From the Catholic Encyclopaedia
At first they were not bound by any fixed rule, charity being the bond of their union, and the example of their founder their rule of life. After a while Norbert unfolded his mind to his disciples on the special regulations which they should adopt. He told them that he had already consulted learned bishops and holy abbots; that by some he was advised to lead an eremitical life, by others a monastic life, or else to join the Cistercian Order. He added that, if he had to follow his own inclinations, he preferred the canonical life of the Apostles, but that, before all, they must pray to know and do the will of God. It was then that St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, appeared to him and gave him his rule, saying: "I am Augustine, Bishop of Hippo; behold here the rule which I have written; if your fellow-brethren, my sons, shall have observed it well, they shall stand without fear in the presence of Christ on the terrible day of the last judgment".
As all agreed to the choice of a canonical institute, Norbert composed a formulary of their profession, which they pronounced on the Feast of Christmas, 1121. To this formulary St. Norbert added fastings, abstinence, and other works of mortification, together with some pious customs and practices peculiar to monastic orders, whereby his order became, as it were, monastico-canonical. The five particular ends of the Norbertine Order are: Laus Dei in choro (the singing of the Divine Office); Zelus animarum (zeal for the salvation of souls); Spiritus jugis pœnitentiæ (the spirit of habitual penance); Cultus Eucharisticus (a special devotion to the Holy Eucharist); Cultus Marianus (a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, mostly to her Immaculate Conception). The two first arise from the nature of a canonical order, which is both contemplative and active. The third is taken from monastic orders. The fourth and fifth are characteristic of the Norbertine Order, to which these special devotions were bequeathed by the founder.
The title of the first chapter of the old "Statuta", "De tremendo altaris Sacramento", seems to indicate that devotion to the Holy Eucharist as a sacrifice and sacrament would have the first place in the heart of a son of St. Norbert. St. Norbert wrote an Office in honour of the Immaculate Conception which contained these words: "Ave, Virgo quæ Spiritu Sancto præservante, de tanto primi parentis peccato triumphasti innoxia!" The third chapter of the "Statuta" begins with these words: "Horæ Deiparæ Virginis Mariæ, candidi ordinis nostri patronæ singularis, etc." Guerenus writes in his commentaries on the Canticle of Canticles: "St. Norbert, with his holy Order, was raised up by Divine Providence to render conspicuous in his day two mysteries, the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady". As to the second end, zeal for souls, the preface to the "Statuta" says: "Our order is the propogation of God's glory; it is zeal for souls, the administration of the sacraments, service in the Church of God. Our order is to preach the Gospel, to teach the ignorant, to have the direction of parishes, to perform pastoral duties, etc." At the time of St. Norbert the clergy were not numerous, often badly prepared for their ministry, and dissolute. Besides, there were numerous villages without church or priest. What was needed was clerical training to impart piety and learning. The order has had its share in the carrying out of this good work, and the Norbertine Abbeys have been called, by popes and bishops, seminaries of missionaries and parish priests.
From its beginning the order has accepted parishes which were, and are still, in many cases administered by Norbertine priests. That the Order of Prémontré may obtain benefices and administer parishes was again decided by Benedict XIV by the Bull "Oneroso" of 1 Sept., 1750. The order is composed of three classes: (1) priests and clerics under an abbot or prior; (2) nuns who embrace the Rule of St. Norbert; (3) members of the third Order of St. Norbert. Both priests and nuns have a novitiate and make solemn vows. In some countries Norbertine nuns are now bound by simple vows only. In the monasteries there are lay brothers and laysisters who likewise make their vows. The members of the Third Order, originally called fratres et sorores ad succurrendum, wear the white scapular under their secular dress and have certain prayers to say. The spirit of the Third Order must evidently be the spirit of the order itself. The members should possess zeal for souls, love mortification, and practise and promote an enlightened devotion to the Holy Eucharist and to the Immaculate Conception. As a modern author (Duhayon, S.J., "La Mine d'or", c. v) says: "By the institution of the Third Order in the midst of the stream of temporal anxieties St. Norbert has introduced the religious life into the family circle. Nobody before St. Norbert had conceived the idea of realizing in the Church a state of life which should be midway between the cloister and the world, or in other words a religious order which should penetrate into the Christian homes.… After his death it was imitated by other founders, especially by St. Francis and St. Dominic".
