Letter of Pope Francis

To the Most Reverend Father Jozef Wouters,

Abbot General of the Premonstratensian Canons Regular.

I learned the good news that you have announced a Jubilee to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the foundation of the Abbey of Prémontré by Saint Norbert, the first community from which the Order of Premonstratensian Canons Regular originated.

St. Norbert is rightly considered one of the most zealous architects of the Gregorian reform. Born around 1075, he became a canon of the chapter of Xanten after his ecclesiastical studies. Through the then Bishop of Cologne, Frederick, he was introduced to the court of Emperor Henry V. Thus, Norbert got involved early in the events that marked the beginnings of the 12th century. While the Emperor and the lords of the realm claimed a right to intervene personally in the appointment of bishops and abbots by favoring people whom they liked, a new sensitivity to the demands of the Gospel and of the mission proper to the clergy grew within the Church. There were not a few men and women, inspired by God, who began to question the attachment ministers of the Church had with merely worldly interests. Norbert was one of these.

When, in 1115, at the height of the investiture controversy, he had to chose a position between the Pope and the Emperor, he followed Bishop Frederick of Cologne and began a spiritual journey that was to lead him to an authentic conversion after a long process of discernment. Norbert gave up his life at the court and decided to live “Solo Christo Duce”, embracing a lifestyle inspired by the Apostles. Ordained a deacon and a priest on the same day, he abandoned the refined apparel of a courtier and put on the habit of a penitent. He tried, first of all, to convince his brothers from the chapter of Xanten to embrace a new way of life, closer to the demands of the Gospel, but in vain. Therefore, Norbert decided to consult with various spiritual advisors: the Benedictine abbot Cono of Siegburg and the hermit Ludolph. In Rolduc he became acquainted with a community of reformed canons regular who based their life on the Rule of St. Augustine. Thus, he too began to preach penance and conversion and to lead a life of prayer and mortification; and – not a common practice at that time – he often, if not daily, celebrated the Eucharist.

The communities of your Order have accepted this inheritance and, for nine centuries, have carried out their mission in the spirit of the Rule of Saint Augustine, in faithfulness to the meditation and preaching of the Gospel, drawing on the Eucharistic Mystery, source and summit of the life of the Church.

This way of life was the cause that Norbert was increasingly criticized: he lived as an ascetic hermit, but still received the income he was entitled to as a canon; he preached, but with what mandate? Induced by these pressures, Norbert opted for an itinerant life. Inspired by the mission of the Apostles of Jesus, he set out and arrived in Saint Gilles in Provence. He walked on foot, with only one garment, a cloak and a stick, always carrying with him what was necessary for the celebration of the Eucharist, accompanied by two fellow pilgrims. In Saint Gilles, he met Pope Gelasius II who authorized him to be an apostolic preacher. Today more than ever, dear Brother, the proclamation of the Good News is necessary and requires on the part of everyone, especially of priests, a generous commitment and, even more, a strong coherence between the message proclaimed and the personal and common life.

Since his conversion and throughout his life, Norbert was a faithful servant of the Gospel and a loving son of the Church, obedient to the Pope. In order to receive confirmation of his status as a preacher and to meet the new Pope, – Callixtus II, elected in 1119, he returned to northern France where he met his childhood friend, Bishop Burchard of Cambrai, who marveled at the change in his lifestyle. Under these circumstances, Norbert met Hugh of Fosses, chaplain to the Bishop of Cambrai. Hugh too was looking for a life more adherent to the Gospel and recognized in that meeting a gift from Providence. With the permission of his Bishop, Hugh became Norbert’s companion and followed him. Later, he would become the first abbot of Prémontré.

Norbert’s biographies tell how he healed the sick along the way, chased away evil spirits and managed to placate ancient feuds between noble families. These reconciliations brought peace to the regions where the population suffered greatly from the continuous local wars. For this, Norbert is considered an apostle of peace. He did the work of God, acting in the name of Christ’s charity. The ancient authors insist that Norbert always gathered in prayer before setting out to mediate and to foster reconciliations and restore peace and that he was always faithful to celebrate the Eucharist to meet the Lord whose work he desired to undertake.

On his way to Reims to be received by Callixtus II, Norbert met with Bartholomew, bishop of Laon, who proposed to welcome him into his diocese. He offered him various possible places to settle. It was 1120, and Norbert chose the valley of Prémontré. Here he assembled a group of followers with whom he initiated an intense dialogue about the nature of their nascent community. Since many of them, like himself, were canons, all made canonical profession according to the Rule of St. Augustine, on Christmas Day 1121, the date that marks the foundation of the community of Prémontré. This profession, in the context of the great Gregorian canonical movement, was a confirmation and deepening of their original commitment. Such, dear Brother, is also the meaning of your profession which establishes a strong bond between each of the members of the community and his own Church. And in this profession is rooted the mission of praying for and with the whole Church.

