Today, 26 Jun 2012, is the memorial and anniversary of Blessed Bartholomew de Vir (a.k.a Bartholomew of Laon, Bartholomew de Joux), a French bishop who lived in the 12th century. Without him it is unlikely that St Norbert would have founded the Premonstratensian Order.
How good God is! This particular Saint I had never heard about before. Because St Bartholomew the Apostle is my patron for 2012, I am trying to learn about Saints named after him in order to build up a character picture of the Apostle. Today we have struck gold in learning about Blessed Bartholomew de Vir, and I am very grateful for this opportunity to get to know and honour him.
Blessed Bartholomew de Vir was born into a noble and powerful family. He counted King Alphonse of Aragon and Pope Callixtus (or Calistus) II as cousins. Given that he served as Bishop of Laon for 37-38 years, and ten spent a further 6-8 years as a monk, Bartholomew must have been appointed as bishop at a younger age than usual.
He was certainly thrown into the deep end at the beginning of his episcopate. During the previous year the cathedral had been burnt by fire, and it was Bartholomew’s job to rebuild it. The previous short lived incumbent had already begun fund raising by sending out the cathedral’s relics on tours of France and England. Impressively, Bartholomew had the new cathedral ready for dedication in 1114.
In 1119, newly elected Pope Callixtus desired to hold a Church council at Rheims prior to taking up residence in Rome. This new Pope had some clout, because the major powerbrokers of the day all came to Rheims. Desirous of getting papal blessing and approval for his plans for a religious order, St Norbert also made his way to Rheims. Because the place was buzzing with dignitaries and preparations for the Council, Norbert’s requests for an audience with the Pope fell upon deaf ears.
Thoroughly disappointed, Norbert and his companions left Rheims and started on their return journey home. As they sat dejectedly at the road side, along came Bishop Bartholomew and his entourage. It would have been quite easy for the bishop to ride by, but he stopped and enquired what was going on. Speaking with Norbert, Bartholomew quickly recognised his holiness and promised them an audience with the Pope if they would travel back to Rheims with him. Thus was the longed for audience arranged. Although very interested, the Pope was pressed for time and promised to visit Norbert at Laon when the Council was over.
While waiting, Bartholomew gave Norbert a task ; asking him to go to a small, but troublesome, religious house and do his best to reform it. Reforming wasn’t Norbert’s gift, founding was and preaching was. So Norbert returned to the bishop. When the Pope came by, he gave his blessing to Norbert’s enterprises and entrusted Bartholomew with the task of steering them straight.
What Norbert needed now was a remote place where his followers could live out their austere calling of prayer and penance. Bartholomew happily dedicated time out of his busy schedule to help Norbert search. He knew the value of keeping a man of holiness in the diocese because they have the capacity to bring deep, lasting and wide-spread renewal to the whole diocese. After rejecting at least two prior sites, Bartholomew and Norbert came across the valley of Premontre, some 10-12 kms to the west of Laon. It was an undesirable, remote, wild, marshy woodland. Somewhere near the middle was a little chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist. As Bartholomew started his journey back to Laon, Norbert asked permission to spend the night in prayer. Bartholomew not only agreed, but also sent someone back with food for Norbert. Sure enough, the good Lord favoured Norbert with a vision, confirming that this indeed was the place for the new Order to put down roots.
For his part, Bartholomew lost no time in doing the necessary deals and paperwork to set aside the valley land for the new order. Around 1120, Bartholomew had the happiness of investing Norbert and several companions with the white habit suggested by Our Lady to Norbert n a vision. The white habit was to continually remind the monks that they were striving for purity.
The Norbertines or Premonstratensians grew rapidly in numbers, and all too soon a much bigger building than the chapel with huts encircling it was needed. Bartholomew was instrumental in getting the funds for the project, and then had the happiness of blessing the foundations in 1122 and seeing Norbert’s prophetic vision of a chanting throng of white robed men carrying crosses, candles and thuribles come to pass.
About the same time, Bartholomew was financially assisting the Cistercians in the building of the monastery at Foigny.
In the end, Bartholomew didn’t keep Norbert himself in his diocese for long because God’s people were awaiting his preaching talents and Norbert was chosen as Archbishop of Magdeburg. St Norbert died in 1133. However the diocese was well and truly blessed through the holy lives of the monks. No matter how busy Bishop Bartholomew was, he would always make time to visit the Norbertines and the Cistercians and to encourage them.
After much good and faithful service, Bartholomew resigned as Bishop of Laon in 1150-1151 and entered the Cistercian monastery at Foigny to live out the rest of his days as a simple monk. On 26 June 1157 or 1158, the Lord Jesus whom he had served so well called Bartholomew to his eternal reward.
At each step of the way Blessed Bartholomew was there, using his time, talent and influence to provide for the spiritual welfare of his diocese. The help he gave to St Norbert resulted in many centuries worth of zealous missionary-minded monks, who are still out there spreading the good news about Jesus today. www.premontre.org
Blessed Bartholomew de Vir, pray for us.