A common question from people who ask about the Norbertines is whether there has ever been a Norbertine Pope (after how to pronounce, “Premonstratensian”), and until recently I had always replied in the negative. However, whilst doing some reading on the history of the order I discovered that this may not be the case.
Francois Petit o.praem, in The Spirituality of the Premonstratensians, states that there is significant evidence that Pope Gregory VIII (1105-1187) was a canon of St Martin’s Abbey, Laon.
Petit wrote that whilst the Cistercians claim him as one of there own the evidence that he was a Canon Regular of Prémontré is older and in greater amount. Petit states that not only is his name recorded in the necrologies of St Martin’s Abbey soon after his death, but that whilst he was Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church (1178-1187) he showed great affection for Premonstratensian houses (it was known that all matters relating to them were to proceed directly to him) bestowing upon the order several privileges. Of interest to English readers might be the fact that it was Pope Gregory VII, then Alberto di Morra, that was dispatched to investigate the death of St Thomas á Beckett and ultimately absolved King Henry II of his murder.
Sadly, we cannot be certain that Pope Gregory VIII was a Premonsratensian, but the evidence is compelling. The Canons Regular of Prémontré have always had a great devotion to the Popes, from St Norbert until today. When St Norbert was Bishop of Magdeberg he was instrumental in the coronation of Pope Innocent II, as Antipope Anacletus II had control of much of Rome at the time. With the help of his friend St Bernard of Clairvaux and patron Emperor Lothar II Pope Innocent II was able to enter Rome and be crowned in the Lateran Basilica; however, he would only do so if he were accompanied by his great supporters St Norbert and St Bernard.
As a canonry and an order we still serve the Holy Father, and not only by dressing like him, and the Church at large, by being prepared for every good work; we shall always be full in the panting heart of Rome…It is wonderful to think that God may have graced us with so wonderful a gift as one of our number rising to such lofty heights as the Vicar of Christ.
Remember, as always, to pray for our current Holy Father as well.