History of the Order

Let's delve together into the history of the Premonstratensian Order's foundation. The Gregorian reform in the 11th-century church, aimed at restoring the church's freedom and mission, differed from the Cluniac reform, emphasizing the importance of vita apostolica and canonical rules. An example of its influence was the founding of the Premonstratensian Order by St. Norbert in 1120, reflecting the ideal of apostolic life and adopting the Rule of St. Augustine. This order, with its focus on liturgy, education, pastoral service, and charity, rapidly expanded and significantly contributed to the development of religious and cultural life. Over the centuries, the order underwent periods of decline and renewal, with the Premonstratensians currently refocusing on their original monastic ideals and expanding their activities internationally.

Tree of the Order's Founding Monasteries. At the bottom of the image are the spiritual fathers of the Premonstratensian Order, St. Augustine and St. Norbert, from whom the individual houses of the order spring.

The Reform of Pope Gregory VII

The Gregorian Reform differed from the Cluniac monastic reform in its ecclesiastical-political focus. Both stemmed from the concept of libertas ecclesiae (freedom of the church). The goal of the Gregorian Reform was not only the restoration of the church's freedom but also the freedom to carry out its positive mission. For this reason, reform efforts can be observed not only in relation to society or rulers but also as an endeavor directed internally within the church. An integral part of this effort was the reform of the secular clergy.

Recent research has revealed the strength of the canonical reform movement in the 11th and 12th centuries and its intense pursuit of a true Christian renewal of the priestly spirit among all secular clergy. The main concept driving this renewal was vita apostolica (apostolic life), a return to the ideal of the early church in Jerusalem. As stated in Acts 4:32, all believers were one in heart and mind, and none claimed private ownership of any possessions, but they shared everything they had. There have always been efforts in the church to realize this ideal, especially in the life of the clergy.

Eusebius of Vercelli, St. Augustine, and others established a communal life with specific rules for their clergy (canon = rule), later known as ordo canonicus (canonical status). The Synod of Clermont in 535 described canons as priests or deacons assigned to a particular church. Further canonical rules were issued in 768 by Bishop Chrodegang of Metz. Another significant synod in Aachen in 816, with substantial support from Louis the Pious, issued its own rules, the Institutio canonica. The Roman Synod of 1059, chaired by Hildebrand's brother, later Pope Gregory VII, criticized the Rule of Aachen for its inconsistency in matters of personal ownership and benefits. Through its decrees, it established norms for the life of clergy, including the requirement of communal living at their church, shared dining and sleeping quarters, and communal use of the church's resources. Those canons who embraced this reform were later known as Canonici regulares, gradually adopting the Rule of St. Augustine as their foundation. Canonici saeculares were initially priests, chapter members, who did not accept this reform and did not take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. However, the reform aimed at the entire clergy, so the distinction between regular and secular canons is seen in a different context today.

Jean Châtillon, discussing the priorities of the Gregorian Reform in the 11th and 12th-century canonical communities, highlights these points: a liturgical life that becomes a form of apostolic activity by chapter members for the Christian people. Although the form of liturgical celebration was very similar to many monastic communities, the celebration of liturgy in canonical chapters had a more public aspect, aimed both at glorifying God and deepening the faith and piety of the people in their relationship to Christ and the church.

Another aspect of the liturgy was also education and upbringing. Pastoral life, not all foundations of that time had a pastoral focus, but we observe a certain flexibility in responding to the demands of bishops and the church. Many foundations originally of a hermit-like nature began establishing dependent houses with specific pastoral missions, whether spiritual or material, often associated with places of worship. Another significant aspect was the founding of schools and serving in education, with the school of Saint Victor in Paris as an example. The final typical feature of canonical foundations in this period was hospitality and charity, understood as realizing and fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ and the gospels.

Within the spectrum of the Gregorian Reform movement, Saint Norbert of Xanten's foundation emerged. Originally a secular canon himself, after his conversion, he dedicated himself fully to the idea of renewing clerical discipline, as seen in his efforts at the collegiate chapter in Xanten. After his reform efforts were rejected, he founded a community in Prémontré near Laon in France in 1120, when this place was offered to him by the Bishop of Laon, Bartholomew de Joux, who gave him the Rule of Saint Augustine as a foundation. It is believed that Norbert did not initially intend to found an order in the legal sense of the word. Rather, he desired to live the ideal of the apostolic way, taking as his model the community of the apostles around Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Adam Scot notes that the vows for joining the community in Prémontré reflect the apostolic spirit: absolute rejection and denial of ownership, distribution of goods according to need, harmony of unity and unity of harmony. Norbert realized this apostolic ideal in adopting the Rule of Saint Augustine, which was fundamental to the reform efforts of the Gregorian era.

The nature of the Gregorian Reform in the initial community at Prémontré is especially evident in these aspects: Norbert focused on liturgical prayer performed in their own church; rich reception of the sacraments, radiating the faith of the community members; a special place for the Eucharist and its daily celebration; daily chapter meetings (reading the martyrology, the Rule, remembering the deceased, admonishing transgressions); study and contemplation, termed lectio divina; preaching the Word of God; receiving and helping the poor - charity and hospitality; and great devotion to the Virgin Mary.

At the time of its founding, the community in Prémontré lived under the leadership of Saint Norbert according to the ideal of the early Jerusalem church community. Here we see priests, deacons, and brothers with lower orders who took care of the running of the community, officiating services, Masses, etc. Lay brothers, besides participating in parts of the liturgy (morning Mass and vespers), focused on physical work. Sisters primarily engaged in receiving visitors and caring for the sick (hospitality).

