Saint Norbert, Bishop and Confessor

June 6

Today is the feast day of Saint Norbert.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Norbert was born at Kanten on the left bank of the Rhine, near Wesel, c. 1080.  His father, Heribert, Count of Gennep, was related to the imperial house of Germany, and his house of Lorraine. (4)

By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877

Norbert, the celebrated founder of the Premonstratensian order, was born of very illustrious parents at Santen, in the Duchy of Cleves. As he grew up, he was very eager in the acquisition of knowledge, but he also led a vain, frivolous life, in which he continued even when he was a canon of the Church in his native place. He lived for some time at the court of Frederick, Archbishop of Cologne, and also at that of the Emperor, where he had opportunities to enjoy the pleasures of this World to which he was so much attached. The Almighty, however, who intended that Norbert should become a great Saint, made all this very distasteful to him by the following event.

Norbert went, one clear, bright day, with his servant, to Freden, a village in Westphalia. He had not gone very far upon his way when suddenly a terrific storm darkened the sky, and a flash of lightning struck the earth just before the feet of the horse which Norbert was riding. He was thrown down, and remained lying on the ground almost an hour, more dead than alive. As soon as he had somewhat collected his scattered senses, he arose with the help of his servant, but sinking again upon his knees, he cried like another Saul: “Lord, what dost thou wish that I should do?” An audible voice replied: “Avoid evil and do good.” And immediately Norbert determined to change his whole conduct and obey the heavenly command. Accordingly he repaired to the monastery of St. Siegebert, and began his conversion by a general confession, which he made with a flood of repentant tears.

Soon after, he received the order of priesthood, so as to be still better secured against the frivolities of the world and to remain more constant in the service of the Almighty. He prepared himself during forty days for his first holy mass, by prayer, austere fasting and other penances; and he had no sooner said it, than he ascended the pulpit and preached with such power and pathos on the vanities of the world, that all his hearers were deeply touched. For three years he continued his penitential life; then resigned his canonicate, gave his fortune to the poor, and went to Pope Gelasius II., who was at that time in Languedoc, and begged most earnestly for permission to preach repentance wherever he could find an opportunity. He obtained the holy father’s consent and went on his mission barefoot, in the depth of winter, from place to place. His life and his whole appearance were in harmony with his sermons; for, after having entered the priest-hood, he had laid aside his costly garments, and wore a long mantle made of sheepskin, which was fastened round his loins with a cord. He partook only of lenten food, and of this so little that no one could understand how he could live. By his sermons he moved a great number of sinners to repentance, converted hardened heretics and united in love and harmony many embittered enemies.

The Bishop of Laon, in consideration of the great benefit derived from the sermons of St. Norbert, requested him most earnestly to remain in his diocese and to select, as a dwelling for himself and his companions, any place agreeable to him. The Saint chose a dreary, solitary spot in a barren valley called Premontre, where stood a half-ruined chapel. The bishop bestowed the place upon him with pleasure and gave also the means to renew the chapel and build a small monastery near it. St. Norbert, with thirteen companions who desired to live under his direction, made his abode there as soon as the buildings were completed, and thus was laid, in the year 1121, the first foundation of the celebrated order which, after the valley, was called the Premonstratensian order. The holy founder received the rules and the habit in a vision from Saint Augustine.

In the space of a few years the number of his disciples increased so considerably, that he divided them into eight abbeys, which all became famous. Several other cities also humbly begged the holy founder to erect in their midst dwellings for his religious. Among these was the celebrated city of Antwerp, where Tanchelin had seduced many inhabitants with his heresy. This arch-heretic had almost entirely set aside the partaking of the holy Eucharist, because he denied the real presence of Christ, and had in its place led many to an impious life by his wicked teachings. No sooner had St. Norbert arrived at Antwerp than he refuted the heretic Tanchelin in a public discourse, to the great humiliation of the latter, and in a short time brought the poor deluded inhabitants back again into the pale of the true Church. In his sermons, he exhorted all to pay greater honor to the holy Eucharist and more frequently to receive it. The Canons of the Church of St. Michael offered the Saint this Church and also some houses for dwelling places, and requested him most earnestly to leave some of his religious there, that the people of the city might be kept on the path of righteousness; to which St. Norbert acceded.

