NOVEMBER 11 is the traditional memorial of ST. MARTIN OF TOURS (+397).
It is interesting to note that Veteran’s Day has a veteran as its saint of the day.
St. Martin was born to a cavalry officer of the Imperial Horse Guard, in Pannonia, an area now part of Hungary. Whether it was 316 AD or 336 AD, no one knows. In either case, it was shortly after Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity as a legal religion and the persecutions had stopped. The acceptance of Christianity spread very quickly.
Martin’s father was transferred to Ticinium, northern Italy, when Martin was young. Although his parents were pagans, Martin decided to accept Jesus at the age of 10 and became a catechumen. This role in the Church was a time of study and lasted for years.
Within five years, Martin was required to join his father’s cavalry corps. He served the corps in Gaul and, later, in Milan and Treves. He was thought to be part of the emperor’s guard.
There are many miraculous stories involving Martin. His first biographer may have exaggerated or may have been telling the whole truth. We will never know. One well known story is that as a young soldier, Martin encountered a beggar in Amiens. This poor man was barely clothed and freezing. Martin took off his cloak and tore it in half with his sword. He gave the beggar half and he threw on the other half. As he slept that night he had a dream that Christ spoke, saying “Martin, a new catechumen has clothed me.” Martin took his studies more seriously after that.
At the age of 20, Martin was ready to live his Christianity. As a member of the military, his corps was getting ready to fight a battle near Worms, Germany. He told his superiors that he refused pay and would not join in the combat. He appears to be the first conscientious objector on record. The superiors accused him of cowardice and threatened him with prison. Martin offered to go into battle unarmed, to prove he was not a coward. The superiors agreed to this. But before the battle, the enemies agreed to a truce, so there was no fighting. Martin was subsequently released from the service.
Quickly, Martin dedicated himself to the service of Jesus and the Church. He went to Tours and studied under Bishop Hilary or Poitiers. The two stayed together until Hilary was forced into temporary exile for not being willing to participate in a political dispute.
Separated from his mentor, Martin went to Italy. In a series of stories, he was said to have converted a highwayman and others. Having received a vision, Martin proceeded to Pannonia to see his mother. She converted. He tried to convert his father, as well. There is no record of his success or failure.
The Arian heresy had begun to spread. The Arians denied the divinity of Jesus. Martin became involved in teaching against this heresy. But the Arian leaders were so vicious that he had to leave. At this point, he moved to a little island in the Adriatic Sea, off the coast of Italy. There he stayed for some time, living as a hermit.
Bishop Hilary finally returned to Tours in 361. When Martin found out, he moved back to study once again with his mentor. This time, Hilary gave his student some land with an abandoned Roman villa, where Martin built a monastery for himself and some followers. This became the oldest monastery in Europe and lasted until the French Revolution. Martin became a great evangelizer.
In 371, Hilary of Poitiers died, leaving the see of Tours open. The population wanted Martin. But Martin did not want the position. Eventually they tricked him into coming out of the monastery by begging him to help a sick person. Even after trying to run and hide, the people found him and had him consecrated. And he became the bishop.
As a bishop, Martin organized a system of parishes to organize the diocese. He made a tour of each parish every year. He fought paganism especially the Druids. And his evangelization continued.
The year after his consecration, he established a monastery at Marmoutier. He and his disciples moved in.
One of the last major moves in his life was the problem with the Priscillian heresy. The heresy taught that there were two kingdoms, one of light and one of darkness. The angels and men were separate from the light of the Deity. A council condemned the heresy but there was no change to the heretics. Eventually Bishop Ithacius of Ossonoba petitioned the emperor to execute Priscillian. Martin was against capital punishment and convinced the emperor to not kill the heretic. After he left, Ithacius changed the emperor’s mind again and the execution took place in 385. Martin refused to speak to the bishop until the emperor got involved.
Martin died in 397, on one of his tours.
Due to Martin’s extensive travels, there are many chapels dedicated to him throughout France. In consequence, he is the patron of France. But he is also patron of alcoholics, reformed alcoholics, vintners, soldiers and innkeepers, to name just a few.
Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; let me now serve Christ.