From the year 1124, we have the first official approval of Norbert's foundation by Cardinals Peter and Gregory, legates of Calixtus II. They did so in a charter issued on June 28 of that year in Noyon in Picardy. Norbert received confirmation of this approval from Pope Honorius II on February 16, 1126, through the papal bull Apostolicae Disciplinae.

From 1124 onwards, the order continued to expand. P. Žák, O. Praem, assesses the state of the Premonstratensian monasteries in 1164 as follows: in France, there were 98 male and female monasteries, 34 in Belgium, 82 in Germany, 5 in the Netherlands, 10 in Britain, 5 in Switzerland, 1 in Italy, 4 in Poland, 6 in Bohemia and Moravia, 2 in Hungary, 8 in Spain, 1 in Portugal, and 2 in Palestine.

The Premonstratensians came to Bohemia thanks to the Olomouc bishop Jindřich Zdík, with substantial support from King Vladislav II and his wife Gertrude, when the first religious were invited from the Steinfeld provostship to Strahov in Prague in 1143. The first abbot was Gezon, about whose activity we have little information. Soon after, Litomyšl (1145) and Hradisko (1150) were founded from Strahov. Later, the Louka monastery near Znojmo was established in 1190, Teplá in 1193, and Zábrdovice in 1209. From Zábrdovice, a female monastery was founded in Nová Říše, which became an abbey in 1733. From Steinfeld, another foundation in Bohemia was established, Želiv (1149), from which Milevsko was founded in 1187. Among the female monasteries, besides Nová Říše, were Doksany (1143 - 1150), Louňovice (1149 - 1150), Kounice (1183), and Chotěšov (1202).

This extraordinarily rapid growth of the order is seen in four methods of founding communities adhering to the ideas of the apostolic movement from Prémontré; the first was Eigenkirche (individual local church communities) accepted by the order with pastoral care commitments; the exchange of existing chapters and monasteries with Premonstratensians, in some cases voluntary association of existing monasteries and chapters with the order, and finally, gifts (land, estates, etc.) primarily from nobles with the intention of establishing new foundations.

In 1126, Norbert was elevated to the archepiscopal see in Magdeburg, and his closest collaborator, Hugo de Fosses, succeeded him as the founder. In 1128, Hugo became the abbot. His most significant task was to create a unified structure for the foundations. Until then, individual communities formed more separate families. Apparently inspired by the Cistercian Charta Caritatis created in Cîteaux, Hugo attempted to create a unified organization and structure of the order based on general chapters. The head of the order was the general abbot (abbot in Prémontré), who organized the order's general chapter once a year, where current needs of the order were discussed. Under his editorship, the first Statuta were created, whose first codification had to be shortly after Hugo became abbot in Prémontré (1128), as by 1131, Pope Innocent II had ordered the abbots of the order to maintain the so-called Ordinis integritas and Consuetudo Premonstratensis monasterii.

In the 13th century, the order was divided into circaries (connection of monasteries based on territory or language area). In the 1989 catalog of the Premonstratensian Order, we encounter these circaries: Circaria Anglica, Bohemica, Brabantica, Gallica, Germanica, and Ungarica.

The General Abbot exercised legal authority over all circaries, and in the 13th century, along with him, the abbots of Laon, Floreffe, and Cuissy were considered fathers of the order. Initially, the head of a circary was the abbot circator, but later a visitor was appointed for one year.

Similar to the history of the church, in the history of the Premonstratensian Order, there were periods of flourishing, decline, and subsequent growth. The order's greatest period of flourishing was up to the 14th century, when the monasteries contributed to the deepening of not only the religious but also the cultural life of entire regions and territories, both in terms of the number of monasteries and the quality of their life and activities. The 15th and 16th centuries brought a decrease in vitality, due to internal disagreements and unfortunate external interventions, sometimes wars and religious unrest associated with the Reformation, or interventions by so-called commendatory abbots, appointed by the papal curia from the 15th century. In the 17th century, efforts were made to renew the spirit of the order and its structures, but even during this time, secular power prevented many abbots from attending general chapters. During this period, some circaries acquired the rights of general chapters, leading to the order's decentralization. The following 18th century saw the decline of monasteries, mainly in France due to Jansenism and the French Revolution. In 1790, Prémontré was abolished, followed by the suppression of monasteries in the lands ruled by Joseph II.

In the German lands, the so-called secularization occurred, when all monasteries were dissolved, marking the 19th century. After 1835, only 9 male and 6 female monasteries remained in the entire order. However, the 19th century again saw efforts to renew the order and monastic life. Not all efforts were successful, yet religious life returned to Belgium, France, Germany, etc. The order's unity was restored thanks to Pope Leo XIII, who in 1883 summoned the abbots of the order to a general chapter in Vienna. The abbot of Strahov, Zikmund Starý, became the head of the order. This marked a new period of flourishing for the order, its organization, and growth, which, however, was violently suppressed for 40 years in our countries in the 20th century.

In 1950, all male religious orders in then Czechoslovakia were forcibly disbanded, and many Premonstratensians were unjustly sentenced in fabricated trials. The Strahov abbot Bohuslav Jarolímek died in prison. Individual communities continued their activities more or less successfully in illegality so that after 1989 they could return to their monasteries and begin renewing monastic life.

Today, there is a revival of this rich order tradition in our countries. The viability of the order is evidenced, among other things, by missions supported by monasteries in Western countries in Africa, Brazil, South America, and India. The 1995 Catalogus Ordinis Praemonstratensis lists 33 male canons, 7 female canons, and 6 female Premonstratensian foundations. The order has 1330 religiouses and 374 nuns.