“These that are clothed in white robes, who they are, and whence they come, I will tell you. Their origin is nothing else but the society and the common life of Jesus and his apostles, the original model of community life between the bishop and his clergy. On that account they chiefly come from Hippo and from the home of Augustine, who has given them a rule, which they still glory to observe.” ~Cardinal Pie
In essence, we canons regular are religious clerics attached to a particular church, who live a common life under the Rule of St. Augustine. We are priests and deacons seeking to imitate the apostles, in service of the Word of God and the altar. To that end, we hold no personal property of our own, but rather have all things in common under a priestly superior.
From the beginning of the Christian Church, the life of the clergy was measured by high expectations of virtue. The priesthood essentially required both faithfulness to authentic teaching and simplicity of life. In the New Testament, we can see the development of formal clerical discipline beginning gradually in the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles of St. Paul. At the early councils, for example the Council of Nicaea in 325, the bishops of the ancient Church were eager to establish norms for the life and conduct of the clergy.
The Church of the fourth and fifth centuries saw a great flourishing of fervent clerical life. In the dioceses of Southern France, Italy, and North Africa, priests were led and encouraged by such illustrious Fathers of the Church as St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Paulinus of Nola. At that time, the diocesan clergy lived a common monastic life with their bishops. These clerics were inscribed in the kanōn—a Greek word meaning “list”—of the clergy of their dioceses, and so were called “canons” or canonici. Those who followed the Rule—Latin, Regula—of St. Augustine would come to be known as canonici regulares, “canons regular.”
Of course this ideal was not easy to maintain, and over time abuses crept into clerical life. Concubinage, private property, and independent living became typical in many places, causing predictable disedification of the faithful. Vigorous reforms were undertaken at the time of the emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century, but the greatest reform occurred under the holy pontiffs of the eleventh century, especially St. Leo IX, St. Gregory VII, and Blessed Urban II. These magnificent popes called for a renewal of the life of the clergy, emphasizing celibacy and poverty and common life.
The implementation of this “Gregorian” reform led to the foundation of many vibrant religious communities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the reformers’ minds, the life of a canon regular was simply the life meant for any diocesan priest. The various canonical orders—amongst them, of course, the Norbertines—are simply the survival of this original ideal of clerical community and worship, without personal property, in imitation of our Lord’s apostles.
Writing to a canonry in Bavaria in 1092, Blessed Pope Urban II situated the canons regular within the larger context of Holy Mother Church. This passage is of particular importance for us Norbertines, since it would be recycled three decades later in another papal bull, issued by the legates of Pope Callixtus II for the sake of granting official pontifical recognition to the Norbertine Order:
We give thanks to God whose mercy surpasses all life, because he has inspired you to renew the praiseworthy life of the holy fathers and the institution established by the teaching of the apostles, which flourished at the beginning of the Church and has been almost reduced to nothing in later ages. For at the beginning of the Church two forms of life were practiced by the faithful. One was for the weak, the other for those who were stronger. One remains in the little village of Segor, the other rises to the top of the mountains. One atones for its daily faults by weeping and almsgiving; the other, by the constant practice of virtue, works to gain eternal merit. One is involved in earthly affairs; the other is raised above this world and unencumbered by all possessions, which it despises. Now the form of life which, by its fervor, is free from human things, is divided into two branches that have almost the same spirit. The first is the canons regular; the other is the monks. The latter branch, through the mercy of God, has not ceased to shine in the bosom of the Church, whereas the former, almost wiped out by relaxation, has shone again today, thanks be to God. The holy pontiff and martyr Urban [I] established it, St. Augustine gave it its rules, St. Jerome reformed it by his letters. We must think no less of the reestablishment of this apostolic life [of the canons regular], known to the primitive Church, than of the preservation of the monastic life, maintained in its splendor by the Holy Spirit.
As Blessed Urban recognizes, the outer appearance and observances of canons regular can seem very similar to those of monks. This is because the various reforms borrowed certain practices from the monks for the use of the canons. Yet there is a crucial difference since, even though sometimes there do happen to be priest-monks, a monk as such need not be a cleric. Part of what it means to be a canon, on the other hand, is to be dedicated as a cleric to the divine worship, leading the faithful in prayer before the altar and praying all day in the name of the faithful. Whereas monks are clerics, if at all, only accidentally, canons regular are clerical by their very nature.
St. Thomas Aquinas would have been very familiar with the ways of canons regular, since his own Dominican Order borrowed heavily from the statues of the first Norbertines. He put the matter succinctly in his Summa Theologiae: “The order of canons regular is necessarily constituted by religious clerics, because they are essentially destined to those works which relate to the divine mysteries, whereas it is not so with the monastic orders.” That is the reason for the centrality of the liturgy, especially Holy Mass, in our life as Norbertines. We are a clerical religious community, stable in our place (unlike, for example, St. Thomas’ Dominicans or St. Ignatius’ Jesuits), whose primary work is to administer our Lord’s sacraments to his chosen people.
One helpful way to think about canons was suggested by Desiderius Erasmus, himself a prominent (if reluctant) canon regular of the Catholic Reformation. Erasmus described the canons regular as a quid medium between monks and secular priests. More active than the monks, and more contemplative than the diocesan clergy, canons seek the golden mean of conformity to Christ. By keeping Holy Orders explicitly bound to the evangelical counsels, we canons regular maintain the priesthood and religious life together as a unified whole.
The monks of the Middle Ages, however, were not always so satisfied with their canonical comrades. More than a few monastics accused the canons regular of ignoring our Lord’s exhortation to Martha and Mary, to the effect that contemplation is better than action. If Mary had “chosen the better part,” would it not be best to follow exclusively her example, as the monks themselves did? The canons answered no. Predicting the vita mixta solution of St. Thomas Aquinas, an early Norbertine named Anselm of Havelburg defended the life of canons regular, with their Christlike combination of apostolic action and prayerful contemplation:
Do you think that the Son of God and the Son of man, Jesus Christ, the head of the Catholic Church, the head of contemplatives, the head of all who are active … was contemplative or active? Was he not both contemplative and active? … Martha, while she was busy about much serving, was not an inappropriate symbol of the active life. Mary, while she was seated at the Lord’s feet eagerly listening to his word, was not an unfitting sign of the contemplative life. When the Lord said, “Mary has chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her,” did he mean this better part compared to himself and Martha, or was he excluding himself and referring only to Martha? Jesus sat teaching, and in teaching he played the role of the teachers. … Christ teaching, Mary listening, Martha serving: three persons. Which of these three do you think was most worthy? I know, and I am absolutely certain you will admit, that the person of Jesus is more worthy than either of them. … Surely no one can doubt that his was also the most worthy office.
In other words, while a purely contemplative life would indeed be preferable to a purely active one, the best Christian life of all necessarily includes both elements. For this is the way that our Lord himself lived, and it is the way that canons regular continue to live in imitation of Christ.
Thus canons regular are simply followers of Jesus, according to the model he gave to his original apostles: a common, stable, clerical life, integrating prayer and ministry, for the glory of God in the service of his Church.
Sts. Luke and Paul, pray for us.
St. Leo IX, St. Gregory VII, and Blessed Urban II, pray for us.