This year, Christmas Midnight Mass will mark exactly 900 years since St Norbert and his first followers made their vows at Midnight Mass in 1121 and so founded the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré.
One question which is often asked about us is “What is your charism?” My novice master would always answer that we were founded before the idea of having “charisms” became fashionable. There is, of course, a distinctive spirt of Prémontré and the Order has tried to live this through so many twists and turns of history.
St Norbert was born around the year 1080 in the town of Xanten near Cologne. As a young cleric he lived at the court of the emperor. Like many, he was distracted by life at the Imperial Court and neglected his religious life.
However, in the year 1115, Norbert was thrown from his horse. At that moment he heard the words of the Psalmist: “Turn away from evil and do good.” He immediately began to live the life of a penitent and preaching the Word of God.
This did not win him many friends and he was condemned by some bishops as a mad fool. Thankfully he was blessed by the pope who gave him enthusiastic support.
St Norbert spent time looking for the right place to build a monastery. He eventually chose a valley in the north of France called Prémontré. Here he had a vision of our crucified Saviour who revealed to him that this would be a place where the gospel would shine out across the world.
In 1121, St Norbert established his new religious Order. He chose for his followers the Rule of St Augustine. The new monastery quickly became known for its poverty, for its intense liturgical life and for its fidelity to the Augustinian rule.
On 25 July 1126, St Norbert was ordained Archbishop of Magdeburg. His labours and travels took a toll on his health and he died on 6 June 1134. St Norbert is usually depicted with the cross and pallium of an archbishop, and holding a monstrance, recalling his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
The Order founded by him is known by different names. Our official title is “The Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré”, but we are also known as the “Norbertines”, after our holy founder, and as the “Premonstratensians”, after our mother house in France. In England we are known as the “White Canons” because of the colour of our habit.
The heart of our life is built upon what we characterise as the “five pillars” of our life as canons regular:
Laus Deo in Choro – the praise of God through the chanting of the Divine Office and the solemn celebration of the Holy Mass has always been a hallmark of our life. Pope Pius XI said of the Order: “Just as bishops have their canons delegated to offer public prayer in their diocese, in the same way you are my canons, not just for one diocese, but for the universal Church.”
Zelus animarum – zeal for souls, or the care of souls, is at the heart of our life. The Order, especially in England, has the care of parishes, but “we remain ready for any good work” (the motto of our Order).
Spiritus iugis penitentiæ – the spirit of habitual penance is an essential part of our life. The confreres live a life of poverty to help them become worthy pastors of souls.
Cultus Eucharisticus – devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The Holy Eucharist was the centre of St Norbert’s life. Pope Pius XI said of us: “Your Order is gloriously Eucharistic, and Eucharistically glorious.”
Cultus Marianus – the love of Our Lady. St Norbert wished that his canons should honour and venerate in a special way the most Holy Mother of God, the Patroness of his Order. Our Lady gave St Norbert the white habit which his canons wear in her honour.
According to the words of St John Paul II, the Order today is called by God, in the spirit of Our Holy Father Norbert, to:
Make the holy sacrifice of the Mass the source of their strength and happiness.
Hold high the Eucharist over all the miseries and errors of this world.
Bring truth, certainty and love to the people of today, binding them closely to the presence of Jesus in the Mass.
Witness to the world around it the values which are eternal and transcendent.
Guide and love the people amongst whom the canons work.
Be ever faithful to the Catholic Church. Foster in everyone a love for the Immaculate Virgin Mary.
The list from St John Paul is perhaps not so much a charism as it is basic Christianity, ideals we are all called towards.
Please spare a prayer for our Order at Midnight Mass this Christmas. Please pray that the Order will continue to build upon the last 900 years, giving glory to God and ever seeking the salvation of souls. St Norbert, pray for us!
Abbot Hugh Allan is Apostolic Administrator of the Prefecture of the Falkland Islands
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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