From the beginning, Prémontré has exerted  great fascination. Many men and women joined the community of canons, which intended to mirror the primitive Church- described in the Acts of the Apostles. The initial ardent enthusiasm of was structured in an austere religious life, of which hospitality and care for the poor and for pilgrims were an integral part. From the beginning, the Premonstratensians have shown great commitment to people outside the community, welcoming them willingly. Thus, new communities which followed Norbert’s lifestyle were born rapidly. Several existing communities asked to be affiliated with Prémontré.


Dear sons and daughters of St. Norbert, always keep this open heart, which also opens the doors of your house, to welcome those looking for a spiritual counselor, those who ask for material help, those who wish to share your prayer. May your liturgy always be “canonical”, that is, to praise  God, for the people of God and with the people.

Norbert’s strong link with the Eucharist is still a source of inspiration for your apostolic life. In 1124, at the request of the Bishop of Cambrai, he went to Antwerp, where he was faced with the consequences of the “storm” previously caused by Tanchelm and his followers, who denied the validity of the Sacraments and especially of the Eucharist celebrated by priests living in concubinage. Norbert refuted this heresy. Because of this episode, he became regarded as an apostle of the Eucharist during the Catholic reformation. A model of faith for all and, in particular, for priests, Norberto always  drew strength from the Eucharistic celebration, especially in situations of crisis or in the face of difficult tasks.

A few years after the foundation of Prémontré, when, in 1126, Norbert became Archbishop of Magdeburg, Pope Honorius II granted him the approval of his life purpose, implemented according to the Rule of St. Augustine in the communities under his leadership. Norbert never returned to Prémontré, but founded various other communities of canons in his episcopal city, some of them engaged in the evangelization of the surrounding region. As Archbishop, he remained faithful to his original evangelical inspiration and supported the Pope in conflicts with the Emperor, making every effort to establish good relations between them, while maintaining the principle of free appointment to ecclesiastical offices.


In 1128, Norbert resigned from the responsibility of the communities under his leadership. These became abbeys under the direction of their own abbot. Hugh of Fosses, who then became the first abbot of the Abbey of Prémontré and managed to unite a growing number of communities within the framework of an Order with its own statutes and a general chapter as the highest authority.

Nine centuries later, we give thanks for the movement initiated by St. Norbert who was able to draw lessons from existing, proven structures of monastic origin, but clearly maintained the identity of the members of his Order as canons regular. During this long period, many women also adhered to the Norbertine ideal and still today they essentially dedicate themselves to the contemplative life. Furthermore, many lay people, while remaining in the world, join your communities according to various forms of affiliation. For their part, several Congregations of religious sisters share your spirituality and dedicate themselves to the apostolate, especially at the service of the most vulnerable because of their social condition, health or age.

Thus, over the centuries, the Premonstratensian abbeys have developed an intense relationship with their territory, because from the beginning many canons have dedicated themselves to the pastoral care of parishes. Consequently, the abbeys have not only been active in caring for and welcoming the poor, but have developed and maintained contacts with people from all social classes. Thus, the inspiration of St. Norbert remained alive and is still one of the riches of the universal Church. Your Founder lived in many and different environments, but in every circumstance he let himself be guided by the Gospel: whether as an itinerant preacher, superior of a community or bishop, he continued to listen to God and his brothers, and was able to discern the way to be followed in the various circumstances of life, without losing sight of its fundamental inspiration.

Through the intercession of Mary Most Holy, elected by St. Norbert as the patron of the Abbey of Prémontré and later proclaimed Queen of the Order, may the Premonstratensians, now widespread throughout in the five continents, remain constantly faithful to a life ad instar Apostolorum.


Dear Brother, as a pledge of abundant heavenly graces I impart a special Apostolic Blessing to you and to all the members of the Order, to the religious and lay people affiliated with your communities.

Rome, Saint John at the Lateran, 6 June 2021, memorial of Saint Norbert.

