Transfer of St. Norbert’s Relics: Relics over Retweets
by Fr. Ambrose Criste, O.Praem.
“I urge you, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”
Today we commemorate a very Norbertine and a very Catholic event: the translation of the relics of our holy father Norbert. For those here who might not have heard this story from our Order’s history, in brief, our holy founder died in 1134 and was buried in the Church of our Lady at Magdeburg, where he had been the archbishop. By the time the sixteenth century rolled around, when Pope Gregory XIII formalized his canonization, that church where St. Norbert’s relics rested was in the hands of the Protestants. It took nearly fifty years for our confreres to figure out a way to get St. Norbert’s body out of Protestant hands and back into an abbey church of our Order. They finally managed to do that in late 1626 and early 1627. There was a solemn octave during this week in 1627, when the body of our holy founder finally arrived in Prague at the abbey of Strahov. That week of celebration brought with it a whole host of miracles and graces, including 600 Protestants who returned to the Catholic faith.
It’s hard to imagine a more Catholic sensibility than this great care and concern that our early modern confreres had for the body of someone already 500 years in the grave. We live in an age in which we have many tools to help us remember people and events and places. We’re surrounded by photographs and recordings of all kinds, not to mention the internet, that most powerful of instruments that most of us can carry around even in our pockets. All of this technology can make it seem like people are very near, even when we might not have actually seen them in person or spoken to them viva voce for a long, long time. In fact, this world of technology can even make it seem like we are surrounded by interesting and interested people … when in fact we are all alone with nobody but our machines and the impersonal images and experiences they fabricate.
But we can imagine a time not too terribly long ago when communication meant getting up and going to speak with someone you needed to visit, or at least writing them a letter by hand, a letter that some other living person would have to deliver. Images were artifacts that real, living people had to create with their own hands, and so being able to look at a picture or a portrait was a rare and precious kind of experience. How important it must have been, therefore, not too long ago, to be able to go and visit the grave of someone who was pivotal for your life—your parents, your kin, the holy man who founded your way of life. The relics of the saints—kneeling in front of them, or being blessed by them, kissing them, carrying them, offering Mass before them—these were, and are, points of contact with friends. They are also points of contact with the God who made them holy, and so with the God who can make you and me holy too.
St. Paul reminds us, “We, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.” If those seventeenth-century Norbertines went to such pains to bring St. Norbert’s body to a place where they could venerate it more easily, what distance should we fear to cross to draw closer to the friends and loved ones who are right here in our own religious house, or in your own family homes? These men sitting right next to you are the concrete, personal, material-because-they-are-embodied instruments whereby our Lord comes to meet you and me; comes to build us up together into His Mystical Body; comes to make us holy.
And so we can ask our holy father Norbert today to teach us how to bow down, as it were, to one another in holy friendship—that veneration of the saints around us here and now that will make us want to be near our friends—here in the choir, and over there in the refectory, and wherever it is that we come into close proximity.
For all of these bodies, these very ones now living, are going to die, and all of them will find some place of rest. All of them are going to rise one day with the body of our holy father Norbert, and all of us together will join our Lord’s risen body now ascended, and that of our Lady glorious on high. This kind of communication with real people, here in our interactions here below, and then, please God, in the world to come—this communication is so much better than anything our impersonal technology and machines can fabricate. This is our living sacrifice, the offering of our bodies and ourselves which is so holy and pleasing to God.
May St. Norbert, so powerfully present with us here in our community and here at this altar, teach us to love one another, to offer our spiritual worship, and to build up the Body of Christ.
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