Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Canons Regular Of Premontre (Norbertines: Premonstratensians: O. Praem.)

by Helen Walker Homan


A very thorough history of the Canons Regular of Premontre.

Larger Work

Knights Of Christ


41 - 46

Publisher & Date

Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1957

Early in the twelfth century the court of Henry V, King of Germany and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was lavishly gay with its balls and hunts and pageants. Besides the courtiers and councilors, figures of state and the nobility, it was also attended by a number of clerics, young men preparing for ordination to the priesthood, who loaned it a fitting ecclesiastical tone.

The paternal custom of directing a younger son, with little regard for his suitability, toward a career in the Church was even then widely employed. Sons of the nobility could thus be assured of a position of honor, plus perquisites, plus power, plus dignity. So it was with Norbert, scion of the noble family of von Gennep of the lower Rhine. Second son of the Count von Gennep and a mother of royal blood, he had been born about the year 1082 in Xanten, then a part of the diocese of Cologne, and had been well educated for the clerical state.

Brilliant and attractive, he had been called to the court of the Archbishop of Cologne, and while still preparing for ordination had been appointed a canon of the Cathedral of Xanten. The position was one of esteem. Canons were clerics, or priests appointed to serve a particular church, living in community near it, and following a definite religious Rule. (Their title sprang from the Greek word for rule.) Not much later Canon Norbert was summoned to the court of the great Emperor himself. There he became a popular comrade of the gayest of the young nobles, taking his religious destiny lightly.

But when the Emperor fell out with Pope Paschal II and was excommunicated, Norbert tactfully retired to Xanten, where he found his fellow canons at the cathedral almost as light-minded as had been the young nobles at court.

Then one day when out riding through the countryside, a sudden stroke of lightning caused his mount to rear and to throw Norbert violently to the ground, where for hours he lay unconscious. He arose a changed man, for the lightning had illumined with dreadful clarity the dim reaches of his conscience. It was the year 1115, and he was then about thirty-three.

Now he renounced all his courtly privileges and made a long spiritual retreat at the Benedictine monastery of Siegburg. On Christmas Day of that year he was ordained a priest by the Archbishop of Cologne. Donning the poorest garments, he went about preaching against the immorality of the times. But while his words touched the hearts of the poor, he made himself extremely unpopular with his fellow canons. They did not relish being exhorted to renunciation and poverty. They did not wish to be reminded of a strict observance of their Holy Rule. Sadly he recognized that he could no longer live amongst them. Stripping himself entirely of all his estates, he gave what he had to the poor and retired to a rural solitude, devoting himself to a life of prayer and meditation. At intervals he emerged from it to preach to the poor.

At such times, barefooted, he trod the roads of Germany, France, and Belgium, begging his bread as he went, and spreading his spiritual consolations. Gradually other men, drawn by his sanctity and eloquence, followed him. But always his thoughts reverted to his erstwhile brothers, the canons, and his heart was heavy at their state.

Desiring guidance in the continuance of his ministry, in the year 1119 he sought out Pope Callixtus II, who, observing both his holiness and the inroads made upon his health by severe austerities, counselled moderation and placed him under the authority of the Bishop of Laon in France, Bartholomew de Vir. The Bishop in turn asked him to direct the canons of Saint Martin of Laon. But Norbert found these as indifferent to reform as had been the canons of Xanten. Now he began to consider what measures he could take for the reform of canons generally.

During one of his journeys he had made a friend of the holy Bernard of Clairvaux, who some years earlier had joined the monks of Citeaux. Undoubtedly the example of Bernard and the success of that reform suggested to Norbert the formation of a similar community where canons could live in simplicity and austerity. Bishop Bartholomew was sympathetic to the plan, and together they searched the neighboring countryside for a spot sufficiently remote to permit complete detachment from the world. Norbert found it in the marshy woods of the forest of Premontre. There he drew about him his first community of thirteen.

They were to follow the traditional practice of all canons, that of chanting the Divine Office in common, and were to lead lives of great austerity. They would devote many hours to prayer and meditation. They would also preach and care for the poor who came to their door, thus combining a contemplative with an active life. So came into being the Canons Regular of Premontre. Canons being those who followed a definite religious Rule, they adopted the ancient Rule of Saint Augustine. "Regular" denoted that they were of the religious as opposed to the diocesan clergy.

Soon the number of Norbert's followers had increased to forty, and in the year 1120, on Christmas Day, a day beloved by Norbert, the Bishop of Laon invested him and his companions in the white habit customarily worn by canons regular. Their life was closely patterned on that of the Cistercians, as the monks of Citeaux were called; and they too made manual labor an essential part of the monastic day. As their number grew, it became necessary for them to abandon the first simple huts and to build a monastery and church in the wilderness. When his community was well established Norbert journeyed to Rome, and in the year 1126 won for it the papal approbation of Pope Honorius II.

He had never ceased to devote a certain portion of his time to itinerant preaching, and through it he continued to win many new followers. In Germany the powerful feudal lord, Godfrey, Count of Cappenberg, was so impressed by it that he turned over to Norbert his three castles for abbeys, and he himself begged to be admitted to the Order. Whole communities of canons, long established, were so drawn by the reform that they went over to it en masse.

The leader's ability at organization enabled him successfully to establish a Second Order of nuns living a cloistered life of prayer; and a Third Order designed for pious laymen. By now his followers had come to be known as Norbertines. In Antwerp he had preached so brilliantly against the heresy of Tanchelin, that Antwerp was eventually to adopt Norbert as its patron Saint.