Sealed and signed,

Francesco

Advent-Christmas 2020 – Opening of the celebration of the 900-years Jubilee

Advent-Christmas 2020 – Opening of the celebration of the 900-years Jubilee

A jubilee is the commemoration of an event that took place a round number of years ago. The profession of Saint Norbert and his first followers on Christmas Day of 1121 is the beginning of a history that has continued for nine centuries. In line with the motto of our General Chapter of 2018 (Nativitas Christi, nativitas Ordinis) we can say that the day the Word was born among us was also the day that our Order became an institutionalized reality. Both vitae of Saint Norbert relate that event on Christmas Day when the first Premonstratensians made profession on the Rule of Saint Augustine.The vitae recall the discussions within the community about the way of life they were to follow. “Some of those who followed Norbert believed that what they heard from him was sufficient for salvation and therefore they needed neither a rule nor structure of life.” But Saint Norbert knew, probably from experience, “that without a structure of life and without a rule and without the instructions of the Fathers, the apostolic and evangelical precepts could not be completely observed.” The vitae recall the different options that were available to provide structure to the life of Saint Norbert’s followers. Would they take up the way of life of the Cistercians, or form a colony of hermits? About Saint Norbert is said: “He pondered these many things in his heart but finally, lest he seem to betray the canonical profession to which he and those who wished to live with him had been dedicated since their youth, Norbert ordered that the Rule be accepted which the blessed Augustine had established for his followers.” Norbert unambiguously chose his followers to be Canons Regular, thus renewing and radicalizing an already existing way of life. The choice of the Rule of Saint Augustine is furthermore justified since Norbert believed that this Rule ordered and renewed the apostolic way of life, meaning that life which Christ himself had led with his apostles, which was continued in the primitive Church. Of importance is the concluding sentence: “He (Norbert) now hoped to live the apostolic life he had undertaken by his preaching.”The choice of Saint Norbert and his followers to renew their canonical profession draws from the same inspiration as our motto for this Jubilee: “With God among the people”. I still remember the meeting at which we decided upon this motto. The original version was in fact in German: “Mit Gott bei den Menschen”. The English motto does not render completely the intimacy and the nearness expressed by the German preposition “bei”. It could be tempting to read the motto as referring to the “vita mixta”, where both contemplation and action takes place. This reading would not be entirely wrong either, but would introduce a dualism or even an opposition between two ways of living. When we are with the people, we are with God at the same time. We can search and find Him anywhere. The fullness of pastoral activity would be to find God with the people as the “God with us”, the Emmanuel. From this intuition we can give meaning to the fact that the first profession of Premonstratensians was made on Christmas Day.In the vitae Christmas Day appears as the date on which the followers of Saint Norbert made profession in a rather laconic sentence: “By the profession of this rule then, on Christmas Day at Prémontré, one by one his followers voluntarily enrolled themselves into that city of blessed eternity.” The celebration of Jesus’ birth almost disappears under the story about the discussions about the Rule and its interpretation. It is only later on that the special significance of Christmas as the day of the first professions at Prémontré is highlighted. In many abbeys we find paintings featuring the crib with the newborn Jesus in the center. Saint Norbert and his companions contemplate the nativity scene. Around the crib are heaped the symbols of their worldly dignity, their crowns, blazons and scepters. A beautiful example of such a painting by Antonin Stevens is reproduced on the invitation to the opening of the Jubilee on November 28 in Strahov. The humility of God and his overwhelming love invites us to disarm and to become human like him, poor and simple, in such a way that we too can really be “among the people”. This exegesis of our profession is a further development of the devotion of the first Premonstratensians who considered the life of Jesus with his apostles as a model of their own life in community and beyond as preachers and pastors. They regarded a life of simplicity as the foundation of effective pastoral action. This model of disarming simplicity is shown nowhere more eloquently than in the nativity scene.The term “Jubilee” has profound biblical roots. In chapter 25 of Leviticus the Jubilee-year is described as a year of reparation and restoration, a period during which God’s people remember the graces bestowed upon them. May this celebration help us to discover afresh the roots of our common vocation.

