Many medieval knights were hired, thugs. Paid to keep order in an age devoid of cops and roiling with brutality, they often targeted innocent people with their capricious cruelty and violent behavior.
Through this dark and bloody feudal world strode a lanky missionary preacher doggedly pressing for peace and mercy: Norbert of Xanten. Confronted with demoralized clergy and enslaved serfs, Norbert had plenty of work to do. But he wasn’t alone. In his travels, he encountered many like-minded reformers. In Paris, there were the Canons of St. Victor, parish clergy who adopted the ascetic ideals of William of Champagne. At Clairvaux and Citeaux there were monks whose churches had plain wooden crosses and bare walls. And there was the Cistercian administrative system, which created an international federation of monasteries with centralized power but independent houses.
Like that of the Roman Catholic order Norbert started, which next year celebrates its 900th anniversary in a series of jubilee events scheduled to kick off this fall, the headstrong preacher’s story is full of twists, trials, and triumphs, and it has no end. Norbert’s legacy lives on, in the dozens of abbeys and priories from the United States to Poland and the communities they enrich, where life is lived in an intentional community in service to the common good, countercultural as that may seem. And the Norbertine way is as relevant and appealing today as it ever was, despite the order’s having endured many challenges and perils since Norbert established the first abbey in 1121.
Today the Norbertine order numbers more than 1,300 members worldwide, including priests, sisters, brothers, deacons, and novices, and Norbertine abbeys, priories, and convents are established and active in 23 countries.
“They’re in North and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe – influencing the lives of a multitude of peoples and cultures,” says Father James P. Herring of Immaculate Conception Priory, in Middletown, Delaware. In the United States, Norbertine foundations are in De Pere, Wisconsin, and Chicago, Illinois; Paoli, Pennsylvania, and Middletown, Delaware; Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Silverado, California.
History hasn’t always been kind to the Norbertines, however. Among the more difficult periods, they had to navigate was the bloodbath of the French Revolution, which fomented hatred toward the Catholic Church and innumerable priests. Religious and lay Catholics both were killed, including St. Pierre-Adrien Toulorge, who spent most of the Revolution in hiding so he could celebrate Holy Mass and the sacraments in secret, sparing the lives of his flock. Toulorge was arrested on Sept. 2, 1793, and sentenced to the guillotine. His dying words: “God, I beg you to forgive my enemies.”
The Thirty Years War (1018-1648) saw the destruction of many houses; In all, about 90 abbeys were shuttered during the French Revolution.
“With that kind of history, to have made it 900 years – it’s something just to celebrate the fact that you’ve survived,” says Daylesford Abbey’s Father Andrew Ciferni, chair of the board of trustees at St. Norbert College in De Pere.
And yet, as it always has been, Norbert’s vision of the world is being tested still today, says Father Bradley R. Vanden Branden of St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin.
“A more immediate challenge is how to live a life in common amid so much polarization,” Vanden Branden says. “We’ve become so fractured and divisive. . .. I would hope in 50 years we would still be seen as an example of living a common life.”
While we live in a very different time than St. Norbert, his teachings that laid the foundation of the Norbertine order are needed in equal measure in our world as was needed in his world. Difficult times, divisions between people, and the need for reconciliation remain just as apparent today. The Norbertine order has endured the test of time, as evident by the fact we are celebrating 900 years as a religious order.
Daylesford Abbey is seeking anyone interested in living a life like that of St. Norbert. If you are interested in pursuing a vocation and are ready to begin the journey to the Catholic priesthood, contact Abbot Domenic A. Rossi for further information at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 610-647-2530.