Norbert of Xanten (c. 1080 – 6 June 1134), also known as Norbert Gennep, was a bishop of the Catholic Church, founder of the Premonstratensian order of canons regular, and is venerated as a saint.
Life and Work
Saint Norbert was born in Xanten on the left bank of the Rhine, near Wesel, in the Electorate of Cologne. He grew up there and was also educated there. His father, Heribert, Count of Gennep, was related to the imperial house of Germany and the House ofLorraine. His mother was Hedwig of Guise. Through the influence of his family he obtained a financial subsidy from the parish church of St. Victor at Xanten when he accepted ordination to the subdeaconate. 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 style of the nobility of the times.
He avoided ordination to the priesthood and even declined an appointment as bishop of Cambrai in 1113. One day in the spring of 1115, as he rode his horse to Vreden, a nearby village, a thunderbolt from a sudden storm struck at his horse’s feet. The animal threw him and he lay unconscious for nearly an hour. After this near-fatal accident, his faith deepened, he renounced his appointment at Court and returned to Xanten to lead a life of penance, placing himself under the direction of Cono, Abbot of St Sigeberg, near Cologne. In gratitude to Cono, in 1115, Norbert founded the Abbey of Fürstenberg, endowed it with a portion of his property, and made it over to Cono of Siegburg and his Benedictine successors. Norbert was then in his thirty-fifth year. He was ordained to the priesthood soon afterward. St Norbert was a great devotee of the Eucharist and Our Lady.
He also adopted an asceticism so fierce that it killed his first three disciples. This may account for the failure of his attempts to reform the canons of Xanten, who denounced him as an innovator at the Council of Fritzlar in 1118. He then resigned his benefice, sold all his property and gave the proceeds to the poor. He visited Pope Gelasius II, who gave him permission to become an itinerant preacher and he preached throughout lands in what is now western Germany, Belgium and northern France, being credited with a number of miracles. In settlement after settlement he encountered a demoralized clergy, lonely, often practicing concubinage and feeling that the official Church cared little about them.
In Paris he would have witnessed the Canons of St. Victor, who had adopted the ascetic ideals of William of Champagne. At Clairvaux and Citeaux he would have beheld the Cistercian reforms of the world among the monks. He also became acquainted with the Cistercian administrative system that created an international federation of monasteries with 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.
Canons Regular of Prémontré
At the Council of Reims in October, 1119, Pope Calixtus II requested Norbert to found a religious order in the Diocese of Laon in France. On Christmas Day, 1120, Norbert established the Canons Regular of Prémontré.
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. 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 chose a valley in the Forest of Coucy (a grant from the Bishop of Laon), about 10 miles from Laon, named Prémontré. Blessed Hugh of Fosses, Saint Evermode, Antony of Nivelles, seven students of the celebrated school of Anselm, and Ralph of Laon were among his first thirteen disciples. By the next year the community had grown to 40. They all took their vows and the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré was founded. The young community at first lived in huts of wood and clay, arranged like a camp around the chapel of Saint John the Baptist, but they soon built a larger church and a monastery for the religious who joined them in increasing numbers. Going to Cologne to obtain relics for their church, Norbert is said to have discovered, through a dream, the spot where those of Saint Ursula and her companions, ofSaint Gereon, and of other martyrs lay hidden. In 1125, the constitution for the order was approved by Pope Honorius II.
St Norbert gained adherents in Germany, France, Belgium and Transylvania, and houses of his order were founded in Floreffe, Viviers, St-Josse, Ardenne, Cuissy, Laon, Liège, Antwerp, Varlar, Kappenberg, Grosswardein (Oradea/Nagyvarad) and elsewhere. Count Theobald II of Champagne wanted to enter the new order, but Norbert counseled him to remain a layman and marry. Norbert prescribed a few rules and invested Theobald with the white scapular of the order, and thus, in 1122, the Third Order of St. Norbert was instituted. He continued to preach throughout France, Belgium and Germany and was successful in combatting a eucharistic heresy in Antwerp proposed by oneTanchelm. In commemoration of this, St. Norbert has been proclaimed the “Apostle of Antwerp”.
In 1126 Pope Honorius II appointed Norbert to the Archbishopric of Magdeburg, where he put into practice the precepts he instituted at Prémontré. Several assassination attempts were made as he began to reform the lax discipline of his see. He was especially vigilant in protecting the Church’s rights against the secular power.
In the schism following the election of Pope Innocent II in 1130, Norbert supported Innocent and resisted Antipope Anacletus II. In Norbert’s last years, he was chancellor and adviser to Lothair II, the Holy Roman Emperor, persuading him to lead an army in 1133 to Rome to restore Innocent to the papacy.