Today is the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours. Ora pro nobis.
“Martin, the special patron of the whole world” Saint Gregory of Tours
By Harry Stevens
In the late Roman Empire, Savaria was a small, remote outpost village (today Szombathely, Hungary) built during the reign of Claudius. The Roman Legions controlled the village on the major trade route between Italia and Pannonia, inhabited by the ‘Pannonii,’ Indo-European tribes.
One of Savaria’s legionnaires was a military tribune who rose from the ranks; he had a son in 316 or 317 AD. The boy was named Martin, or ‘little Mars,’ the ancient god of war–a divinity near and dear to a Roman soldier’s heart. This pagan military family was probably of the cult of Mithras, as were many Roman soldiers. But the child Martin was born during Constantine’s reign of 306-337, when for the first time Christians were tolerated.
Military families today move around often, and it was no different in Martin’s time. After his birth, Martin’s family was moved to Ticinum, (today Pavia, Italy) not far from Milan. Martin spent his early years in Ticinum; his parents were part of a privileged institution, the Army.
Martin’s father retired, and was given land in Ticinum. There is a story of young Martin disappearing for three days, which he spent in a forbidden Christian church asking questions. He even asked to be baptized, which did not happen — though something in this young boy was surely pulling him towards the Eternal Truth.
Martin’s Military Years
In the year 331, the Emperor Constantine issued an edict requiring all sons of veterans to enlist in the Roman Army. Martin, at the age of 15, had his destiny decided for him.
He was conscripted into the Army, and assigned to the prestigious scholae imperatoris, an elite unit which guarded the Emperor. However, his heart was elsewhere; Martin wanted to be a hermit in the desert and lead a life of prayer.
In the extreme cold winter of 335 AD, Martin was 18, stationed in Amiens, Gaul, where reports tell us that “many were dying of intense cold.” When he came across a half-naked beggar, Martin took his sword “cut the cape in two and gave half to the beggar, putting on the rest himself again.”
This was regarded as madness by his fellow soldiers, but in retrospect had an electrifying effect across Christendom. Martin could not have known the importance of this kind act. This one episode is frozen in time across the Christian world — in paintings and statues, especially throughout France, and Germany — to this day.
That night in his sleep, Martin saw Christ wearing half his cape. It was a vision that would haunt him all his days. Though Martin was still a catechumen, it is said he was baptized shortly after this event.
Confronting an Apostate Emperor
More than 20 years later, we find Martin bravely confronting the new Emperor, Julian the Apostate. Before a battle at Worms, Martin said to the Caesar: “I have been your soldier up to now, let me now be God’s. Let someone who is going to fight have your bonus. I am Christ’s soldier; I am not allowed to fight.”
Julian flew into an imperial rage, and accused Martin of cowardice. In response, Martin offered to advance alone and unarmed against the enemy in the name of Christ.
Julian’s response in turn was to have Martin thrown into prison. Incredibly, the next day, the Germanic invaders asked for peace. Shortly thereafter, Martin was released from prison, and discharged.
The Holy Years
Martin served Caesar for 25 years; now he sought his Master. He was drawn to Hilary of Poitiers, later Saint Hilary. Under Hilary’s guidance, Martin became an exorcist, then deacon, then priest. He settled near Ligugé and for about ten years lived an austere life, preaching the Gospel in Gaul.
He attracted followers. More than 80 men gathered with Martin to form an early monastic community – about a century before St Benedict and his famed monastic rule. This community of Liguge survived until 1607 as a monastery; it was rebuilt by the Benedictines of Solesmes in 1852.
Because of his holiness and renown as a preacher, Martin became Bishop of Tours in 371 by popular acclaim. It was not an office he sought; however, it seemed God always had other plans then Martin had for himself.
Traveling for Christ
Bishop Martin continued to live an austere life near Marmoutier, which later also became a famous monastery. Here he trained priests, many who would later become bishops themselves.
He also traveled widely, covering incredible distances throughout what is now France and Germany, deliberately seeking out pagan strongholds to bring them the Gospel.
