About the same year that St. Helena discovered the True Cross (c. 316), a son was born to a Roman army officer and his wife in Pannonia (modern Hungary). The parents were pagans, but the child, Martin, was attracted to the Christian religion he learned about when his family moved to Italy, and he became a catechumen.
As a teenager, Martin also became a soldier, was sent to Amiens in Gaul, and experienced a dream which changed his life forever. Martin and some fellow soldiers saw a poorly-clad beggar near the city gates. Martin was so moved with pity for the man that he took his sword and cut his heavy woolen soldier’s cloak in half. Giving half to the beggar, he wrapped himself in the other half. That night, our Lord appeared to Martin in a dream, clad in the portion of the cloak given to the beggar. In the dream, Jesus said to the angels around him, “Martin, while only a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak.” Immediately after having this dream, Martin asked to be baptized.
Martin was soon faced with a conflict between his faith and his profession. When he refused to participate in a military campaign, he was put into prison until after the conflict was over. He then left military service, prepared to devote the rest of his life to serving Christ.
Martin became a disciple of St. Hilary, the bishop of Poitiers and, like him, spent years fighting heresy, particularly that of the Arians. He was several times physically attacked and banished from Arian territory. At another time, Martin defended the heretic Pricillian – not for his heretical beliefs, which the Church had already condemned – but against the Emperor’s order to execute him as a civil criminal. Martin rightly feared that Pricillian’s “martyrdom” would only increase the heresy.
Finally (around 360), Martin was able to pursue the life he desired – that of the solitary monk in his cell. He founded what is believed to be the first monastery in Gaul, in Ligugé (a monastery which survived until 1607 and was rebuilt in 1852).
Martin’s reputation as a holy man led the people to acclaim him bishop of Tours on the death of that city’s bishop, and it was only through trickery and force that the people were able to get him to accept. The “busy-ness” of life in Tours caused Bishop Martin to found another monastery at Marmoutier, where the greater solitude gave him strength to carry out his duties.
St. Martin did much to convert the people in rural areas to Christianity. He dramatically demolished their temples and cut down their sacred trees, taught them the true faith and baptized them. As he traveled on foot, by donkey and boat visiting all the parishes in his diocese, he healed the sick and defended the poor and oppressed.
At more than 80 years of age, Martin had a premonition of his death. He died while visiting a remote part of his diocese, with his eyes and hands raised to heaven, on November 8, 397. His body was carried back to Tours where he was buried on November 11, the day we celebrate as his feast day.
A biography of Martin, written by his friend Sulpicius Severus, made the saint known to all the Christian Church in the East and the West (in France alone, there are 500 villages and 4,000 parish churches named for him!)
By his youthful conversion to Christianity, by his determined living of the faith, by his untiring fight against heresy, by his merciful works of healing, by his faithful care of his flock, by the miracles which continued after his death, St. Martin glorified God. As he worships now at the throne of God, may he pray for us who seek to follow his holy example.