The Priestly Spirituality of St Josemaria and St Norbert
When the Church sets before us the example of a Saint to admire and imitate, we can become easily discouraged by trying to imitate the wrong things. We can certainly admire a Saint for his heroic virtues, charismatic gifts, and extraordinary mystical experiences. But the first thing we have to reckon with is a soul surrendered to God. Of all the things to ponder and imitate, it is that surrender more than anything else which is imitable for us. Not everyone can do exactly what the Saints each did in their own historical circumstances, but we can all do the one thing that made their lives so fruitful: give ourselves to the Lord’s as His instruments.
From that angle I would like to present some parallels between two priestly Saints who lived roughly eight hundred years apart. Both were founders; both were zealous in preaching; both traveled great distances to evangelize; both attracted numerous followers of both sexes to give themselves to God as members of the organizations which they founded or as affiliates of their respective spiritualities. God used their personalities, their natural abilities, to bring about great works. But most of all, He used their willingness to be used by Him.
Both St Josemaria Escrivá (1902-1975) and St Norbert of Xanten (1080-1134) were prepared to set aside or forgo advantages of both a secular and ecclesiastical nature in order to carry out what God was asking of them. Although both men bore much apostolic fruit, fruits that have lasted to the present day, it is especially as priests concerned for other priests that I would like to compare St Norbert, founder of the Premonstratensian (or Norbertine) Order, and St Josemaría, founder not of a religious order, but of a path of serious Christian commitment for the laity in the midst of the world.
Although the respective missions of St Josemaría and St Norbert were carried out in very different times and places, and although their individual foundational charisms were quite distinct, each Saint shared a zeal for promoting the holiness of the clergy. They could see the clear implications of what the Lord says through Hosea: “And it shall be like people, like priest” (Hosea 4:9). The sanctification of the clergy, in other words, bears directly upon the sanctification of those whom they serve.
St Norbert was by all accounts a worldly cleric, as yet a courtier in minor orders, when God called him to renounce the advantages he had gained at court to pursue a life of unique priestly holiness: to combine the life of the ordained ministry with the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Common liturgical prayer, the solemn celebration of the sacred liturgy, and community life under the Rule of St Augustine, were to be hallmarks of the new clerical institute.
The Premonstratensian Order (so named after its first foundation in the French valley of Premontre), was established as an order of canons regular, the fruit of a general movement of clerical reform initiated by Pope St Gregory VII (d. 1085). St Norbert, in renouncing many of the benefits that secular clergy enjoyed at the time, resolved that he should “follow the naked Cross naked,” echoing a sentiment expressed by St Jerome centuries before.
It is well-known that St Josemaría Escrivá likewise turned down several opportunities for ecclesiastical advancement, whether as a chancery official in his younger years or as a bishop in later years. He even resisted the honorary title of “Monsignor,” until his eventual successor, Venerable Alvaro del Portillo, convinced him that such an honorific reserved to secular, diocesan clergy would help underscore the secularity of Opus Dei. But these were not the only ways in which St Josemaría was prepared, in his own way, to “follow the naked Cross naked.”
The vocation of Opus Dei’s founder encountered an unexpected trial just prior to its definitive approval by the Holy See in 1950: the Founder himself thought that God might be calling him away from involvement in the future Prelature to, as he said in a letter, “dedicate myself exclusively to creating another association, for my brothers the diocesan priests.” In the same letter he continues, “I have felt this concern for secular priests since I don’t know when.”
It soon became clear that the founder’s zealous concern for his brother priests would not require St Josemaría to depart from his administration of the Work. God was not asking that of him. Instead a provision would be made whereby diocesan priests could join themselves spiritually to Opus Dei by applying its spirituality to their ministry, while remaining in their own dioceses, fully subject to the jurisdiction of their own bishops.
This trying episode in the life of St Josemaría reveals the ardor of his priestly heart in a unique way: He so much valued the ministry and spiritual life of priests, especially of diocesan clergy, that he was willing to surrender his involvement in the great work of Opus Dei in order to address the spiritual needs of his fellow priests.
A cursory look at Church history shows that God periodically raises up holy priests to initiate clerical reform, to promote the holiness of the clergy, and thereby enkindle the spiritual growth and holiness of the laity. In the twelfth century, St Norbert of Xanten was the instrument chosen by God to do this work in the Church. In the twentieth century, God raised up St Josemaría not only to promote the universal spirituality of Opus Dei, but also to provide a way whereby diocesan clergy could live their own sacred commitments with greater regularity and fervor.
Even though vows are not a part of the Opus Dei commitment, nor are they the form by which secular priests are dedicated to God’s service, yet what the vows represent is: the evangelical call to poverty, to purity, to obedience. This is why people of any state of life can profit from the teachings of St Josemaría: they propose as livable for all the demanding gospel call to holiness as pronounced by the Lord: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
And Christian perfection requires that we embrace a more radical means to this perfection. Keeping the Commandments makes us good, and will lead souls to salvation. But, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). There is a deeper, interior detachment required of all which both vows and counsels aim at bringing about. Holiness, as the Church teaches, is one thing, and even if the means are many, the same program is essential for all: To follow the naked Cross naked.
And this is where St Norbert and St Josemaría are priestly brothers in a special way. Very often the clerics of St Norbert’s Order are called out to minister in the world, while yet maintaining the contemplative spirit, the discipline of the monastery, so as to be more effective instruments in the hands of God. St Josemaría, too, insisted that all members of Opus Dei must be contemplatives in the midst of the world, or in the “middle of the street,” as he liked to say. Because, as he also maintained, if the members of the Work fail to sanctify themselves, they will not be equipped to sanctify anyone else.
In the end, an apostolic and canonical order such as that founded by St Norbert, aims at the same essential goal: to bring the fruits of one’s personal, contemplative union with God into the lives of those to whom we are sent, so that souls may be saved and all of humanity itself become a priestly offering worthy of the sons and daughters of God.
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community’s seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.