Who was St. Norbert?
Norbert of Xanten (c. 1075-1134) was a nobleman, courtier, ascetic, legendary peacemaker, and an exemplar of the apostolic way of life. He was a priest of the Catholic Church who, in the 12th century, founded the Norbertine order on the basis of love, selfless sharing, and radical hospitality.
The Life of Norbert
For most of his youth, Norbert of Xanten studied at the collegiate church in Xanten, Germany, and became a canon of that church. After his conversion in 1115 he became an ardent proponent of reform of the clergy and a champion of peace and reconciliation. At the request of the pope, he brought his many followers together at Prémontré, France. This Norbertine foundation contributed to the reform of religious life in the 12th century, and the Norbertine order founded in Europe continues to this day.
Service to Church and State
After becoming a secular canon at the church of St. Victor, Norbert was soon called to work as chaplain to Archbishop Frederick in Cologne. He was later offered a position in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V. He accompanied the emperor to Rome in 1111, and there he encountered firsthand, in the emperor’s mistreatment of the pope, the impact of the Investiture Controversy. This conflict between church and state centered on control over the appointment of bishops.
It was the next phase of Norbert’s life, however, that would define his legacy.
The turning point in Norbert’s life came in 1115 in an extraordinary encounter with God. On his way to the village of Freiden, a bolt of lightning startled Norbert’s horse and threw him to the ground. Norbert heard a voice calling him to repentance and the pursuit of peace.
Reconciliation Over the Relics
Ordained a priest at the Cathedral of Cologne, Norbert began his ministry as an itinerant preacher roaming the countryside of Germany, Belgium and France. In the face of violence and hatred, he preached reform and worked to reconcile warring factions.
Founding of the Order of Prémontré
At the request of Pope Calixtus II, Bishop Bartholomew of Laon took Norbert under his protection. With the bishop’s encouragement, Norbert settled in the valley of Prémontré, northern France, in the spring of 1120. On Christmas Day 1121, Norbert and his followers professed their first vows, adopting the Rule of St. Augustine. Thus the Norbertine order was born.
Death of Norbert
Named Archbishop of Magdeburg in 1126, Norbert continued to work tirelessly for the reform of the Church. In 1134, after accompanying the emperor to Rome to establish the rightful pope to power, Norbert returned to Magdeburg physically weakened by travel, malaria and personal sacrifice. Norbert died on June 6, 1134.
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