They Live In An Abbey—But They Are Not Monks

J.A.F. Kronenburg, “Sint Norbertus” (1900)
J.A.F. Kronenburg, “Sint Norbertus” (1900) (photo: Public Domain)

Indeed, they do live in an abbey, under an abbot (from the Hebrew “abba” and the Latin “abbas” meaning “father”), but they are not monks. They are “Canons”. Specifically “Canons Regular”. Or, in this particular case, even more precisely “Canons Regular of Prémontré”, variously nicknamed “Praemonstraensians” or “Norbertines” (after their founder) or “White Canons.” Again: they are not monks. They are Canons.

But what is a “Canon”?

Like the metric system or soccer or Formula One motor racing there are some ideas that flourish throughout Europe and yet never find the same sort of home (or acceptance) in America. Canons are a bit like that: like the metric system and soccer and Formula One, they do certainly exist, to a lesser extent in the United States via Europe—in the case of the Norbertines, via France. And the Netherlands. And Hungary.

Canons Regular are confusing for the American mind right out of the gate in that they are distinct from Canons (of a Cathedral Chapter, who are secular priests, another rarity in the U.S.) and Clerks (or Clerics) Regular, who, unlike Canons Regular do not live in an Abbey. The Barnabites and the Adorno Fathers are examples of Clerks Regular.

The word “Regular” here refers to “The Rule” the Canons follow, and in the case of the Canons Regular of Prémontré, it’s the ancient Rule of Saint Augustine that is their controlling document which dates back to the 5th century.

Thus canons are clerics sharing some form of common life, prayer, and pastoral care in and from one particular church for life, e.g., a cathedral or collegiate church or in this case, an abbatial church. Monks, unlike canons, need not be clerics (for example: lay brothers are not clerics, but are often monks). Canons regular are consecrated religious who promise by solemn vow to live the life of canons according to the Rule and they make a solemn vow to remain in service to the abbey church of their profession for life (the vow of stability). This distinguishes them from monks whose vow of stability is made to the monastic community.

The idea of putting all of the above together and making a working arrangement out of it belongs to the singular genius St. Norbert (1080 -1134, Feast June 6), who had conversion experiences like St. Paul  (he, too, was thrown from his horse) and St. Francis of Assisi (Norbert, like Francis, turned his back on the world of bilk and money). Also like those two great saints, Norbert had a bit of a peripatetic streak in him. Indeed, Pope Gelasius II gave Norbert to preach the gospel wherever he chose.

Norbert was truly one of the Church’s great reformers, and a contemporary of two others, St. Bernard (who founded the Cistercians, a reformation of the Benedictine Monks) and Pope Honorius II, who championed both of these great saints. While St. Bernard was busy reforming the Benedictines into Cistercians (that is, the monastic life), Norbert had something truly different on his busy hands: gathering a group of Canons who would live by the Augustinian Rule, but while living in an abbey, they would work out in the world. And Norbert was also charged with the spiritual well-being of the laity of the surrounding environs.

What Norbert proposed was a model of balance between the contemplative life (Canons recite the Divine Office together in choir) and the active life (working in parishes, schools, and hospitals). It’s a balance that affords a wide interpretation to this day and in the four Norbertine Abbeys in the United States, one can see the differences in the balance. And balance in difference.

The first successful foundation of Norbertines in the United States is St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin (in the Diocese of Green Bay). It was founded by members of Berne Abbey in The Netherlands who came to this country in 1893. The ministries of this abbey include education and parish work, a thriving Spirituality Center, chaplaincies and prison ministry. St. Norbert College, also in De Pere, Wisconsin, is the only Norbertine institution of higher education in the world. St. Moses the Black Priory is Raymond, Mississippi is a dependent priory of St. Norbert Abbey.

St. Norbert Abbey’s first independent daughter house is Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pennsylvania (in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia). The Norbertines of Daylesford also serve in a successful Spirituality Center, parish apostolate, and chaplaincies.

Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey in Albuquerque, New Mexico is St. Norbert Abbey’s second daughter house. The ministry of this community is centered on pastoral care in a large urban parish and at one of the oldest pueblos in the Americas.

Finally, St. Michael’s Abbey of Orange, California traces its lineage back to the Abbey of Csorna in Hungary. The canons of St. Michael’s are deeply invested in secondary education and parish ministry. This community has been richly blessed with young vocations and is in the process of building an entirely new abbey complex where its rich liturgical life can be fully celebrated. St. Michael’s is perhaps the most “contemplative” version of Norbertine spirituality in the United States: all of the seven Hours of the Divine Office are recited together, as is the Holy Rosary, and, naturally, Holy Mass.

One of the truly unmistakable marks of a Canon Regular of Prémontré is their habit: it is almost an exact replica of what the pope wears! The white vesture is said to have been given directly to Saint Norbert by the Blessed Virgin in a vision, and save for the papal sash, is pretty much what you see the pope in: a white tunic, scapular, sash and short cape. They may also wear a white biretta. Not for nothing are the Norbertines sometimes called, a bit derisively, “the little popes”.

The Norbertines also have a sister order of nuns, known as “canonesses”—two of whom, Blessed Bronislawa and Emilia Podoska—are on track for sainthood, as are Norbertines Blessed James Kern and Hugh of Fosse.

Further, in an effort to expand vocations, Norbertines are generous almost to a fault: when I was a Norbertine Affiliate, living with the Canons in their Priory, the Abbot told me, “Kevin, my job is to help you find your place in this church—whether as a Norbertine of this Canonry or another abbey, or a member of a religious order, or a diocesan priest, or a married man.” And he meant it: sensing that I was not a perfect fit for Saint Norbert’s, the abbot sent me to visit ALL the other Norbertine Abbeys, plus additional visits to Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn—trips which the abbey paid for.

Ultimately, I wound up a married man, but that balance of the active and contemplative has stayed with me—as has my devotion to that great Saint, Norbert who saw something in the poverty of the soil of Prémontré, France, where he founded his first abbey, which gave birth to an Order that is nearly 900 years old and is one of the very few pre-Reformation orders that has never undergone a major fracture (cf. the Franciscans: Capuchin, Conventual, T.O.R., and the Benedictines: Cistercians, Camaldolese, Trappists).

A final note on Norbert: like Saint Bruno, the founder of the Carthusians who predated Norbert’s birth by about 50 years and died when Norbert was 20, Norbert was a bit of a victim of his own success. Like St. Bruno before him, Norbert was admired and much sought after by the popes he served under. Thus, due to obedience and against his own will, Norbert was consecrated Archbishop of Magdeburg, Germany and was translated from his beloved valley of Prémontré, France to the Eastern hinterlands of Germania (as St. Bruno was removed from his beloved Grand Chartreuse in France to the Vatican and finally to Calabria, Italy) and he died in his Episcopal see, not his abbey, which he never saw again. Norbert’s devotion to the supreme pontiff was only surpassed by his love for Jesus in the blessed sacrament—which is why he is often shown holding a monstrance.