St. Norbert of Xanten, whose feast is June 6, is the first in the great triad — St. Norbert, St. Francis and St. Dominic — of twelfth and thirteenth century church reformers. Why isn’t Norbert as well known as his younger brothers in faith and reform? You can probably thank revolutions in France and Spain for Norbert’s relative obscurity.
He advocated for the powerless serfs. And, in a violent time, he preached peace.
Norbert was born in 1080 into a wealthy family. He grew up in and around the royal court and become a subdeacon in his hometown church in Xanten. He treated his ordination the way some politicians treat their elections, as a means to lobbyist riches and power. Norbert paid another to do his parish duties so he could devote himself to gaining influence with the emperor. He succeeded in becoming a chaplain and counselor to Henry V.
Norbert’s life changed when he was nearly killed by a lightning bolt. He left his position and his wealth behind and set out to become a missionary preacher. Like John the Baptist, he preached repentance and moral reform. He advocated for the powerless serfs. And, in a violent time, he preached peace. Indeed, St. Norbert is a patron of all those who work for peace.
Norbert was influenced by the Cistercian reforms of the Benedictine order. He was moved by the simplicity of their churches and their lives. He saw the goodness in their set hours of manual labor and sung prayer.
In 1120, Norbert drew like-minded men around him and, on Christmas day of that year, he established the Canons Regular of Premontre. Most people know them as the Norbertines. They began a community which keeps to this day the rare combination of active ministry in the world with the full sung office observed in the abbey.
The Norbertines grew rapidly, and in the words of Pope Adrian IV, “it spread its branches from sea to sea.” Later centuries would be less kind to the order. From the French Revolution in 1790 to the Spanish revolution in 1833, Nobertine houses were shut and suppressed in France, Belgium, the French-occupied Rhine and Spain. The order was decimated, but it survived and began a revival when Holland split from Belgium, and, under a declaration of religious freedom, allowed the Belgian Nobertines to found a new abbey. That Dutch abbey is the founding parent of three Nobertine houses in the U.S.
Norbert, who died in 1134, is a strikingly contemporary saint. In a time of endless war, his is a voice for peace. In a time when young men and women are encouraged to strive for power and prestige, his life is an example of joy and influence found only after careerism is shed. And, in a time when garment workers in Pakistan are virtual slaves, Norbert’s voice for the voiceless serfs needs to be heard, again, “from sea to sea.”