The order increased very rapidly and, in the words of Adrian IV, it spread its branches from sea to sea. Before the death of Hugh of Fosse, the first abbot general, a hundred and twenty abbots were present at the general chapter. Of the first disciples, nearly all became abbots of new foundations, and several were raised to the episcopal dignity. Development was chiefly effected through the foundation of new abbeys, but several religious communities already in existence wished to adopt the constitutions of Prémontré and were affiliated to and incorporated with the order. We have already mentioned the names of abbeys founded in France, Belgium, and Germany, but colonies of the sons of St. Norbert were sent to nearly every country of Europe and even to Asia. In 1130 King Stephen gave them his castle on the River Keres, and thus was founded the Abbey of St. Stephen, the first of numerous monasteries in Hungary. Almaric, who had shared in St. Norbert's apostolate, a famous preacher in aid of the Crusades, was requested by Innocent II to preach in Palestine. At the head of a chosen band of Norbertines he set out in 1136 for the Holy Land, where he was hospitably received by Fulco of Anjou, King of Jerusalem, and by William, Patriarch of the Holy City. In the following year Almaric founded the Abbey of St. Abacuc. Henry Zdik, Bishop of Olmütz, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He visited St. Abacuc and was so much touched by what he saw that he asked to be received into the order. Having obtained some religious, he returned to Bohemia and founded the Abbey of Mount Sion at Strahov, Prague. This abbey flourished so much that it was called the seminary of bishops, having given eight bishops to Prague, ten to Olmütz, and some to other dioceses; a patriarch (John of Luxemburg) to Aquileia, and a cardinal (John of Prague) to the Church.
In 1141 the Abbey of St. Samuel, near Jerusalem, was founded, and in 1145 another at Bethlehem. The abbeys were destroyed in 1187, when many of the religious were put to the sword or perished in the fire. Those who escaped founded a new community at Acre; but in 1291 this place, the last stronghold of the Christians in the Holy Land, was taken by the Sultan Saraf, who cut to pieces the abbot, Egide de Marle, and put the religious, twenty-six in number, to death. In 1147 Abbot Walter of Laon led a colony to Portugal and founded the Abbey of St. Vincent, near Lisbon. Two young Spanish noblemen, Sanchez de Assures and Dominic, while travelling in France, had heard of St. Norbert. They went to Prémontré and were admitted to the order by St. Norbert. Ordained priests, they were sent to preach in Spain, and having obtained a few religious from La Case-Dieu, an abbey in Gascony, they founded in 1143 the Abbey of Retorta, the first in Spain. In 1149 the mother-house sent some of its religious to found the Abbey of St. Samuel at Barletta, in Apulia, Italy.
At the same time sons of St. Norbert went forth from one abbey or another to found new houses in Great Britain and Ireland, Poland, Denmark, Norway, and even Riga on the Baltic Sea. In addition, sixteen cathedral chapters were composed of Norbertine canons, under a bishop elected by them. One of these was Candida Casa or Whithorn, in Scotland. It is impossible to give the exact number of abbeys, priories, and convents of nuns, so much do the various lists differ from one another. Perhaps the oldest list known is that which was made for the general chapter of 1320, and given by Le Paige. The most complete has been compiled by Hugo, the annalist of the order. Some authors say that there were 1300 abbeys and 500 convents of nuns, without counting the smaller residences, but these figures seem to be much exaggerated. However, whatever these lists may mean, they show the prodigious fecundity of the order during the first two centuries of its existence.
The highest authority of the order is centred in the general chapter. The abbot general presides over it, but he owes obedience to it. The abbot general has the power to make the canonical visitation of any abbey. The abbots are elected for life in a manner prescribed by the Constitutions. The abbot names his prior and other officials of his abbey. In certain matters he has to obtain the consent of the majores de domo. The abbeys are divided into circaries (provinces), named after the language groups in which they are situated. Each circary had a visitor and the most important had also a vicar-general named by the abbot general. Hugo in his "Annales" gives the names of each abbey and convent and of the circary to which they belonged. The four large volumes of the "Annales" give a description and an historical notice of each abbey and hence they supply very important information to the student of the history of the order. Hugo had also prepared and nearly completed, when he died in 1739, two more volumes, the first of which was to treat of learned persons of the order and of the books they had written; the second was to give the lives of sons and daughters of St. Norbert, who had been canonized or beatified, or who were deemed to have had the note of sanctity. The Rev. Leo Goovaerts, of the Norbertine Abbey of Averbode, Belgium, has since published a "Dictionnaire bio-bibliographique", in which he gives the names of over three thousand authors, a notice of their lives, and a description of the books they had written. George Lienhardt, Abbot of Roggensburg, gives in his "Hagiologia" the names of hundreds of persons whose holiness of life constitutes the brightest ornament of the Order of St. Norbert.
The spiritual fervour, so remarkable and edifying in the first two centuries, had gradually been growing cold. A number of religious communities were no longer animated by the spirit of St. Norbert. With the gradual disappearance of manual labour, intellectual activity, and certain observances, spiritual progress was retarded and even a kind of spiritual stagnation set in, to the great detriment of these communities. Affluence was another cause of this weakness. The first religious had cleared part of the forests, and by making the land more productive had created more resources, while the charity of benefactors had also increased the revenues, and with this affluence arose also a spirit of worldliness; but another evil was that this affluence excited the rapacity of covetous men in Church and State. The superiors of some houses had become more lax in abolishing abuses, and so irregularities had gradually crept in. Owing to the distance of many houses from the mother-house at Prémontré and also to national aspirations, cohesion, the strength of any society, had been weakened in the order; already in Saxony, England, and Spain a tendency was observed to form separate congregations with regulations of their own.
