man, he returned to the parish community at Xanten, determined to live as a principled priest and anxious to engage in active ministry in the area. The easy-going clergymen of Xanten disliked the “new” Norbert and were annoyed by his enthusiasm as well as by the implied reproach that his life cast on theirs. Realizing that he was out of place with these men, he decided to leave them and embark on a life of evangelical poverty. He divested himself of all his possessions and successfully sought permission from the pope to become a missionary preacher.

For the next several years he roamed through western Germany, Belgium and France, preaching repentance, peace and moral reform. The darker side of feudalism gave him much to preach about. The absence of an effective police force or national militia allowed for continuous brutality, brawls and feuds. The ordinary citizen faced the unpredictable violence of armed knights. Those Iron Men, clad in their suits of armor, often plundered whatever they wished, with little resistance from the vast majority of helpless people. Norbert preached peace, mercy and consideration to a world that was hardly a Camelot or the serene kingdom of an Ivanhoe.

In settlement after settlement, he would find cases of armed combat and hatred. In addition, he encountered a demoralized clergy, lonely, often practicing concubinage and feeling that the official church cared little about them. He had plenty of work to do when hearing out the complaints of the serfs, who were little more than slaves caught in a hopeless situation of bondage.

At the same time, Norbert came in touch with reforms. In Paris, he would have witnessed the Canons of St. Victor – that is, parish clergy who adopted the ascetic ideals of William of Champagne.

At Clairvaux and Citeaux, he would have beheld the Cistercian reforms of the world of the monks. He noted that their churches had plain wooden crosses and walls bare of pictures or stained glass, that their diet was vegetarian, and that they were allowed only six hours of sleep a night but were required to to work at least seven hours a day in manual labor, mostly farm work. He also became acquainted with the Cistercian administrative system that created an international federation of monasteries with a fair amount of centralized power, though local houses had a certain amount of independence. These reforms, written up in their “Charter of Charity,” would affect him significantly in his own future work.

Forming Community
St. NorbertIn 1120, he came to the city of Laon at the request of Bishop Bartholomew, where part of his assignment included the spiritual renewal of the Canons of St. Martin’s. Norbert failed to change them. Bartholomew, was convinced that Norbert had a great deal more to offer and that he should stay in the area and establish a community of priests very much in line with his own personal ideals. After a considerable number of conversations, Norbert agreed and negotiations were begun to create a community of canons regular.

Historian Barbara Tuchman notes in her study “A Distant Mirror” that the Duke De Coucy, who was the overlord of the area of Soissons, awarded a land grant to Norbert in the valley of Prémontré for the purpose of establishing an abbey there. Norbert and a few companions cleared out some of the land for a settlement and rebuilt the ruined chapel of John the Baptist.

On Christmas day, 1120, Norbert inaugurated the Canons Regular of Prémontré, an order also called Premonstratensians – or, more simply, Norbertines.They swore to seek Christ by means of community living, poverty, obedience, celibacy and a dedication to the active priestly ministry. Norbert held before them the dream of the first Christians after Pentecost whose community life was characterized by the power of the Holy Spirit and a desire to be of service to others.

For a rule of life, Norbert chose the Rule of St. Augustine, as was common among communities of clergy. In addition, he adapted some of the customs of the Cistercians. Even more of these would be brought in later by Norbert’s successor, Abbot Hugh of Fosse. It was his idea that his clergy would reflect the reforms for ministry instituted by Pope Gregory VII and have the reformation spirit he had witnessed among the Cistercians. In effect, he produced a community that would be somewhat monastic as far as house ministry. The whole idea was that his active priest needed an ascetic and contemplative haven, and that was the purpose of the abbey discipline.

Norbert as Bishop
St. NorbertIn terms of numbers and growth, his plan was hugely successful. Within a few generations there were Norbertine abbeys all over northern Europe. Within eight years, Norbert found himself nominated to be the Archbishop of Madgeburg. Like Augustine at Hippo, Norbert turned his residence into a Norbertine monastery and so carried to east Europe the ideals he instituted at Prémontré. Always a man to be ready to develop his ideas further, he softened the monastic aspect of the lives of his men at Madgeburg so they might have a more dynamic sense of outreach and commitment to active ministry. Experience had shown him that monastic practices tended to pull the men away from external ministry and withdraw them too much from the world.

Even though Norbert was a man of deep prayer and spirituality, he was a person aggressively interested in the needs of the people. Almost certainly, his many years as a missionary accounted for for his action-oriented mindset and therefore his ability to note the boundaries of inwardness that his abbeys observed. The administrative model of an international federation of abbeys did much to sustain these communities of canons and assure many of them centuries of survival as centers of service to the people and the parishes. Before Norbert’s time, communities of canons tended to be individualized and isolated, lacking supervision, control and means of self-renewal. The Norbertine canons surmounted this pitfall both by the above-mentioned organizational model as well as by the unique adaptations Norbert made to the Rule of Augustine.

Norbert died in 1134, leaving behind him an example of ministry-minded priests living in community – a model that was to become a norm about a century later.

Norbert attempted to reproduce the lifestyle of the apostolic community of the early church. In his theological outlook, he saw the Holy Spirit as the originating power of the group. Common prayer and celebration of the Eucharist was to be the sustaining dynamic of the community. Selfless sharing and reaching out with love was the moral power that should surge from the members.

St. NorbertHe dreamed of the emergence of a primary community whose members had the capacity to live together with a shared value system and shared beliefs. The first sentence of their rule said, “Be of one mind and heart in God.” Thus they were to have the ability to model and generate other communities based on divine love and human sharing.

By emphasizing the primacy of communal love in Premonstratensian existence, Norbert sparked all over Europe the possibilities for parish and other ministerial clergy to live in a soul-satisfying community context. This is a goal still being sought for today.

A new biography of Norbert, Man on Fire: The Life & Spirit of Norbert of Xanten, by Thomas Kunkel, appeared in 2019. The book, published by the St. Norbert College Press in association with the Center for Norbertine Studies, is available from the center or online.

*Courtesy of St. Norbert Abbey.

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