Saint Martin of Tours, patron saint of the poor, soldiers, tailors, winemakers, and conscientious objectors, ora pro nobis!
Martin was born around AD 316 to pagan parents, yet the boy chose another path; drawn to Christianity, Martin decided to become a Christian at age 10. Shortly before his birth, Christianity had been legalized in the Roman Empire under Constantine.
As was expected at that time, Martin was enrolled in the Roman army at the age of 15. Although not yet baptized, Martin nevertheless practiced Christian values, giving his military pay to the poor. Saint Martin is known to have encountered a beggar whom several other soldiers passed. Unlike his associates, Martin took the care and time to clothe the beggar. Drawing his sword, Martin cut his cloak in half and gave one part to the man. Martin later received a vision in which Christ, clothed as the beggar, stated, “Martin, a mere catechumen, has clothed me.” This vision is said to have been the last inspiration needed for Martin’s baptism.
Martin remained in the army for until at the age of 20, when he announced that he would no longer fight as a soldier, out of dedication to Christianity. To his superior, he said, “I have served you as a soldier; allow me henceforth to serve Christ.”
Accused of cowardice, Saint Martin was supposed to be imprisoned. However, in order to prove that his refusal was not out of cowardice but was rather prompted by his Catholic conscience, Saint Martin courageously offered to stand in battle unarmed. Yet, armies came to a truce anyway, and Saint Martin was instead released from military service.
Afterwards, Martin was able to devote his life more wholly to Christ; he travelled to Tours, where he studied under St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, who ordained Martin as a deacon. St. Hilary was temporarily banished by the Arians for speaking against their refusal of Christ’s divinity. While his teacher was exiled, Martin returned to Italy for some time, where he helped lead several people (including his mother) to faith in Christ. His father, however, remained a pagan.
Martin himself soon became involved in the counter-movements against the Arian heresy. After being violently scourged by his opponents, Martin was forced to depart Illyricum, a Roman province, and settled on an Adriatic island, where he lived as a hermit. Hilary returned from exile in 361, and Saint Martin reunited with Hilary, returning to his studies.
Using a piece of land Hilary gave him, Martin established a monastery, perhaps the first monastery in Gaul. It was destroyed centuries later during the French Revolution, though it was reestablished in 1853. The monastery, known as the Ligue Abbey, still stands today.
Later, Martin chose to live as a monk outside the city of Tours, which in 371 found itself in need of a bishop. The people decided to call Martin to office, but he did not want to accept. So, the citizens tricked him, saying he was needed to administer to one of the sick. Having been lured into the city, the people pressured him to become their bishop. When Martin realized the trick, he attempted to hide, but he was soon discovered and ordained to the office. Afterwards, Marin still lived as a monk, having no personal possessions.
The saint annually visited each parish within his diocese, and as one of his missions, Martin spoke out against paganism, specifically against the Druid practice. He guided numerous people to the Christian faith. Longing for a yet more prayerful monastic life, Martin founded another abbey, one at Marmoutier, where he could live as a monk along with disciples.
Another heresy soon arose, this time involving Priscillianism, which was centered on the belief that salvation came through secret knowledge. Bishop Ithacius requested that the Roman Emperor, Magnus Maximus, sentence the Priscillians to death. However, Martin and another bishop, St. Ambrose, did not support this demand, and so Martin traveled to where the Emperor was to hold court. He persuaded the Emperor to punish the Priscillian heresy in a way other than death. The Emperor was convinced, but Ithacius changed the Emperor’s mind once more, and the Priscillians were executed in 385.
In 397, on November 8, Martin passed away. Today, his tomb is a national shrine in France, a location to which many make a pilgrimage. His feast day is annually celebrated on November 11, and his emblems or representations are a tree, armor, a cloak, and a beggar.
St. Martin, pray for us that we may be like you, “generous witnesses of the Gospel of love and tireless builders of jointly responsible sharing” (Pope Benedict XVI).