Norbert, the son of Count Heribert, was born in Germany around the year 1080. He was a good child and teenager. But when he went to live at the court of Emperor Henry V, Norbert really changed. He was anxious to be given positions of honor. He was the first to arrive at parties and celebrations. All he ever thought about was having fun.
Then one day, while Norbert was riding across a field, a sudden storm came up. A flash of lightning struck the ground in front of him. His horse bolted. Norbert was thrown to the ground and knocked unconscious. When he woke, he began to think seriously about the way his life was going. He felt that God was very near. Norbert realized that the Lord was offering him the grace to change for the better. He decided to become a priest. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1115.
Father Norbert worked hard to make others turn from their worldly ways. He gave everyone a good example by selling all he had to give the money to the poor. Norbert became the founder of a religious congregation for the spreading of the faith. His original group included thirteen men. They lived as a community in the valley of Premontre. That is why they were called Premonstratensians. Today the members are also called Norbertines, in honor of their founder, Norbert.
Norbert was chosen bishop of the city of Magdeburg. He entered the city wearing very poor clothes and no shoes. The porter at the door of the bishop’s house didn’t know him and refused to let him in. He told the bishop to go and join the other beggars. “But he is our new bishop!” shouted those who knew the saint. The porter was shocked and very sorry. “Never mind, dear brother,” Norbert said kindly. “You judge me more correctly than those who brought me here.”
Norbert had to clarify a false teaching that denied the real presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. His beautiful words about our Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament brought the people back to their holy faith. In March, 1133, Norbert and his great friend, St. Bernard (whose feast is celebrated on August 20) walked in an unusual procession. When Anacletus II claimed to be the pope, they joined the emperor and his army to accompany the true pope, Innocent II, safely to the Vatican.
Norbert died in 1134. Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed him a saint in 1582.
From the life of Saint Norbert, bishop
At ease in the company of the humble and great – (The words in quotation marks have been taken from the biography of Saint Norbert, written by a Premonstratensian canon who was a contemporary of the saint. Pope Innocent’s Apostolic Letter was issued under leaden seal to Saint Norbert on June 5, 1133).
Norbert is deservedly numbered by historians among those who made an effective contribution to the reform movement under Pope Gregory VII. He established a clergy dedicated to the ideals of the Gospel and the apostolic Church. They were chaste and poor. They wore “the clothing and the symbols of the new man; that is to say, they wore the religious habit and exhibited the dignity proper to the priesthood.” Norbert asked them “to live according to the norms of the Scriptures with Christ as their model.” They were “to be clean in all matters pertaining to the altar and divine worship, to correct their faults and failings in their chapter meeting, and to care for and give shelter to the poor.”
The priests lived in community, where they continued the work of the apostles. Inspired by the practice of the early Church, Norbert exhorted the faithful to join the monastic life in some capacity. So many men and women responded to the invitation that many asserted that no man since the apostles themselves had inspired so many to embrace the monastic life.
When Norbert was appointed an archbishop, he urged his brothers to carry the faith to the lands of the Wends. In his own diocese he tried unsuccessfully to convince the clergy of the need for reform and was confronted with noisy protests both in the street and in the church.
One of the principal goals of Norbert’s life was to foster harmony between the Apostolic See and the German empire. At the same time he wanted to maintain Rome’s freedom in the matter of ecclesiastical appointments. Apparently his efforts were so successful that Pope Innocent II thanked him profusely in a letter in which he called him a “devoted son,” and Lothair made him chancellor of the realm.
Norbert did all these things with a steadfast faith: “Faith was the outstanding virtue of Norbert’s life, as charity had been the hallmark of Bernard of Clairvaux’s.” Affable and charming, amiable to one and all, “he was at ease in the company of the humble and the great alike.” Finally, he was a most eloquent preacher; after long meditation “he would preach the word of God, and with his fiery eloquence purged vices, refined virtues and filled souls of good will with the warmth of wisdom.” He spent many hours in contemplation of the divine mysteries and fearlessly spread the spiritual insights which were the fruit of his meditation.