Not long afterwards, when the Saint returned from Rome, whither he had gone to obtain the confirmation of his Order, he met the Emperor and many senators at Spire. At the same time there came some deputies from Magdeburg, who announced the death of their bishop, and desired a successor. The Emperor, who highly esteemed the Saint on account of his virtues and the miracles he wrought, would appoint no other than him. The Saint used all possible means to decline so high a dignity, but was obliged to accept it, and being received in Magdeburg with great rejoicings, he was consecrated bishop. Although now occupying so elevated a position, he changed nothing in his exterior, but led the same poor, humble and austere life. He labored earnestly to reform the abuses and vices that had crept in among the clergy as well as the laity, and at first excited against himself the hatred of wicked people, who conspired to kill him. An assassin whom they had hired for this purpose, went on Maunday-Thursday, to the palace of the bishop, under the pretext of wishing to confess, but keeping a dagger concealed, with which he intended to kill the Saint. Norbert, knowing by divine revelation, his wicked design, asked him what he wished, and the unhappy man, sinking tremblingly, at his feet, confessed his intention and begged to be forgiven. For a long time accustomed not only to pardon his enemies, but to return benefits for their misdeeds, the Saint hesitated not kindly to accept the man’s repentance.

Many other brilliant examples of virtue are to be found in the history of his life, but space is wanting to report them all here. To sum it up in a few words, Saint Norbert was the Apostle of his time, a man standing high in the grace of the Almighty, who had abundantly bestowed upon him all apostolic gifts. Four months before his last hour, God sent him a severe sickness, which ended with his happy death, in the year 1134. This Saint is represented as holding in his right hand a monstrance, in his left his Archbishop’s staff and an olive branch. The first is a symbol of his defence of the real presence of Christ in the holy Eucharist, and of his zeal in leading the faithful to the adoration and frequent reception of the holy Sacrament. The second signifies his dignity as Archbishop, a dignity to which the Almighty had raised him against all his expectations, and it is also an emblem of the victory which he won over the world, the flesh and Satan. It is especially related in the history of his life that at his death several pious persons saw him ascend toward heaven with an olive branch in his hand. The Almighty, who often honors in this world those who endeavor to glorify His name, made St. Norbert greatly famed through the whole Christian world, by the many and most wonderful miracles wrought at his intercession. (1)

He was canonised by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. His relics were transferred to the Premonstratensian abbey in Strahov, Bohemia in 1627. (6)
Until the middle of the last century, the principal source for the biography of St. Norbert was a MS. usually attributed to HUGO, the saint’s first disciple and successor, of which numerous copies had been made. That belonging to the Abbey of Romersdorf, near Coblentz, Vita Norberti, auctore canonico præadjuvante Hugone abbate, Fossense is now in the British Museum. An abridgment of this by SURIUS was printed in 1572; the whole MS., with variants, was published by ABBOT VANDER STERRE in 1656; again, with commentaries and notes, by PAPEBROCH in Acta SS., XX. Then followed: VANDER STERRE, Het leven van den H. Norbertus (Antwerp, 1623); DU PRÉ, La Vie de S. Norbert (Paris, 1627); CAMUS, L’Homme apostolique en S. Norbert (Caen, 1640); C. L. HUGO, La Vie de S. Norbert (Luxemburg, 1704); ILLANA, Historia del Gran Padre y Patriarca S. Norberto (Salamanca, 1755).

In 1856, a MS. Life of St. Norbert discovered in the Royal Library, Berlin, was published in PERTZ, Mon. Germ. Hist., differing in many particulars from the HUGO MSS. mentioned above. The discovery occasioned a great revival of interest in the subject, and there followed: TENKOFF, De S. Norberto Ord. Præm. Conditore commentatio historica (Münster, 1855); SCHOLZ, Vita S. Norberti (Breslau, 1859); WINTER, Die Prämonstratenser der 12. Jahrh. Berlin, 1865); ROSENMUND, Die ältesten Biographien des h. Norbertus (Berlin, 1874); HERTEL, Leben des h. Norbert (Leipzig, 1881). MÜHLBACHER, Die streitige Papstwahl des Jahres 1130 (Innsbruck, 1876). In the following three works, the publication of Pertz and other lately discovered documents have been used: GEUDENS, Life of St. Norbert (London, 1886); MADELAINE, Histoire de S. Norbert (Lillie, 1886) (the fullest and best-written biography of the saint so far published); VAN DEN ELSEN, Levensgeschiedenis van den H. Norbertus (Averbode, 1890). (4)

Image: Schlägl. Cemetery church Maria Anger. Painting of Saint Norbert ( 19th century )  (8)





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