The Church in its wider sense had need of such ability. Pressure was brought to bear upon him to accept the Archbishopric of Magdeburg and to reform its diocese. Reluctantly, and under the urging of the Emperor Lothair, he yielded, leaving his beloved community at Premontre in the trusted hands of one of his first followers, the holy Hugh of Fosse. As Archbishop he not only accomplished a notable reform, sometimes at the risk of his own life from recalcitrants in Magdeburg, but also aided greatly in the restoration to Rome of the legitimate Pope, Innocent II. Statesman and organizer, he established his men in the eastern mission territories and colonies of the empire.

But at fifty-two the great canon found himself worn out with labors and austerities, and amidst the sorrowing of the Christian world he died at Magdeburg in the year 1134. Despite his holiness, more than four centuries were to pass before he would be canonized.

At Premontre alone he had left five hundred men. By the year 1150, only thirty years from its foundation, the Order counted almost one hundred abbots. Rapidly the Norbertines spread throughout Europe and the British Isles. They accompanied the Crusades into Palestine, where they founded three abbeys. For more than three hundred years this golden age was to continue, a combination of the contemplative life and the active apostolate, and notable for the holy men it produced. Several of these became martyrs when the Saracens swept the Christians out of Palestine, and the abbeys were burned and their men put to the scimitar.

When two centuries had passed, the Order had abbeys in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Norway, and along the Baltic; in England, Ireland, and Scotland. In 1252 the Norbertines founded a college of studies in Paris.

But as with the other ancient Orders in which manual labor and agriculture had played a part, and the acquisition of property had followed as a natural corollary, increased holdings had led to power, and power had led to a departure from the primitive spirit. Even before the middle of the thirteenth century, Pope Gregory IX exhorted the Canons to institute a reform. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the vicious system of abbeys held in commendam wrought havoc with the Order of Premontre.

It had been difficult to maintain a unified spirit in so widely dispersed an organization. The monasteries of Spain, England, and Denmark began increasingly to separate themselves from Premontre. Everywhere the primitive austerities had been relaxed. Partial reforms were successful in Germany and England, but when in the first half of the sixteenth century the Protestant Reformation shook the Christian world, it found the Order as a whole already greatly weakened. Henry VIII destroyed the Norbertine houses of England; and many houses in Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland were lost to the new force. The Turkish invasion of Eastern Europe swept away the Norbertines' houses there.

However, the Counter Reformation which followed, and the unifying effects of the Council of Trent brought renewed strength. Abbeys were successfully reformed, and new colleges were established near the great universities of Louvain, Rome, Cologne, Paris, Prague, Madrid, and Salamanca. With the weakening of the in commendam system toward the end of the sixteenth century, the Order was liberated from its shackles and began a new period of reform and unification. In 1630 it adopted new statutes based upon the decrees of the Council of Trent.

The Premonstratensians had once more taken an important place among the ancient Orders of the Church when they were assaulted by the political upheavals of the late eighteenth century. Many houses in Austria were suppressed by the Emperor Joseph II; the French Revolution cost the Order all its abbeys in France, and dealt a mortal blow in Belgium. When the violences had ceased, only twenty-six houses remained: eight in Austria-Hungary, three in Poland, and fifteen in Spain, which were soon to be suppressed by the revolution of 1833.

The Norbertines, with the other Orders, began the difficult work of rebuilding. By the year 1869 they were well advanced toward recovery. Abbeys had been reopened in Belgium, the Low Countries, and in the mother country, France, where despite great difficulties the restoration of the interior spirit was to bear greatest fruit.

The close of the nineteenth century witnessed an impressive expansion. In 1898 a new foundation was made in the United States, and others followed in England, Ireland, Brazil, Denmark, and Canada. Missions were successfully launched in the Belgian Congo and India. Some years later a new beginning was made in Germany.

The Order has had an interesting history in the Western Hemisphere. A persistent legend couples the Norbertines with the early voyages of the Norsemen to North America. In the seventeenth century Spanish fathers went out as missionaries and bishops to Spain's colonies in the New World. In the eighteenth century two chaplains in the French fleet, which helped the American colonies win their independence, were Premonstratensians. Missioners continued to come, and in 1843 an attempt was made to establish a Norbertine foundation in southern Wisconsin, where Austrian fathers labored faithfully for almost half a century. A lapse of a few years occurred, but in 1898 Norbertines from Holland returned permanently, establishing themselves at West De Pere, Wisconsin. Placed in charge of the National Shrine of Saint Joseph there, they opened a priory and a college. Saint Norbert Priory was raised to the rank of an abbey in 1925.

In addition to these activities the American Norbertines conduct high schools in West De Pere and Green Bay, Wisconsin, radio stations in West De Pere and Appleton, a television station, a boys' camp in Cecil, and a novitiate in Madison, Wisconsin. They operate high schools in Wilmington, Delaware, and in Philadelphia. They conduct numerous parishes in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Montana, Washington, and Canada. They are also active in home and foreign missions. The American fathers continue the ancient tradition of the Divine Office, and combine an active with a contemplative life.

The Order as a whole today numbers 1,712 members, of whom 194 labor in the United States; and has foundations in West De Pere and Green Bay, Wisconsin; Claymont, Delaware; Philadelphia and Paoli, Pennsylvania. It conducts foreign missions in Africa, India, South America, and Denmark. It is governed by a General Chapter, which convenes every six years, and is composed of all the abbots, and delegates from all the houses. The Abbot General, who is elected for life, resides in Rome and presides over the General Chapter. Each abbey is self-governing under its own elected abbot. The Order is composed of priests and lay brothers. The sons of Saint Norbert have traveled far and vastly extended their activities since the year 1120 in France, when in the marshy forest of Premontre their founder began his reform of canons. But despite the changing demands exacted by eight centuries, they still follow faithfully his holy precepts of prayer and preaching.

© Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1957.

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