Norbert was born around 1080 at Xanten in the north of Cologne. Springing from the petty nobility, French on his mother’s side and a cousin of the Holy Roman emperor on his father’s side, he was placed in the care of the scholastic canon of the chapter of Xanten. As a boy chorister, he began his studies for the priesthood in Laon.
He became then chaplain to the archbishop of Cologne and a member of the imperial chapel.
Overwhelmed by a lightening conversion, Norbert began to examine his conscience in depth, did penance, went into retreat and then applied to become a deacon and shortly afterwards a priest. He persevered in his conversion and sought to make his brethren, the canons of Xanten, do likewise. His life in the chapter becoming intolerable, he sought a regular way of life, visiting neighbouring Benedictine abbeys (Siegburg), canons regular (Rolduc) and the hermit Ludolph, wholly given to Gregorian reform.
After being released from his Xanten canonry, Norbert shared out his property among the poorest. He received from the Pope the mission of an itinerant preacher. His special charisma appeared to enable him to assist petty or powerful lords who were engaged in feudal struggles, in becoming reconciled. At Valenciennes, his encounter with Hugh of Fosses, chaplain to the bishop of Cambrai, proved to be of decisive importance. Hugh embarked on a friendship with Norbert and never again left his presence. Norbert continued his work of preaching, passing through Hugh’s native country of Fosses-la-Ville, Gembloux, Corroy and then Laon, where he found his friend bishop Bartholomew and an old Xanten schoolmate, Evermode.
Bartholomew first tried to place Norbert at the head of the chapter of St. Martin of Laon, but the canons there did not want him. Bartholomew looked for a church where Norbert could, together with the first disciples who accompanied him, form a chapter which would devote itself to contemplation and preaching in the context of communal life. After a good deal of searching, their choice fell on a derelict stone chapel in the forest of Saint-Gobain, dedicated to St. John the Baptist and owned by the Benedictines of the Abbey of St. Vincent of Laon, a desolate spot called “Prémontré”.
To Norbert, Prémontré was a base from which he went out to preach, but his first care was that of building a new abbey on the Cistercian model, comprising a church, a cloister and outbuildings, whose central point was the sanctuary and its altars.
Accompanied by Hugh, he returned to the Rhineland to ask for and receive relics destined for the consecration of altars.
The return journey proved a real procession of relics. He stopped overnight at the castle of the Counts of Namur. Countess Ermesinde received the pious cortège generously and gave Norbert a richly endowed foundation : Floreffe, on the Sambre. Ermesinde and her husband wanted a “new” community devoted to Gregorian reform to serve Floreffe. The date was 27 November 1121.
At that time, there were as yet at Prémontré neither professed canons nor a properly organised abbey. Thus, on his return to the place of the foundation, Norbert organised, during preparations for Christmas, a retreat which had as its conclusion a profession of faith during the midnight mass. Participating in it were the brethren who had accompanied Norbert from Cologne and those whom Hugh had assembled.
It is thought that some 80 clergy made their professions and donned the white habit chosen by Norbert (made from undyed wool as a sign of poverty). A church and the religious, however, were not enough to form an Order. After a certain amount of hesitation, the choice fell on the Rule of St. Augustine.
Norbert, however, hardly lived at Prémontré at all. He rapidly resumed his travels within the Holy Roman Empire, and in the Low Countries.
On 16 February 1126, Norbert received in Rome from Pope Honorius II, the ratification bull “Apostolicae disciplinae”. His adoption of the Rule of St. Augustine was approved, the property of Prémontré was confirmed and all his foundations were recognised. In the same year Norbert was appointed Archbishop of Magdeburg and arch-chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire. This prestigious position enabled him to reconcile Pope Innocent II with the new emperor, Lothar III, giving Europe a lasting and fruitful period of peace. Earlier, in Magdeburg, Norbert had founded new communities. The need to appoint local superiors to direct them led him to detach himself from the community of Prémontré in favour of the see of Magdeburg and he designated Hugh of Fosses as his successor. Hugh drew up the ordinary, a code of the liturgy and statutes supplementing the Rule of St. Augustine. In carrying out this task, he was assisted by his brethren of Prémontré and the annual assemblies of representatives of the entire Order.
On 6 June 1134, Norbert died, exhausted, at Magdeburg. Eight days later, he was buried in the Church of Our Lady close to his brethren, the Prémontré canons. On 27 July 1582, Pope Gregory XIII, issued a Bull sanctioning the worship of St. Norbert and at the same time that of SS. Romuald and Bruno. In 1625, his body was moved to the monastery of Strahov in the hills overlooking Prague, where it has ever since been venerated and watched over by his spiritual descendants.
[updated on the 03.11.05]
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