God our Father,
in your eternal wisdom and unending mercy
you called Saint Norbert to cooperate
in reforming the Church of his time.
Inspired by the example of the first Christians
he desired to follow the Lord in the footsteps of the Apostles,
living a life in community
and announcing the Good News to the people.
In 1121 Saint Norbert chose Prémontré
to be the first center of a renewed canonical life
and the white habit as a sign of the Resurrection.
We gratefully celebrate the 900-year Jubilee
of our presence and our humble service in the Church.
Let us build centers of your love in this world
with zeal and generous hearts.
Pour the love of your Holy Spirit into our communities,
so that, overflowing with charity, they may embrace all.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

(Prayer from the Christmas Letter 2016
of Abbot General Thomas Handgrätinger)

Blessed Jubilee and Merry Christmas,

+ Jos Wouters, abbot-general

Opening Jubilee Strahov

Opening Jubilee Strahov – 28/11/2020

It is a special grace for any Premonstratensian to be here, this moment, near to the relics of our Holy Father Saint Norbert, and a guest – even “on line” – in this house of a living community, which articulates in its own way the Premonstratensian charisma.During Advent, we are asked to be alert, to stay awake, so that we can perceive with whole our heart and spirit God’s active presence in history. His presence shapes history into a history of salvation. The consciousness of His presence enables us to understand history as a manifestation of the ongoing creation, while the Spirit hovers over what we would perceive as mere chaos, turmoil and disarray if we were not anchored profoundly in faith. A presence that finds his most complete expression in the mystery of the incarnation. The Word of God assuming our human nature, entering our reality and redeeming it from within, as a friend and as a lover. A watchful faith helps us to trust this larger perspective and to see the greatness in what worldly eyes see as small and insignificant. Who is graced with the knowledge of God’s presence never loses and can see the goodness in what are seemingly defeats and setbacks. Advent is an exercise in trusting watchfulness.We like our Saints to be simple. We tend to reduce them to one central virtue or one central devotional mystery. Poverty, charity, peace and reconciliation, missionary and pastoral zeal, the Holy Eucharist, veneration of our Lady… Every time I think about Saint Norbert, I find myself asking who he really was. Is it true that his meaning only became clear at the time of the counter-reformation? Would it be possible to reach out to him beyond this period that gave him the attributes of a time that was not his time and used him to answer challenges that were unknown to him. From the descriptions of his life and the history of his time, Norbert appears as a broad – minded man, with a vision on all aspects of the time he was living in. He saw and understood the need of the people and addressed their need on all levels he could move on. His life as preacher, inspiring a popular religious movement, as reformer of the canonical way of life, as a missionary bishop, as politician, show him interacting with the signs of his time. He knew what it meant to be open to Gods presence in the world and he gave all he had received to answer the appeal that came to him in the time that was given to him. He was flexible in order to be faithful.Our Order perpetuates one of the intuitions of this Holy man. He understood that preaching is not enough when it is not upheld by life itself. The Gospel needs to be seen and experienced, not only spoken about. Our heritage is the apostolic way of life, as lived and taught by Saint Augustine, living the mystery of the Church every day, Together, with God, among the People.The motto of our Jubilee-year can be understood as a life, filled with God’s holy presence as the point of gravity, meaning rest and peace, faith and trust, as the center of a deep sense of community: at home and beyond.May God’s Spirit grant us the watchfulness to sense His presence in our life.

+ Jos Wouters, abbot-general

Feast of Saint Augustine 2020

Dear sisters and brothers,

In his sermon on Psalm 131 (132), (commenting on the second verse: He swore an oath to the Lord, and made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob), Augustine says, quoting from the book of the prophet Isaiah 26,13 according to the Vetus Latina version of the Bible: “What more can we promise God than that we want to be his temple? We cannot offer anything more pleasing to Him than that also we say what is said in Isaiah: take possession of us.”

In Augustine’s thinking, following the teaching of Saint Paul, God’s dwelling-place on earth is the Church. (1 Cor. 3,16). In this context, Church means people. Building a temple for God, giving Him a place of residence, implies building community and allowing oneself to be inserted in a community. The metaphor points at a culture of relationships that need to be fashioned in such a way that they become the building material for the Church.

The application of this idea to our own communities and to the wider range of pastoral, cultural and social activities in which we engage, is obvious. We can describe our Premonstratensian charism as living the mystery of the Church in such a way that she is really connected to her deepest core: to be a dwelling-place for the Lord in this world. Speaking about the primitive Church Saint Augustine says: “They had certainly become a temple of God. Not only as individuals but together they had become a temple of God. In other words: they had become a sacred place to the Lord. And you know that out of all these a single place had been formed for the Lord. Scripture says: “They were one in heart and one in soul towards God”. (Acts, 4,35) Those – and there are many – who refuse to become a sacred place for the Lord eagerly seek their private goods and are attached to them, enjoy the power they have and have their desire directed towards personal interests.”

