Feast of Bl. Hugh

by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem., Prior


“Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.”

Bl. Hugh of Fosse, whom we celebrate today, was one of the most influential men in human history. He met St. Norbert in 1119 and made his profession to him two and a half years later. After St. Norbert was elected archbishop of Magdeburg in 1126 and he realized he would never again be able to lead the fledgling community he had founded in Premontre, Bl. Hugh was chosen as his successor in 1128, and he was the abbot of Premontre until his death in 1164.

From accompanying his master in his itinerant preaching and hearing the nectar of God’s word from his very lips, from gathering the first cadre of disciples, to the building of that first church in the valley of Premontre and the new foundations of communities all over Europe, Bl. Hugh not only witnessed but personally oversaw the most difficult moment in the life of any movement: settling down from the charismatic phase to the institutional phase. St. Norbert had a vision and a mission, yet God clearly did not intend him to be the one who ensured that his Order would survive the test of time. He had said that if the white canons were generous to the poor, corrected their faults, and were attentive to the liturgy of the Church, they would survive as a group until Christ came again. But how to make sure that wise admonition and their already customary way of life as canons would be preserved intact down through the centuries?

This morning in the first reading of Matins, we heard St. Paul tell the Hebrews, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” This is almost an ironic thing to hear in this massive new abbey, in this grand abbey church, both of which are intended to last for centuries, far outliving any individual member living here now. But in the face of such a truth, we might think that what we do here and now doesn’t really matter; we have no lasting city. Why put up walls of stone or poured concrete?

And yet St. Paul’s conclusion is the exact opposite. If having no lasting city really meant nothing we do here matters, that it’s a waste of time and energy to be so detailed in the adornment of a church, then why does he say immediately following, “Through [Christ] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name.” Sitting in choir and praying the divine office, for which we have nothing to show when it’s over, is the best thing we can do. Everything matters. Every act of fraternal charity, every psalm, every kindness that goes unseen, every Mass where the only faithful in attendance are angels. Everything. It all matters.

Bl. Hugh knew this well. He knew that here we have no lasting city; he must have heard the line a thousand times. And so it was all the more pressing for him to take those seven short years of intimate contact with St. Norbert and translate them into a regularized way of life that would last literally until the end. As intensive as St. Norbert’s charism was, Bl. Hugh’s was extensive. And as usual, God chose the right man.

By the time Bl. Hugh died, there were more than 200 houses in our Order. That means thousands of souls at that time were saved and reached a height of sanctity they would never have dreamt of, if he had not translated the vision of the Master into writing. And that was just during his lifetime. A firm foundation allows for a towering edifice. Because of what Bl. Hugh did, we just finished our 900th jubilee. Hopefully our Order is in a resurgence now, but through the intercession of St. Norbert and Bl. Hugh, that depends on the fidelity of each man here to his vocation.

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