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Martin of Tours: A Life of Service to God and Others

Articles | November 10, 2023 | by Catholics for Catholics

On November 11th, the Catholic Church honors St. Martin of Tours, a former Roman soldier who went on to become a “soldier of Christ” as a monk and bishop.

Born in modern-day Hungary around the year 316, Martin’s family relocated to Italy when his father, a military official of the Roman Empire, was transferred there. Although his parents were pagans, Martin felt drawn towards the Catholic faith, which had become legal throughout the empire in 313. At the age of 10, he received religious instruction, and even considered becoming a hermit in the desert.

However, at the age of 15, Martin joined the Roman army, despite not having received baptism. He led a humble and upright life in the military, generously giving much of his pay to the poor. One incident, in particular, changed his life: when he saw a freezing beggar without warm clothing near a gate at the city of Amiens in Gaul, Martin cut his own cloak in half with his sword, giving one half to the beggar. That night, he had a dream of Christ, who wore the half-cloak he had given to the beggar. Jesus declared: “Martin, a catechumen, has clothed me with this garment.”

This experience confirmed to Martin that the time had come for him to join the Church. After his baptism, he remained in the army for two more years, but desired to dedicate his life to God more fully than his profession would allow. When he finally asked for permission to leave the Roman army, he was accused of cowardice during an invasion by the Germans. In response, Martin offered to stand before the enemy forces unarmed. “In the name of the Lord Jesus, and protected not by a helmet and buckler, but by the sign of the cross, I will thrust myself into the thickest squadrons of the enemy without fear.” However, peace negotiations with the Germans prevented this display of faith, and Martin was discharged.

After living as a Catholic for some time, Martin traveled to meet Bishop Hilary of Poitiers, a skilled theologian and later canonized saint. Hilary was impressed with Martin’s dedication to the faith and asked him to return to his diocese after visiting his parents in Hungary. While there, Martin persuaded his mother to join the Church.

However, Hilary had angered the Arians, a group that denied Jesus was God, resulting in his banishment. Martin spent some time living a life of severe asceticism, which almost killed him. They met again in 360, when Hilary’s banishment ended. After their reunion, Hilary granted Martin a piece of land to build what may have been the first monastery in the region of Gaul. During the next decade as a monk, Martin became renowned for raising two people from the dead through his prayers. This evidence of his holiness led to his appointment as the third Bishop of Tours in the middle of present-day France.

Although he did not want to be a bishop, Martin continued to live as a monk, dressing plainly and owning no personal possessions. In this same spirit of sacrifice, he traveled throughout his diocese, driving out pagan practices. Both the Church and the Roman Empire experienced upheaval during Martin’s time as bishop. Priscillianism, a heresy involving salvation through a system of secret knowledge, caused serious problems in Spain and Gaul that resulted in civil authorities sentencing the heretics to death. But Martin, along with the Pope and St. Ambrose of Milan, opposed the death sentence for the Priscillianists.

Even in old age, Martin continued to live an austere life focused on the care of souls. St. Sulpicius Severus, his disciple and biographer, noted that the bishop helped all people with their moral, intellectual and spiritual problems. He also helped many laypersons discover their calling to the consecrated life of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Martin knew that his death was approaching and told his disciples of it. But when his last illness came upon him during a pastoral journey, the bishop felt uncertain about leaving his people. “Lord, if I am still necessary to thy people, I refuse no labour. Thy holy will be done,” he prayed. He developed a fever, but did not sleep, passing his last several nights in the presence of God in prayer.

“Allow me, my brethren, to look rather towards heaven than upon the earth, that my soul may be directed to take its flight to the Lord to whom it is going,” he told his followers, shortly before he died in November of 397.

Martin of Tours is among the most beloved saints in the history of Europe. In a 2007 Angelus address, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his hope “that all Christians may be like St Martin, generous witnesses of the Gospel of love and tireless builders of jointly responsible sharing.”

For the original article click here.


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