With the approval of the popes the austere rule, especially with regard to perpetual abstinence from flesh meat, was mitigated first in 1290, then in the constitutions of 1505, and again in those of 1630, but in spite of these mitigations, the "statuta" composed and approved in the time of St. Norbert have remained substantially the same as they were in the beginning. At the beginning of the seventeenth century a new spirit seemed to animate the whole order, but especially in Lorraine, where the venerable Abbot Lairvelz succeeded in reforming forty abbeys and in introducing into them the observances of the primitive constitutions. It was seen that the order was full of vitality and doing good and useful work. To encourage the studies of their religious, colleges were established near some university, as at Rome, Louvain, Paris, Cologne, Prague, Madrid, Salamanca, and elsewhere. To these colleges and universities young religious were sent. After the completion of their studies they returned to the abbey, where they taught philosophy and theology.
To speak of one country only, the concordat between Leo X and Francis I in 1516, which gave power to the King of France to nominate bishops, abbots, and other Church dignitaries, was abused to such an extent that, with reference to abbeys alone, bishops, secular priests, and even laymen were put at the head of an abbey, and sometimes of two or more abbeys. They took possession of all the temporalities, and frequently cared nothing for the material and spiritual welfare of the abbey. And all this was done when Lutherans and Calvinists were making the fiercest attacks on the Catholic religion, and when earnest men were pleading for reform in Catholic institutions. Hugo, the annalist of the order, who gives the lists of abbeys and of the abbots elected by the order or commendatory, shows how far the evil had prevailed for more than two hundred years. Taiée (vol. II, 195) in his "Etude sur Prémontré" (Laon, 1874), writes that in 1770, of the 92 Norbertine abbeys and priories in France, 67 were given in commendam and only 25 had abbots or priors of the order. Perhaps the most famed of all these was the case of Cardinal Richelieu, who was commenadary abbot of Prémontré. Owing to a decree of the general chapter numerous convents of nuns had already disappeared before the end of the twelfth century.
As to abbeys and priories the continuous wars in many countries, and in the East the invasions of Tatars and Turks, made community life almost impossible and ruined many abbeys. The wars and the heresies of Hus and Luther destroyed several abbeys. The Abbey of Episcopia in the Isle of Cyprus was taken by Islam in 1571. The Hussites took possession of several houses in Moravia and Bohemia; the Lutherans, in Saxony, Prussia, Denmark, and Sweden; the Calvinists, in Holland; and Henry VIII in England and Ireland. In Hungary many were destroyed by Solyman. With all these losses the order had still in 1627 twenty-two provinces or circaries, and Lienhardt gives a list of 240 houses still in existence in 1778. Joseph II of Austria suppressed many houses and put others under commendatory abbots, but Leopold, Joseph's successor, restored nine abbeys and with these he incorporated others. The French Revolution suppressed in 1790 all religious houses in France (including Prémontré), in 1796 in Belgium, and afterwards all those in the occupied provinces of the Rhine. Only a few houses were still existing (9 in the Austrian Empire, 3 in Russian Poland, and 15 in Spain), but the abbeys in Spain were suppressed by the revolution which convulsed that country in 1833. The dispersed religious of the Belgian Province had long wished to reassemble and form new communities, but they were not allowed to do so under the Dutch Government (1815-30).
When Belgium was separated from Holland and made into a separate kingdom, freedom of religion was granted, and the surviving religious, now well advanced in years, revived community life and reconstituted five Norbertine houses in Belgium. The religious of the confiscated abbey of Berne in Holland founded a new abbey at Heeswijk. The Abbey of Berne-Heeswijk has founded St. Norbert's Priory at West De Pere, Wisconsin, U.S.A. To the priory is attached a flourishing classical and commercial college. The Abbey of Grimbergen in Belgium obtained possession of the former Norbertine Abbey of Mondaye in France, and founded a new abbey. Mondaye in turn founded the priories of St. Joseph at Balarin (Department of Gers) and of St. Peter at Nantes. The Abbey of Tongerloo has founded three priories in England, viz.: Crowle, Spalding, and Manchester. The same abbey has also sent missionaries to Belgian Congo, Africa, where the Prefecture of Ouellé (Wellé) has been confided to them. The prefecture has four chief centres: Ibembo, Amadi, Gombari, and Djabar, with many stations served from each centre. The Abbey of Averbode founded three Priories in Brazil (Pirapora, Jaguarão, and Petropolis), with a college attached to each priory. The abbey of the Park, near Louvain, has also sent to Brazil several priests who have charge of parishes and do missionary work, a number of Brazilian Norbertines serve in the episcopate. The Abbey of Grimbergen founded a house of the order at Wetaskiwin, in Alberta, Canada.
Today there are just over 1,000 members, of which approximately 800 are priests, brothers, deacons and novices, and approximately 200 are sisters. At this time we are present in the following nations: France, Belgium, Netherlands, Britain (England), Ireland (Republic), Denmark, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Poland, Romania, United States of America, Canada, South Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire), Brazil, Chile, Peru, India and Australia.