Feast Day: June 06
Bishop and founder of the Premonstratensians, Norbert was born of a noble family related to the Emperor. He led a worldly life, but became a subdeacon and canon at Xanten in the Rhineland, Western Germany. In 1115, he underwent a complete conversion after hearing a divine announcement and narrowly avoiding death. While Norbert was riding through Westphalia during a thunderstorm, lightning frightened his horse. The terrified animal tossed him to the ground, knocking him unconscious. Upon awakening, he prayed, “Lord, what would you have me do?” “Turn away from evil,” said an inner voice, “and do good.” “Seek peace and pursue it.” Norbert responded as completely as Paul had after his experience on the road to Damascus.
Retiring to the abbey of Siegburg, near Cologne, Norbert came under the spiritual direction of Abbot Cuno. Ordained a priest, he exchanged wealth for poverty by resigning his canonry, selling his estates, and giving away the proceeds. He adopted the monastic habit and returned to Xanten, where he strove to reform his fellow canons. The canons took umbrage at his efforts, and at the Synod of Fritzlar (1118), they charged him with making improper innovations and preaching without full sanction. Norbert resigned his office and walked barefoot and humble to Pope Gelasius II, and received from the pontiff permission to preach anywhere he wished.
He took to itinerant preaching throughout northern France, became famous, soon earning a reputation for eloquence and for miracles. In 1120, he received some land from Bartholomew, Bishop of Laon, and with thirteen followers, he used it to establish the Order of Premonstratensians (commonly known as the Norbertines) under the Augustinian rule. Within a year, the number of monks increased to forty, and soon other houses were established, largely through the preaching of Norbert across France, Belgium, and Germany. He survived several assassination attempts and his patience and forbearance won out.
As Archbishop of Magdeburg, Norbert courageously confronted people who had usurped church property and he enforced strict celibacy on the clergy. As a result, he made many enemies, some who threatened his life. Therefore, he went into voluntary exile until the people of Magdeburg freely demanded his return. Norbert died from exhaustion; Pope Gregory XIII canonized him in 1582.
“O Priest! You are not yourself because you are God. You are not of yourself because you are the servant and minister of Christ. You are not your own because you are the spouse of the Church. You are not yourself because you are the mediator between God and man. You are not from yourself because you are nothing. What then are you? Nothing and everything. O Priest! Take care lest what was said to Christ on the cross be said to you: ‘He saved others, himself he cannot save!” – Norbert’s words on the occasion of his ordination to the priesthood.
Bunson, Matthew, Margaret Bunson, and Stephen Bunson. “Encyclopedia of Saints-Revised.” Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003.
Farmer, David. “Oxford Dictionary of Saints.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000.