We cannot but think about the opening lines of our constitutions: “As they prayed, the house where they were assembled rocked: they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to proclaim the word of God boldly. The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul: no one claimed for his own use anything that he had, as everything they owned was held in common. The apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and they were all given great respect.” (Acts 4: 31-33)

It strikes me how Saint Augustine considers the community aspect together with the idea that every person is a dwelling place for God. He does this without using a contrasting “but”, thus unnerving an eventual debate about the priority of contemplative live over social or pastoral activity. “Since you, yourself, will be a place for the Lord, you also will be one with those that will have become a place for the Lord.” The inner and personal encounter with God unites people. Because of this unity, the conscience of God’s indwelling in the heart of the individual believer grows and deepens: “After all, all believers, form a single place for the Lord. For the Lord finds a place in the heart, because of the concord of the many people who are connected in love.”

It is indeed a beautiful and profound thought. Because the believers unanimously open their hearts to the Lord, manifesting in their unanimity His love in this world, they form God’s dwelling place among men and radiate God’s love in the world. In this way the Church reflects God as a living reality.

Developing this thought we can forget for a moment the harsh reality. A reality that we partly make harsh ourselves through our own harshness which only can be softened if we find the necessary resilience to believe that we are able to love and if we believe that the people who surround us, in addition to many other and less noble motives, are guided by love.

Our life is inescapably marked by all kinds of imperfections. There is a serious gap between what the Church appears to be and what Augustine taught about it. The life of the religious communities that is mirrored by his rule seems to have been quite different from the “one heart and one soul” which is the foundation of it. The awareness of, and the relentless confrontation with this gap can make us hard and cynical. It can drain the joy from our hearts. And for this reason, I find the counsel of Saint Paul as expressed in the second reading of the solemnity of Saint Augustine very appropriate: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient bearing with one another in love. ” (Ephesians, 4,2)

In the above admonition, the apostle does not explain away the shocking and hurtful imperfections of the communities that form the Church and its members, but he does remind us that love for people in this world is possible only from a radically merciful and patient attitude. This thought also often recurs in Augustine’s sermons. He states repeatedly that the Church can only exist because in her the good endure the weak and the bad. And he was realistic enough to note that no one is so good that he would never have to be tolerated.

We can only really be at home in a community if we are humbly aware that we can belong to it because others endure us.

Augustine himself says in the sermon on psalm 131 (132) addressing those who are leaders and teachers in the Church: “Do you want to be a place for the Lord? Then be humble, calm, and in awe of God’s word. In this way you will become what you want to become: a place for the Lord… You must become a place for the Lord yourself. Only those who do what they hold out to others and actually set an example, become a place for the Lord together with those whom they teach.”

Wishing all of you a blessed feast of Saint Augustine,

+ Jos Wouters, abbot-general

Easter message 2020

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

            “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus took bread on the night when He was betrayed…” (1 Cor. 11, 23)

            You do not need to be reminded of this text. You all know it by heart and have often heard it with utmost respect and attention.
            The night in which He was betrayed, captured and brought before a fake tribunal by people who wanted Him to die, Jesus, aware of what is to come, uses the time that remains to Him, the circumstances in which He finds himself, his approaching certain death, to perform an act of love so powerful that we, together with all Christians, remember and repeat it over and over again.
            The night before his suffering and death. Breaking the bread and sharing the cup expresses the meaning of his death on the cross, yes, of his entire life. The gesture represents God Himself who loves this world in all its complexity.
            It could have been a completely different night. Under the spell of fear and anger. Jesus and his disciples could have talked about the injustice of the Roman occupation, the cruelty that ravaged the country, the narrow-minded unbelief of the religious leaders. Jesus rightly could have blamed his disciples’ lukewarmness, their incomprehension, their slowness and their cowardice. There was so much reason to complain and to be angry that last evening. Deception may have been a topic in their conversation too, but it is not what we received. It is not what changed bread and wine. It is not that which has the power to change us.
            In the circumstances of the night before He was betrayed, Jesus transforms the customs and rituals that are available into an act of love that shows God’s goodness and loving presence in the world.
            Breaking and sharing the bread, sharing the wine in the cup are simple and even small gestures. Their meaning is exceptional and weighty. Against the background of undeserved death and in a time of injustice and menace, Jesus shows God’s love, the goodness of his Father. In bread and wine He offers himself to his Father and to us.
            The simple gesture is a sacrament because it is the sign of the deep reality of God’s unwavering love. Of his real Presence in our world and in our lives.  Life itself, more powerful than death.
            In our time too, we have reasons to complain. Times are grim, they inspire fear, the people around us are mediocre, even evil, and we ourselves are far from perfect. The deep sense of the Eucharist, this sign of love that so faithfully accompanies us throughout our life, lights up in our own lives when we, transformed by the Blessed Sacrament, become able to love and to speak words of goodness, in the situation in which we live and between the people who are with us. Simple deeds and unpretentious words probably. But Jesus shows their meaning. Thus, in Jesus’ Spirit, we let God’s goodness shine through. Thus the kingdom of God breaks through. That is how God is with us and in the world today.
            When we celebrate the Eucharist, when we worship the Most Holy Sacrament, God’s ever-present goodness becomes actual for us.

