History of the Canons


A Brief History of the Canons Regular

The Canons Regular of St. Augustine are Catholic priests who live in common according to the evangelical counsels of obedience, chastity and common property, according to the Rule of St. Augustine. That’s the simple and concrete answer, but what does any of that mean?

From the earliest times of the Church’s organization, she saw as her model for life that described in Acts of the Apostles. As the Church consolidated her life in the first centuries after Christ, the priests lived with the bishop and carried out the liturgy and Sacraments in the cathedral church. While each could own his own property, they lived together and shared common meals and a common dormitory. These priests were known as the canones, from the Greek word for rule, for they lived according to the rules and statutes laid down for the clergy by the bishops, popes and councils. They were the bishop’s clergy. There were other priests known as the vagantes who lived apart and served private churches and oratories and whose relationship to the bishop was unclear.

St. Augustine with his rule among other fathers of the Church (click to enlarge)

Sometimes bishops, inspired by the Acts of the Apostles, gathered their priests together to live a full common life with common property at the cathedral. This was what St. Augustine did, and it was his inspiration which was to guide the canons later in history as they decided upon the surest course they could take towards salvation. Meanwhile the canons began to spread away from the cities into semi-independent houses which cared for local pastoral needs. The lack of full common life left them open to corruption, however, and the message of the Gospel could be lost amidst their wealth.

St. Augustine and Jerome

In the 11th and 12th centuries the Gregorian Reforms of the popes were busy reforming the life of the clergy, and it was at this time that the full common life was promoted as a means to this reform. It was realized by the popes and many wise canons that the best guide in this was St. Augustine with his love of the clerical common life and his sensible Rule. This reform was to take the houses of canons (and much of the diocesan clergy) by storm, as house after house adopted the Rule and the full common life. This was when they became known as the Canons Regular from the Latin regula, or rule. The canonical life as it is called was favored by the popes, bishops and even laymen as a means to reform the clergy. They were seen as a leaven for the rest of the clergy.

The Canonry of St. Nicola in Passau

The Order grew rapidly through their patronage and numbered many hundreds of houses at its height. It was a tried and true path to holiness for many souls. The growth of the Order was tremendous in central Europe as well as in France and the Low Countries. In England houses of canons were more numerous than Benedictine houses. The Canons Regular were known to introduce splendid worship and serious religious life into the houses they reformed.

Gradually houses of Canons Regular grouped themselves together in congregations so as to maintain their common observances. Many of these observances were quarried from Benedictine observances, though they were always more given to Augustinian generosity and less to severity.

Other Orders sprang up which followed the Rule of St. Augustine and the canonical life, such as the Canons Regular of Premontre (or Norbertines) and the Canons Regular of the Order of the Holy Cross (or Crosier Fathers and Brothers). These were more centralized Orders in the modern sense, and had separate developments. The Canons Regular, or Black Canons as they were known in England, were more similar to the Benedictines in their independence and their local character. Another similarity is that, aside from a few congregations, the Canons Regular maintained and still maintain the vow of stability to a particular house, a particular family. The individual houses often have differences in the form of the habit, even within the same congregation. This would not be the case among Benedictines.

St. Leopold welcomes BL. Hartmann and the canons to Klosterneuburg

In the Middle Ages and beyond, some cathedrals were given over to the care of the regular canons, as were certain places of pilgrimage. The shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in England was just such a shrine, and the cathedrals of St. John Lateran in Rome, Salzburg and Gurk in Austria, Toledo and Saragossa in Spain, St. Andrew’s in Scotland, were among many others to be reformed by the regular canons.

Royal Abbey and School of St. Victor

The canons also took a leading role in the intellectual life of the Church by founding cathedral and collegiate schools throughout Europe. For example, the University of Paris finds part of its ancestry in the famous Abbey school of St. Victor.

What is more, the Canons Regular proved particularly fruitful in giving birth to spiritual movements and even to other forms of religious life. A good example of a spiritual movement fostered by regular canons was the Devotio Moderna in the fifteenth century Netherlands.

Cathedral of Toledo

Among the Orders which sprang from the canonical life were the Order of Preachers or Dominicans, as well as the Order of the Most Holy trinity, or Trinitarians. St. Anthony of Padua started his religious life as a canon regular in Portugal before moving to the Franciscans. The peculiar genius and spirit of St. Augustine’s rule as well as the openness of the canonical Order to new forms of life were key to this adaptability.

Bl. jan van Ruysbroeck’s canonry at Groenendaal

As all delicate forms of life, the canonical life suffered the ravages of the centuries. Time always brings a relaxation of fervor, plus the Protestant Revolt in the 16th century, the Wars of Religion, the French Revolution and Secularization of the 19th century all did great damage. The Canons Regular, with their vehemently independent character and lack of centralized structure, were one of the Orders most affected by these turbulent times. The 20th century came with only a handful of houses of Augustinian canons left.

The strength of the Order was in Central Europe: Italy, Austria and Switzerland. In these places and now in others, the canonical Order continues to fulfill its mission to help priests on their way to holiness through the essence of the priesthood: the proper offering of the sacred liturgy and the care of souls. The Canons Regular are now grouped into congregations, each one having a different history and emphasis, but in all of them the spirit of St. Augustine and the motto of the Confederation of Canons Regular of St. Augustine: Sacrificium Laudis Caritas Pastoralis (Sacrifice of Praise and Pastoral Charity) remains at the center of their life.

The last provost of St. Nicola of Passau, Franz Konrad, accepts the decree of secularization