A very old order in the Church, the Canons Regular of Prémontré are celebrating the 900th anniversary of their foundation in 2021. The order was founded by St. Norbert (1080-1134), a native of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Son of a large family, Norbert became canon of the collegiate church of Xanten. At that time, the canons lived in community.
St. Norbert was seeking the holiness of the clergy, and wished to renew the religious life of the time. To prayer, to common life, to poverty, and to the ascetic life, he wanted to add an apostolic and missionary dimension.
The founder chose the Rule of St. Augustine for this purpose: the foundation was therefore canonical and not monastic. But the reform within the existing canons did not really succeed.
In 1121, St. Norbert Xanten settled in the forest of Saint-Gobain, at a place called Prémontré, entrusted to him by the Bishop of Laon, where he founded a new community. Vocations poured in and priories multiplied.
Five years later, Norbert was elected Archbishop of Magdeburg. He was succeeded as abbot by the Belgian, Hugues de Fosse, a friend of St. Bernard and admirer of Cîteaux.
The new abbot adopted a cloistered form of life and the Cistercian constitutions, which he admired. The order then assumed its original form: a monastic aspect, a particular liturgy, and an apostolic specificity.
Soon, the bishops began to entrust them with churches around their abbeys. In France there were from five to ten parishes around each abbey, sometimes more.
In the 13th century, the order numbered 600 to 700 communities, as far as the Holy Land. Premonstratensians [also called Norbertines] were very much present in Northern Europe, Cîteaux more in the South.
Some abbeys were home to 200 canons, and in some up to 1,000, but the average number of brothers per abbey was more in the order of twenty to thirty.
One of the great innovations of the Premonstratensians was its system of geographic connection, which would be adopted by the new orders: the “circary,” which corresponds to the mendicant orders’ provinces.
The territory corresponding to present-day France then had about ten circaries, chaired by an abbot “circator” (who “circulates”), responsible for watching over all the communities.
Then came difficult times from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries linked to the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion, to which were added epidemics and unrest of all kinds. Material insecurity brought about a change in mentality: it was no longer about living, but about surviving.
In the monasteries, discipline was relaxed, and the rigor of the ascetic life was no longer practiced. The general chapter of the order and its canonical visits were no longer functioning normally. National conflicts blocked the borders.
In some regions, such as Bohemia during the Hussite Wars, all abbeys were wiped off the map. In England, in 1538, Henry VIII suppressed all the monasteries.
In France, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, the monasteries were looted, set on fire, and struggled to recover. There were martyrs among the Premonstratensians, as in other orders. In Germany, all the institutions were destroyed when the prince of a state became Lutheran.
At the time of the Revolution, the order had 90 abbeys in France and 700 parishes.
In the 19th century, after the turmoil, the order struggled to revive. It doubtless lacked a great refounder, like Dom Guéranger for the Benedictines or Fr. Lacordaire for the Dominicans.
Moreover, the restoration came late, in the middle of the Second Empire (1858), while the Benedictines and the Dominicans were reconstituted in the 1830s. When the new persecution with the expulsions of 1880 arrived, the refoundation was too fragile.
In 1870, in the wake of the convocation of the First Vatican Council, the order resumed its yesteryear appearance by once again equipping itself with an abbot and a general chapter. It became involved in the missions at the end of the 19th century.
German and Dutch abbeys were founded in the United States and India. But today, the order remains modest with 1,500 Premonstratensians in the world.