            In many places it will be impossible this year to celebrate the Holy Triduum in the usual way. This will cause uneasiness and grief in many communities and among those who usually join us in these celebrations. Let us prayerfully meditate on the fullness of God’s love that lives in the Risen Lord. He will show us how we can reach out to many.  May the bread that is changed in the sign of God’s truly present love change us more and more deeply so that his likeness may appear in us.

            Jos Wouters o.praem., abbot-general

Feast of Saint Norbert 2020

Norbertus

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

            “Among the great he was great, humble among the poor, high ranking among the noble, temperate among the ignoble. He was made all things to all.” (1 Cor. 9,22) This quote from the Vita B, is taken as the text of the responsory at the first vespers of the solemnity of our father Saint Norbert. The original context is a description of Norbert’s character relating why he was successful and beloved at the courts of the archbishop of Cologne and the emperor. The sketch of Norbert’s character in the Vita B also mentions that: “he followed his own judgment as a guideline and directed his life according to his judgment”. In the context of the life at the archiepiscopal or imperial court, this meant of course that he, independently from the opinion of those around him, indulged himself in all kinds of worldly pleasures. But the description of Norbert’s character, this blend of independency and kind affability which made him to be “great among the great and humble among the poor”, applies to many episodes during his life as told by the authors of his Vitae.

            In the Vita A, we find a similar description of Saint Norbert, in the context of the narrative about the five more quiet years after he could neutralize the violent opposition against his policy of reclaiming the archdiocese’s full ownership of the ecclesiastical possessions: “These events took place in the third year of Norbert’s archiepiscopacy. After this he ruled for five years and from day to day gave honor to the ministry entrusted to him by God, advancing in all religion and virtue, preserving the unity of the holy church and resisting and protesting against those who disturbed it and against all schismatics, embracing the good, giving counsel to the desolate, supporting the poor and orphans and widows, fostering and helping to spread religious orders, while setting an example of religious life, presenting himself affably both to the lesser and the greater as the dignity of his office could bear. Mindful of the divine generosity and grace, he daily offered to the Lord his God an upright conscience with a pleasant and charming demeanor.”

            Saint Norbert’s life of conversion did not change the firmness nor the kindness of his character, but changed his scale of values and, therefore, his personal judgment which he followed throughout his life. The change brought about by conversion was the ever growing sense of God’s presence which Norbert experienced while living with Christ as his guide, an experience cultivated by prayerfully celebrating the Eucharist and meditating on Holy Scripture as a practical guideline.

            I would like to highlight a few episodes from Saint Norbert’s life as archbishop, showing his faithfulness to his propositum. They need to be interpreted while taking in account the hagiographic nature of the Vita A, a genre prone to its typical commonplaces. However, the narrative offers lively and probably meaningful details which exceed the conventional hagiography.

            “At Norbert’s approach to the city, the people gathered. All gave thanks that they had deserved to receive a man of holy reputation as the shepherd of their souls. Gazing at the city of Magdeburg, to which he was being led, he entered barefoot. After he was received in the church he entered the palace accompanied by many people. However, since he wore a shabby cloak, he was not recognized and was turned away by the doorkeeper. But when the porter was reprimanded by others, Father Norbert said smiling, “Do not be afraid, you know me better and see me with a clearer eye than those who force me to this palace to which I, poor and simple, ought not be raised.”

            The Vitae underscore Norbert’s reluctance to accept the archiepiscopal office, an accentuation rather inspired by the hagiographic genre than by historical facts, but the episode shows Norbert’s desire to be a bishop in line with the Gregorian reform as he understood it. “Living in a time of upheaval and reform, he first understood this as a call to himself, as an invitation to change his life, to conform more and radically to his calling.”[1] This understanding of reform as implying a call to personal poverty and simplicity is expressed by entering the archiepiscopal city as a poor penitent, but it gets a gentle note in the way he treats the doorkeeper by excusing him when he is reproved by others.

            A similar evangelically inspired humanity appears in the context of the somewhat clumsy attempts to kill the newly appointed archbishop and in the narrative about the last riot against Norbert.

