Smart and good looking, “Norbert’s eyes and ears were open only for things of the world,” as one biographer put it. That ended one summer day when a sudden storm dropped a lightning bolt at the feet of the horse Norbert was riding. The lightning scorched the grass and spooked his horse, throwing the young German nobleman to the ground.
Waking up an hour later, Norbert felt the emptiness of his life flash before his eyes. Norbert said, “Lord, what would you have me do?” The answer he heard was, “Turn from evil and do good; seek after peace, and pursue it (Ps 34:14).” Norbert traded his velvet overcoat for a hair shirt—and a saint was in the making.
Norbert went on to become Archbishop of Magdeburg (Germany) and founder of the Order of Praemonstratensians (named for Prémontré, France)—also called Norbertines.
Norbert is known as the Apostle of the Blessed Sacrament and is often portrayed holding a ciborium. This portrayal is fitting because Norbert spent his life promoting devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist during an age in which this truth was challenged. It’s also fitting because Norbert became what all Christians are called to be—a living ciborium in whom Jesus has increased while we have decreased (cf John 3:30).
As we anticipate next week’s Feast of Corpus Christi, we look to Norbert as an example of what a Eucharistic life looks like. Norbert modeled the Eucharistic Jesus in four powerful ways.
The Eucharistic Jesus is Hidden
Jesus hides himself as a little piece of bread in the Eucharist. Following a vision of the Blessed Virgin, Norbert built his first monastery in what one historian called “the desert of Prémontré,” north of Paris. Everyone thought he was foolish to found the Order in such a remote, hidden, and barren place, but he trusted that it would, in God’s time, bear abundant fruit for the Kingdom.
The Eucharistic Jesus is Humble
After his election as Archbishop, Norbert made his way in penitential attire to the Episcopal Palace, where the porter rudely shut the door in his face, thinking he was a tramp. When the porter realized his mistake, Norbert only smiled and said, “Fear not, my good man, for you know me better than all those who have raised me to this high dignity.”
The Eucharistic Jesus is Vulnerable to Misunderstanding
Norbert was fearless in speaking truth in an era of laxity. Shortly after his conversion, he told his confreres in the monastery in what ways they were not living up to the holiness of their calling. He converted some and, not surprisingly, was attacked by many. When he was Archbishop, a resentful mob even threatened to kill him. “Calumny,” Norbert told his followers, “is the test of a patient and generous heart, which bears with it rather than to give up working for God.”
The Eucharistic Jesus Gives Himself to be Consumed by Those He Loves
Norbert’s perseverance in self-giving is legendary. He walked barefoot in the winter from Germany to France (where he received a mission to preach from Pope Gelasius himself), never taking food until evening except on Sundays and never going anywhere except to preach conversion of heart and reform of morals. At the end of his life, he was in extreme pain and emaciated from fasting and fever, having spent himself for the glory of God and the good of souls. Still, he roused himself to celebrate Easter Mass, the last of his life.
Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” St. Norbert’s life was a thanksgiving for God’s stunning mercy in having saved him from the hell-bound path of his youth. He reminds us to remain grateful for God’s mercy so we become ever more inspired to pour ourselves out in imitation of the Eucharistic Jesus.
St. Norbert, pray for us!
In his final words as Supreme Pontiff, Benedict XVI reminded us from the balcony of Castel Gandolfo that he was “simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on Earth.” In doing so, he reminded us, the faithful, that we too are on an earthly pilgrimage. Benedict’s goal, as well as ours, is the Kingdom of Heaven. As pilgrims, we travel around and seek the ways that will lead us to our destination. Though at times we go down the wrong path, we trust that, having faith in God, He will always bring us back to our goal, to be with Him. Thus, we are truly a “Pilgrim Church,” a community of believers on a voyage to Christ.
This past Sunday, we celebrated the great solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, also known as Corpus Christi. The history of the feast goes back all the way to the early 1200s in modern day Belgium. St. Juliana of Liege, a Norbertine canoness, had a vision of a full moon with a dark spot. The spot, she believed, represented the absence of a feast dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament outside the season of Lent. After reporting her visions to her confessor and bishop, the bishop instituted such a feast in the diocese in 1247. Several years later, Pope Urban IV extended the celebration to the universal church in 1261. It was he who requested St. Thomas Aquinas to write hymns for the feast day. We know them today as the Pange Lingua and Panis Angelicus. Urban successors, most especially Clement V in 1311, reinforced the original decree and promoted the observance of the feast.
One of the most beautiful and traditional aspects of the celebration is the procession of the congregation behind the Eucharist encased in a monstrance. On a personal note, this day has always been one of my favorites growing up. I loved walking with my family and friends around the church building (often stopping traffic!), all following our pastor holding the monstrance up as high as he could.
In many ways, the Corpus Christi procession mirrors our pilgrimage (our procession) on earth. Together, with other members of the faithful, we are led toward God, whose real presence on earth is in the Eucharist. The Most Blessed Sacrament is the point in which heaven and earth meet. Not only is it our guide on earth, but also our guide to heaven. Processing around, following the Eucharist is a reminder that what we do on earth can lead us to an everlasting reward. By receiving the Eucharist, we are given the strength (both spiritual and physical) to continue on our earthly journey. As St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote, “Per tuas semitas duc nos quo tendimus, ad lucem quam inhabitas” (By your ways lead us to where we are going, to the light where you live.)
Victor David is a recent graduate of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.