November 10, 2017

Saint Martin of Tours, the Soldier Who Became a Saint

St. Martin of Tours

November 11th is the memorial of St. Martin of Tours. Born around the year 316, in present-day Hungary during the reign of Constantine, he was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. Martin was immediately thrust into a world in transition. Although Christianity had recently been declared legal in the Roman Empire, there were many people who still worshipped the various Roman deities of old, including Martin’s parents. In order to follow Christ, the young Martin had to become a catechumen in secret — which he did at the tender age of 10.

At age 15, Martin, as the son of a veteran, was compelled by Roman law to join the army. Though he was a soldier, he tried his utmost to live as a Christian. It was at Amiens, Gaul (modern-day France) that he performed the service for which he would always be remembered. As the army entered the town on a particularly cold winter day, they encountered a poor beggar, dressed in rags and in danger of freezing to death. Martin, moved with compassion, took off his own military cloak, which was lined in lamb’s wool, and sliced it in two with his sword. One half he gave to the beggar; the other he wrapped around his own shoulders. Although some in the crowd jeered at him, Martin had a dream that night in which Jesus appeared, dressed in half a military cloak. The Lord said, "See! this is the mantle that Martin, yet a catechumen, gave me." Upon awakening, Martin went out immediately and was baptized. He was 18 years old.

After eight years as a soldier, the discrepancy between his military life and his Christian values became too much for him to reconcile. With much difficulty, he was finally released from the army. He soon became both a disciple of St. Hilary of Poitiers and a staunch enemy of those who followed the Arian heresy, which was prevalent and pernicious in the early Church. This stand did not make him popular. In fact, when he returned home to visit his parents (his mother had by that time converted to Christianity), the Arians whipped him, driving him away.

Martin’s life of holiness had become apparent to many, and the people of Tours, where he resided lived, wished to acclaim him as their bishop. Aware that his humility would prevent him from accepting the position directly, the citizens of Tours tricked him into coming into the city. Once he arrived, they forced him to accept the solemn episcopacy, which Martin did with tremendous reluctance.

At the end of his life, despite the fact that he so virulently opposed heresy, he could not agree with a bishop named Ithacius that heretics should be put to death. He tried, without success, to secure the release of one Priscillian, but, at Ithacius’s insistence, the man and his followers were executed anyway. Deeply distressed, Martin cut all ties with Ithacius and it would have remained that way except for the emperor, Maximus. The emperor agreed to release some rebels taken prisoner by his predecessor, but only on the condition that Martin be reconciled to Ithacius. To save the lives of the men, Martin agreed, but was so overcome with remorse that he never attended any councils of bishops again.

St. Martin of Tours was one of the few early saints who did not suffer martyrdom. He died of illness at the age of 81 in 397, humble and prayerful to the end. He is the patron of soldiers. O God, who are glorified in the Bishop Saint Martin both by his life and death, make new, we pray, the wonders of your grace in our hearts, that neither death nor life may separate us from your love. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son. who lives and reigns with you, one God, forever. Amen.

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