The Vita A has two stories about an attempt to kill Saint Norbert through the hands of a hired killer. The first one is found in the context of the reconciliation of penitents on Holy Thursday. The one sent to murder the archbishop presents himself disguised as a penitent but Norbert unmasks him. His servants find a long sharp knife under the hit man’s garment: “When asked why he had come so armed, the man fell at Norbert’s feet trembling, stunned and fearing death, and confessed that he had been sent to kill the man of God. After hearing the names of those who had hired him to commit the crime, all were amazed that household members and secretaries – men at whose hands official matters were handled – were found to be at the heart of the betrayal. The just Norbert, however, calmly responded that it was no wonder that the ancient enemy was preparing these snares for him, since on this same most sacred night he persuaded the Jews to proceed to the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Norbert was happy that he was found worthy to share in the Lord’s passion, especially on that day when mercy is given to those without hope, pardon to sinners and life to the dead.”

            After a second attempt to take Norbert’s life, the hit man flees but: “…when others were pursuing the fleeing attacker to capture him, the man of God said: ‘let him flee. You should not render evil for evil. He did what he could and what God permitted’.”

            The narratives show how Norbert remains calm and steadfast in this critical situation. The literal imitation of Christ shows itself in his magnanimity towards those who were put forward to commit the crime from which their patrons shrank away. This did not imply that Norbert changed his design to reorganize the management of the diocese. He remained faithful to his plans to reform Magdeburg with the help of his confreres so that it might become a bridgehead of missionary activity in the wide region. But at the same time he wanted to act peacefully, concretely guided by evangelical principles which he did not put aside to reach his goal.

            The attempts to thwart Norbert’s plans to reform the diocese culminated in a big uproar in 1129. The account of these riots can be found in chapters 19 and 20 of the Vita A. Norbert’s adversaries tried to justify their actions with a false accusation (he would have broken altars in order to steal relics) and denied the lawfulness of the transfer of St. Mary’s church to a chapter of Premonstratensians. During the skirmishes, Norbert’s life is said to be endangered several times. During one of the fights a soldier defending the archbishop is severely wounded. Shortly afterwards, partly thanks to the intervention of influential noblemen of the region the conflict is sufficiently appeased to allow Norbert to govern effectively his archdiocese during the five years ahead. The narrative of Vita A about the reconciliation probably gives a truthful account of both the magnanimity and the practical sense of Saint Norbert: “His adversaries gathered contritely and were humbled before him. He received them kindly and demanded only one thing of them, that they immediately be reconciled to his wounded soldier. This they accepted most willingly and repaired the soldier’s ruined house, giving him forty silver marks in compensation for the wound he received.” This attention of Saint Norbert to the factual situation of the common people that surrounded him tells us a lot about the spirit with which he wanted his communities to be inspired. He was not a mere tactician, but remained a shepherd moved by love and compassion for the individual people in his care. This bifocal attention probably contributed to his success as missionary. He succeeded not only to shape but also to inspire a structure that would bear fruit long after his death.

            Abbot General Thomas Handgrätinger summarizes: “…Norbert, who was fully committed to the small and the tangible, never lost sight of the big picture. He turned to the people in front of him, no matter what rank or position he was. If he noticed need or strife, he made it his own concern. If he came across injustice or falsehood, he could activate all powers to help truth to victory and justice to break through.”[2] Norbert was great among the great and humble among the poor because he remained faithful to Christ as his guide in small and tangible things as well as in caring about the “big picture”. May he inspire us to be guided in everything, small and big, by God’s word as he was.

Rome, May 15, 2020

Jos Wouters, abbot-general


[1]THOMAS HANDGRÄTINGER, O. PRAEM., Prämonstratenser. Gemeinsam mit Gott bei den Menschen, 900 Jahre Prémontré – Lust auf Zukunft, Norbertus-Verlag Magdeburg, 2018, p.124.

Feast of Saint Norbert 2020[2]THOMAS HANDGRÄTINGER, O. PRAEM., o.c., 129.

900 year Order of Prémontré

In the The celebration of our Jubilee, nine-hundred years after the first profession of Saint Norbert and his followers on Christmas-day 1121 is for all of us, Norbertine Sisters and Brothers, a precious occasion to re-discover the Charism of our Order. Among the many questions that may be asked, one question is fundamental. Have we been faithful to this Charism? To expect a “yes or no” answer on this question would be naive. Some questions just remain questions, rather to be asked than to be answered. In order to live with this question we have to live consciously our contact with the Spirit who inspired Saint Norbert against the background of our time, in the reality that surrounds us. The question remains because it is the echo of our commitment to our vocation, which is never totally accomplished.

