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

Feast of Saint Norbert 2019

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

The solemnity of Saint Norbert, whom we venerate as one of those who restored canonical life to its original purity, is an occasion to refresh the original charism of our Order. Reading his life we discover how Norbert tried to live the Gospel. In this letter I will consider one episode of Norbert’s life that struck me in a particular way.

The vita of Saint Norbert tells us how he was attacked by his adversaries on various issues during the council at Fritzlar. The episode takes place shortly after his conversion. “They wanted to know why he had usurped the office of preacher and why he was wearing a religious habit although he was still living on his own and had not entered religious life, why he was wearing sheep or goat skins while still in the world.” Although he counters the attacks, Norbert nevertheless takes them seriously and unnerves them by requesting from Pope Gelasius, whom he met in St. Gilles, the permission to preach everywhere which is granted him “in writing”. “He asked and received pardon for the canonical offense committed when he received the two sacred orders at the same time,” thus anticipating perhaps possible reproaches that are not recorded in the account of the events in Fritzlar. But Norbert does not waver concerning his religious vocation. His answer to this reproach at the council of Fritzlar is striking: “If I am questioned about religious life, religion, pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: ‘to visit widows and orphans in their tribulation and to keep oneself pure from this world’.” (Jas 1: 27)

The quotation from Saint James’ epistle is somewhat unexpected in this context, for it expresses two things about authentic religious life. To keep oneself pure from this world is a classical theme that can be applied to all types of religious life. Visiting widows and orphans in their tribulation is not. It is as if Saint Norbert says that one keeps oneself pure from this world by looking after those who are marginalized and in a certain way are expelled from this world, not by their free choice but because of their position in society. From the vita appears that Saint Norbert regarded a certain commitment in society as an integral element of an authentic religious life. He does not only vest himself in sheep- or goatskins as a sign of mortification but also as a signal that he chose the side of those who could only afford cheap clothing.

This aspect of Norbert’s life appears not only from the story that he gave the income he gained from selling his inherited possessions to the poor, along with the small amount of silver he retained for himself. This could be considered as a commonplace in hagiography since exactly the same is recorded in Athanasius’ life of Saint Anthony the great. It appears in a more original way when Saint Norbert is depicted as a man of peace and reconciliation. In the description about the flaring feud in Gembloux between two noble families, the author of the vita A soberly words the consequences of this ongoing local war from the point of view of the local peasants: “In this region there were also two princes who had reduced almost everything to a wasteland because of their incessant fighting, plundering, and burning. When the man of God heard this, moved by the cry of the people and taking pity on their destitution he went to those leaders…” Norbert is listened to by one of these, as is said, because of his poor appearance and his unassuming behavior. It is not difficult to hear in this description the echo of Mt. 9: 36 about Jesus’ compassion with the people.

May this attitude inspire our hearts and our minds in the choices that lay before us. How do we express divine compassion in our communities in the region where we live and eventually beyond? Let this celebration of the solemnity of Saint Norbert inspire us to be ever more his followers in a truly religious life.

Wishing all of you a blessed celebration.

In unity of prayer,

Jos Wouters, abbot-general