Saints for Our Times: St. Norbert knocked off his horse, woke up to faith
By Mary Lou Gibson
It was a near death experience that changed Norbert’s life in the spring of 1115. Editor Michael Walsh describes what happened to Norbert in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints.” Norbert was riding his horse in open country near the village of Vreden, Germany, when a thunderbolt from a sudden storm struck at his horse’s feet and Norbert was thrown to the ground. He lay unconscious for a long time. Upon awakening, his first words were “Lord, what will thou have me to do?” And then he heard an inner voice tell him: “Turn from evil and do good: seek after peace and pursue it.”
Before this, he had been living a life of opulence and ease as a sub deacon and almoner in the court of Emperor Henry V. He immediately renounced his appointment at court and retired to Xanten, his birth place in the German Rhineland, where he began a life of penance and prayer. Abbot Canon Frederick, archbishop of Cologne, encouraged him to make a retreat at the monastery of St. Siegburg, near Cologne. After two years, he began preparing for the priesthood.
After he received Holy Orders, he began preaching but was criticized by other clerics who denounced him as a hypocrite and charged him with preaching without a license or commission. After more accusations against him at the Council of Fritzlar in 1118, Norbert sold all his estates giving all to the poor and started on a journey to Saint-Gilles, in Languedoc, to seek the advice of Pope Gelasius II.
David Farmer writes in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that Pope Gelasius gave Norbert permission to preach the Gospel wherever he chose. Thus, he soon became an itinerant preacher in northern France, Germany and present-day Bohemia gaining a reputation for eloquence and miracles.
It was on one of these journeys that Norbert met Hugh of Fosses who became one of his most trusted followers. Pope Gelasius died in 1119, and was succeed by Pope Calixtus II. The new pope asked Norbert to found a religious order in the Diocese of Laon so that his work might continue after his death.
Norbert chose a lovely valley called Prémontré, in the forest of Coucy in France, for his young community. His disciples wore white habits and kept the rule of St. Augustine with certain additional regulations. Norbert went to Rome in 1125 to seek more formal application and a constitution from Pope Honorius II. This new religious order came to be known as a reforming movement among the canons regular. They had a more active life than the monks and took their example from the Cistercians and Bernard of Clairvaux.
Norbert received formal approval from the papacy in 1126, and became archbishop of Magdeburg in that same year. He found much in his new see that needed reform. This territory in central Germany was half pagan and half Christian. Much of the property belonging to the church and the poor had been taken over by powerful men and many of the clergy led scandalous lives. There was much opposition to Norbert’s reforms and he made enemies. There were even a couple of attempts on his life.
It was during these difficult times that Pope Honorius died and his succession created a schism that divided the church for eight years. According to Walsh, one set of cardinals elected Cardinal Gregory Papareschi, who took the name of Innocent II, while another group elected Cardinal Pierleone who took the name Anacletus II.
It was Bernard, Norbert and Hugh of Grenoble who effectively secured the recognition of Innocent II. Farmer writes that Norbert championed his cause in Germany and was able to get the emperor Lothair to march to Italy against Anacletus II.
Norbert return to Magdeburg in 1134 a sick man and died there on June 6, 1134. In 1627 his relics were moved to Strahov near Prague. He was formally recognized as a saint by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Norbert is the patron saint of Magdeburg and Bohemia.
His religious order, the Premonstratensians (now usually called Norbertines) combined priesthood with an austere common life. There are Norbertine canons in the U.S., Europe, South America, Canada, Zaire, South Africa, India and Australia.