The life of Saint Norbert shows us how he was moved by the Spirit to lead an apostolic life. The vita apostolica is a theme that inspired many movements of Church-reform in the twelfth century. Moved by the desire to return to the sources of Christianity, preachers went from one village to the next, preaching to the people. They shaped their way of life by following the Gospel literally and attracted many followers. According to Herman of Tournai, the author one of the first sources on the life of Saint Norbert, none of these preachers gathered so many followers as Norbert did. Clerics and lay-people, men and women alike. The same chronicler expresses his admiration when he relates the settlement in Prémontré and the enormous growth of the new institution. He writes that he knew of more than a thousand women who entered into the Praemonstratensian houses. The presence of sisters in our Order is one of the striking features from the very beginning.

A Charism is perhaps in the first place an inspired intuition, a longing to return to the sources. While it develops and searches ways to express itself in a structured way it necessarily clashes with laws, conventions and expectations. Herman of Tournai highlights the ascetic lifestyle of the first Praemonstratensian sisters. He praises their fasting, their cloistered life, their coarse vestments and their charitable activities. Filip of Harvengt, abbot of Bonne-Espérance Abbey in Hainaut also highlights these characteristics in his description of the life of Oda, the prioress of Rivereuille, the nunnery founded by Bonne-Espérance. Not unlike the canons, Oda set an example, teaching by word and by the way she led her life. Demonstrating by her wisdom and love of the poor she was as a light on a standard, shining beyond the walls of the monastery . In the life of this early Praemonstratensian sister, the apostolic life found a way of expression within the limited space that conventional religious life left to women twelfth century.

This booklet provides some information about the development of the sisters’ communities which sprang from the encounters of Norbertine Charism with the various local and historical events. All are real and genuine expressions of our Charism. Divided over several institutes, they are one within the Praemonstratensian family.

Have we been faithful to Norbert’s Charism? Can we use this Jubilee to deepen our understanding of it? Can we grow in fidelity? Surely, thinking about our spiritual patrimony as a reality that would be incomplete if not lived by communities of sisters and of brothers united in the international communion of the Praemonstratensian family, is an essential element in the awareness concerning this fundamental question.

Jos Wouters, o.praem abbot-general
Roma, October 8, 2019

Christmas message from General Abbot

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

“God loved the world so much that he gave up his only Son so that each one who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3,16)

This verse has often been qualified as the summary of the essence of christian faith. It expresses what we celebrate at Christmas.

God’s love for the world is a tremendous mystery, since the world often appears as all but lovable. The world is a messy place, lost, godforsaken. Highly problematic and ambiguous. A place of suffering and conflict, for many people a valley of tears.

Some would like to escape from it in one way or another, or only to forget about it even for a short time, creating somehow their own private temporary paradise where the burdens of life are not felt. Some would do anything to make the world a better place, hoping and toiling for a better future. We all recognize the endless potentialities of the world, knowing we will not be able to realize them.

In fact, when thinking about the world, we think about what we, human beings are doing to it, what we are making out of it. So does Holy Scripture. Biblical scholars tell us that “God loved the world so much” refers to God’s love for every human being without distinction. Loving the world implies love for sinners, for people wounded by weakness and evil. It is not so much “the world” that is loved, but our world: we.

To this world he has come as a light shining forth the Father’s goodness and humanity. Jesus is God’s love for our world, lived and shown in a human person. God incarnate. God coming to this world as man, as a servant, as a small child in a manger. His presence among us changes the world. It changes us who believe in him.

Contemplating Jesus in the crib we find rest and serenity for we are literally touched by divine love. Love for me as an individual, for our community, and indeed for the world. We learn to accept the world we live in for it is the place where he chose to be, the place where his love remains present for us and for those who will come after us.

Contemplating Jesus in the crib we find healing and forgiveness for he reveals the deepest reality: the Father who loves us and opens up the space in which we can become his children: “so that each one who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

An authentic meeting with God changes us for we cannot believe in him as the Father of Jesus and therefore “Our Father” without believing that other human beings are our brothers and sisters. Contemplating Jesus in the crib we learn to love the world as he loves it.

Contemplating Jesus in the crib we rediscover our canonical charism in all its freshness, finding God in this world among people, who are so much loved by him.

I wish all of you a holy celebration of the mystery of incarnation.

Jos Wouters, abbot-general