If saints, like stars, vary in greatness, St. Martin of Tours is a saint of great magnitude. Although he flourished in ancient times, we know a good deal about him–a further proof of his wide popularity.
Martin was the son of an Italian officer of the Roman army. He was born in what is now Szombathely, Hungary, when his father was on a military tour of duty; but before long his parents returned to Pavia, Italy, and it was there that the son grew up. Although the parents were pagans, Martin became a Christian catechumen at age 10. Roman law required that the sons of soldiers also be soldiers, so Martin took the military oath at 15, and was discharged only in 356. But his life was more Christian than soldierly, especially after his baptism at 18. From his earliest military years dates the story, legendary but characteristic, of his encounter with the poor man of Amiens, France.
One wintry day, says the tale, Martin encountered at the city gate a man who stood begging alms, shaking with cold but spurned by passersby. Touched by the sight, the young soldier wanted to help. Since he had no coins on his person, he took off his military cloak, cut it in two with his sword, gave the beggar one part, and donned the other part himself. Some bystanders laughed at this soldier dressed in a ragged half-cape. But that night in a dream, Private Martin saw Jesus himself dressed in the beggar’s half. Jesus said, “Martin, yet a catechumen, covered me with this garment.”
Eventually the military man decided that as a soldier of Christ he could no longer serve in the ranks. Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”) thereupon jailed him for “cowardice”, but shortly afterward gave him a discharge. Then he returned home and converted his mother and others to Christianity (but not his father).
For a while he campaigned against the local Arian heretics. (They denied the divinity of Christ.) Then, fascinated by the monastic life that was becoming popular among devout Christians, he took up the life of a hermit on an island near Genoa. After a while he contacted St. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers in western France, and received from him an invitation to move his hermitage to the present Ligugé near Poitiers. When a number of other men came to Ligugé and asked to join him, Martin the hermit established what seems to have been the pioneer monastery in France. This was around 360. During the next decade he not only helped form his disciples in the religious life but preached throughout the countryside of Gaul, which was still largely pagan.
Gifted with the power of miracles, he was a very successful missionary.
In 371, the people of Tours insisted that Martin be their bishop. He refused. But after they had tricked him into being consecrated, he finally accepted the task. Unwilling to abandon his monastic life, he set up a new monastery at Marmoutier, near Tours. In a short time the community grew to 80 monks. In this district, too, Bishop Martin became an effective missionary; indeed, he moved out from Touraine into northern Gaul (including Paris) and into the southeast of France.
The longer Martin lived, the more his influence increased, in matters of state as well as church. Thus he intervened successfully with a tyrannical army officer to prevent him from torturing and executing a number of prisoners. He was less successful, however, in his effort to prevent the government from executing some Priscillianists. Not that he approved the errors of these Christian heretics. He simply believed that the Church, not the civil government, should handle the case, and that death was not an appropriate penalty.
Martin was still engaged in his tireless labors when it was revealed to him that his death was approaching. He told his disciples of this coming event, but they begged him not to “desert” them. Torn between their will and God’s will, he prayed in anguish, “Lord, if your people still need me, I will keep working.” But whatever delay he was granted was not long. He died in the harness on November 8, 397. Burial was at Tours on November 11, which became his feastday.
St. Martin’s tomb quickly became one of the most beloved shrines in Europe, and Martin one of the most popular saints, not only in France, where his name is interwoven with many folk traditions (e.g. the name “St. Martin’s Summer” for “Indian Summer”), but especially in England. There the oldest existing church in the country, near Canterbury, is dedicated to him. And to this day, the feast of St. Martin of Tours, “this glory of France and light of the western Church”, is listed in the calendar of the Anglican Church.
–Father Robert F. McNamara