He traveled far from his diocese, and the stories that accompanied his visits emanate from today’s cities of Trier, Dijon, Beaune, and Vienne. Martin would go into villages, destroy pagan sites, and build a church. As such, Martin was one of the originators of the Catholic parish. (Paroikia is Greek for house, parochia is latin, and paroisse is French).
Martin is known to have raised three people from the dead, the last one a pagan child near Chartres. This last miracle helped convert many pagans.
There is a Martin story regarding a pine tree that is almost as famous as the cloak story. Many of the pagans were of cults that worshiped sacred trees. Undaunted, Martin proceeded to cut down the symbol of their cult. The peasants there offered to cut it down themselves, on condition that he who trusted so strongly in his God would stand under it wherever they would place him. Martin agreed and allowed himself to be tied under the side towards which the tree was leaning. We hear of the intense fear of the brother monks who accompanied. Just as it seemed about to fall on him, he made the sign of the cross, at which the tree fell in the other direction. The pagans gasped at the miracle, the monks wept for joy, and many of the pagans asked to become Christians because of what they had witnessed.
Many stories are also told of Martin pitted in demonic combat. Martin won these spiritual battles using prayer and the Sign of the Cross as his weapons. Often, Martin was called to drive demons out of people, and animals. Martin succeeded by the grace of God, always knowing Who the Exorcist actually was.
A Holy Death
Martin was still traveling and doing the Lord’s work at 80 years of age, though he sensed that he would soon to join the Communion of Saints.
He was traveling in Touraine, at Candes on the Loire River, there to settle a dispute among a group of prelates. Feeling weak, he asked to be taken into the local Church. The faithful wanted to lay Martin on a bed of straw; Martin asked for a bed of ashes. The monks pleaded with him to allow them at least to put a sheet under him and make his last hours comfortable. “It becomes not a Christian,” said Martin, “to die otherwise than upon ashes. I shall have sinned if I leave you any other example.”
He lay with eyes and hands raised to Heaven, until the brothers begged him to turn on one side to rest his body a little. “Allow me, my brethren,” he answered, “to look towards Heaven rather than to earth, that my soul may be ready to take its flight to the Lord.”
Martin died on Sunday 8 November 397. His funeral was solemnly celebrated in Tours on November 11, which ever afterwards has been celebrated as St Martin’s Day in Germany and France. (Editor’s Note: It was the day chosen for the Armistice between these two powers at the end of World War I and since celebrated as Remembrance Day in the UK and Veteran’s Day in the US.)
We are told that two thousand monks and nuns gathered for his funeral, 1617 years ago.
Europe’s Extraordinary Devotion to St Martin
There are St Martin of Tours parishes throughout France and Germany – as far east as the Rhine River, following the ancient borders of the Roman world. The story of St Martin and the cloak is known throughout these regions, and is depicted in statues and frescoes.
On 11 November each year, the feast of St. Martin is solemnly celebrated in the Basilica of Tours. Today, there are St Martin lantern parades for children on the evening of November 11 throughout France and Germany. (Editor’s Note: Though most Germans and French today have only a very hazy idea of who Martin actually was, the traditions surrounding his day – of bringing light to the darkness – remain strong.)
Today, there are 1573 Churches in France named after St Martin, 652 in Germany, 912 in Italy, 212 in the UK, and 157 in the USA.
Saint Martin of Tours, Ora Pro Nobis!
Postscript: Martin’s Biographer
Much of the above history comes from Sulpicius Severus, Martin’s friend and biographer. Severus was a lawyer who gave up a life of luxury to follow his friend in faith. He wrote the story of Martin’s life in 397, when it became a ‘best seller’ of the ancient world.
Regine Pernoud, Martin of Tours, Ignatius Press.
Sulpicius Serverus, The Western Fathers: Being the Lives of SS. Martin of Tours, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Honoratus of Arles, and Germanus of Auxerre, Sheed and Ward.
Church statistics from Saint Martin churches in the world
Photo Credit: Harry Stevens and Teresa Limjoco
Other References by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff: