St. Norbert was born around the year 1080 in the town of Xanten near Cologne, Germany. As a small child, he was sent to be educated by the cathedral chapter of St. Victor in Xanten where he was later ordained a sub deacon and became a canon of the cathedral. It was from here that he was called into service at the court of the emperor Henry V. He soon become noted for his charm and good company which meant he was distracted by the pleasures of Court and neglected his religious life.
However, in the year 1115, Norbert was thrown from his horse and nearly killed. At that moment he heard the words of the Psalmist: “Turn away from evil and do good.” This he now desired to do with all is heart. He immediately began to live the life of a penitent and wandered the country, barefoot and dressed in sheepskin. So much did he desire to be of service to the Lord that he was ordained deacon and priest on the same day. After this he continued to wander about the countryside, often barefoot in the snow, preaching the Word of God with passion and denouncing heresy and the abuses of his fellow priests. This criticism did not win him any friends and he was condemned by some bishops as a mad fool. But he was blessed by Pope Gelasius II and later by Pope Calixtus II who both gave him enthusiastic support. The pope also encouraged him to settle in one place and found a religious community.
St. Norbert spent a great deal of time looking for the right place to settle and build his monastery and eventually chose a desolate valley in the north of France called Prémontré. Here, in a small chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist, he had a vision of our crucified Saviour who revealed to him that this abandoned wasteland would be the sight of a glorious monastery proclaiming with joy the truth of the Catholic Faith. In the year 1121, St Norbert laid the foundations of his new religious Order. He remained faithful to his life as a canon and chose the Rule of St Augustine to be the guiding light of his new community. The new monastery quickly became known for its austerity of life, for its poverty, for its intense liturgical prayer life and for its complete fidelity to the ideal of community as depicted in the Augustinian rule. As the monastery grew, St Norbert continued his life of preaching and attracted many men and women to his new Order. St. Norbert and his followers all had a deep and unswerving faith in the Sacrifice of the Mass and showed great love and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Armed with this, they fearlessly preached against the errors of the day and brought about a great spiritual renewal among thousands of people.
On July 25th 1126, St Norbert was ordained archbishop of Magdeburg and relinquished the leadership of the Order to Blessed Hugh of Fosse so that Norbert could begin the work of shepherding his new diocese. During his years as archbishop, St Norbert constantly fought for the freedom of the Church and proved a devoted and loyal son of the Roman Pontiff. His labours and travels took a toll on his health and he died in his cathedral city on June 6th 1134. To this day, the whole Church celebrates his feast on the anniversary of his death. St Norbert is usually depicted with the cross and pallium of an archbishop and holds a monstrance, which recalls his abiding devotion to Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
The Order is known by many different names! Our official title is “The Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré,” but we are also known as the “Norbertines”, after our holy founder, and as the “Premonstratensians”, after our mother house in France. In England we are also known as the “White Canons” because of the colour of our habit. After our names we put the abbreviation O.Praem which is Latin for Ordo Praemonstratensis, the Order of Prémontré.
In addition to St. Norbert, there are 14 saints of the order recognised by the Church with their own liturgical feast days. Beyond this list, there are hundreds of members of the Order who have distinguished themselves by great holiness of life and for service to the Church. Notable among these in recent years is the late Father Werenfried Van Straaten, founder of Aid to the Church in Need, popularly known as 'The Bacon Priest'.
At the heart of the life of the Canons Regular of Prémontré is the idea of ‘communio’. This is often characterised by five points;
i. Laus Deo in Choro- The praise of God in choir through the chanting of the Divine Office and the worthy celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has long been a hallmark of our life. The principle obligation of the canons in the priory is the singing or chanting of the Divine Office publicly and solemnly in the name of the Church; it includes the Conventual Mass - since the Mass is the highest form of prayer. This obligation is the first end of the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré; it is indeed proper to all Orders of Canons Regular. Pius XI said of the Order “You are my Order. Just as bishops have their canons delegated to offer public prayer in their diocese, in the same way you are my canons, not just for one diocese, but for the universal Church.”
ii. Zelus animarum- zeal for souls, or the care of souls, is the second end of the Canons Regular of Prémontré. Basing our lives on that of the Apostles we are bound to give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Having the care of souls the Premonstratensians, especially in England, have the care of parishes. This zeal for souls consists in the administration of the sacraments, in service in the Church, in preaching the Gospel, in teaching, in directing parishes and in performing all other pastoral duties. In the days of Our Holy Father Norbert these duties were sadly neglected by the secular clergy and the Canons were very much a remedy to this problem. Norbertine abbeys were called by Bishops ’seminaries of missionaries and parish priests’.
iii. Spiritus iugis penitentiæ- the spirit of habitual penance was grafted by Our Holy Father Norbert onto the Rule of St. Augustine in order that it might be a strong means in helping his canons to become worthy pastors of souls. For more than a century the Norbertine Canons in England have offered Mass in reparation for the sins of the world, particularly those committed against Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Our Canonry is the centre of the Archconfraternity of the Mass of Reparation on whose aims and work Pope St. Pius Xth gave his Apostolic Blessing and in 1904 presented a silver chalice for the use of the Canons. Each Saturday the Mass of Reparation is offered by the community.
iv. Cultus Eucharisticus- devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The Holy Eucharist was the centre of St. Norbert’s life; he loved It and defended It, as at Antwerp in his triumph over the Sacramentarian heresy. It is because of this that he is represented holding a ciborium or monstrance in his right hand. Most of his miracles were wrought in connection with the Mass. He is said to be the first, chronologically speaking, of the saints called Eucharistic. Speaking of the Premonstratensian Canons, Pope Pius XI said: “Your Order is gloriously Eucharistic, and Eucharistically glorious.”
v. Cultus Marianus-the cult of Our Lady. Our Holy Father Norbert wished that his canons should honour and venerate in a special way the most Holy Mother of God, the Patroness of his Order. it was Our Lady who showed him the site at Prémontré on which he was afterwards to build his church and, after it was erected, he dedicated it to her. Most of the churches of our Order are similarly dedicated. Our Lady showed St. Norbert the white habit which his canons wear in her honour. After each Office an antiphon is sung to Our Lady.
According to the words of Pope John Paul II, the Order today is called by God, in the spirit of Our Holy Father Norbert, to:
i. Make the holy sacrifice of the Mass the source of their strength and happiness.
ii. Hold high the Eucharist over all the miseries and errors of this world.
iii. Bring truth, certainty and love to the people of today, binding them closely to the presence of Jesus in the Mass.
iv. Live united in fidelity to liturgical prayer, personal contemplation and apostolic work.
v. Always give an example of a sincere and serious religious life.
vi. Witness to the world around it the values which are eternal and transcendent.
vii. Guide and love the people amongst whom the canons work.
viii. Be ever faithful to the Catholic Church.
ix. Remain in sincere respect to their diocesan bishop and to be attentive with him to the living voice of the Vicar of Christ.
x. Foster in everyone a love for the Immaculate Virgin Mary.