St. Norbert — — known, among many other things, for his deep reverence for the Holy Eucharist and faithful devotion to the Blessed Mother – founded his first monastery in 1121.
Nine hundred years after the Norbertine community was established in Germany’s Premontre Valley, the 90 members of Orange County’s Norbertine community continue their order’s revered traditions.
Providentially, during this jubilee year they have dedicated the stunning new St. Michael’s Abbey in a large complex nestled on 40 acres of tranquil Silverado Canyon hills.
On May 4, they formally blessed the abbey, which was financed by a fundraising effort that attracted $120 million. On Oct. 30, the order held a retreat centered on St. Norbert’s life, including the blessing of Norbertine relics from the abbey’s main altar.
Even more recently, an icon was installed in the abbey. It depicts St. Norbert surrounded by 12 scenes of his life and order and was commissioned by Abbot Eugene Hayes and produced by Orange County Norbertine Fr. Peregrine Fletcher.
After nine centuries, why are the Norbertines still relevant and inspirational to Catholics and important in the life of the Catholic Church?
The Norbertines and their way of life have survived and thrived for centuries, acknowledges the abbey’s Father Ambrose Criste, O.PRAEM., novice master and director of formation, because they
share a stable charism that God has given to the Catholic Church, through the inspiration of Sts. Augustine and Norbert.
“The monastic priesthood is enduring in the Church because the Church needs it, and the Lord always provides it. Common worship, meals at a common table and priests living in community are the central features of our order,” Fr. Criste explained. “We call it the apostolic life, and it’s patterned after the priesthood that St. Norbert reinvigorated in the 11th century.”
The young men who join the Norbertines want their lives to be meaningful, to serve others and to dedicate themselves to prayer.
“These young men want to be heroes,” he said. “They don’t want to live their lives by halves. It’s a difficult, polarizing and lonely world, and these men want to join orders that live a common life and celebrate the liturgy solemnly.”
Lay people, he said, appreciate what the Norbertines bring to the Church.
“They want us around. They see the faithful celebration of the Mass at the hands of Norbertine priests.” St. Norbert began his work during the time of Pope Gregory VII, who was a leader in the movement to reform the Catholic Church, Fr. Criste said. Norbert was ordained in 1115, giving his possessions to the poor and becoming an itinerant preacher, traveling through Europe barefoot in the middle of winter, before founding his order. He displayed a gift for living in peace, even with wild beasts. He was made archbishop of Magdeburg in 1126, five years after founding the order.
In centuries since, the order has survived many bad periods, including both the French Revolution and the Thirty Years War, among many other travails.
Today, the Norbertine order numbers more than 1,300 members worldwide, including priests, sisters, brothers, deacons and novices. Norbertine abbeys, priories and convents are established and active in 23 countries.
Locally, the Norbertine fathers operate St. John the Baptist Church and school in Costa Mesa, serve in many parishes, teach and minister to a variety of Orange County communities, Fr. Criste noted.
“The Church is always in need of reform and renewal,” he said. “We continue to do our best to supply the need for holy priests to renew the church.”
Established in 1961, the original St. Michael’s Abbey was in nearby Modjeska Canyon. It was founded by seven priests fleeing communist oppression in Hungary.
In Orange County, the order has grown so much that it required the new abbey, which is built on 327 acres of former ranchland and includes a convent for the Rosarian Dominican sisters, monastery, guest wing, conference center, cemetery and cemetery chapel, and vineyards, as well as many acres of trails preserved as wilderness and often used for silent prayer.
“God blesses us at this monastery so richly,” Fr. Criste observed. “We have grown so quickly and so much that we had to build this new abbey; we’re already outgrowing it.
“Today we have 39 men studying for the priesthood, expanding ministries, and more vocations to serve God’s people in this beautiful way of life,” he added.
The canons regular, or Norbertine fathers and novices, pray seven times a day in St. Michael’s Abbey, beginning at 5:45 each morning and ending at 9:45 each evening.
“Our job is to be the professional prayer powerhouse of the Church,” Fr. Criste explained.
Officially, their jubilee is marked on Christmas Day, when the Orange County Norbertines will vest nine new novices and worship with a beautiful new monstrance commissioned for exposing the Blessed Sacrament. The order will continue to celebrate their anniversary with special Advent and Christmas activities. Catholics gain indulgences by praying in the holy abbey.
“We want to welcome everyone to celebrate with us all that God has done for us recently and in the last 900 years,” Fr. Criste declared.