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Saint of the Month: St Martin of Tours

Feast day: 11 November

Martin of Tours was born in either 316 or 336 in Savaria, in the diocese of Pannonia (now Szombathely in Hungary). His father was a senior officer (tribune) in the Roman army. He was given veteran status and allotted land where he could retire to in Ticinium (now Pavia) in Northern Italy, where Martin grew up.

At the age of ten he attended the Christian church against the wishes of his parents and became a catechumen. Christianity had been made legal in the Roman Empire but it was still a minority religion, the cult of Mithras being more popular among members of the army. As a son of a veteran officer, Martin at the age of fifteen was required to join a cavalry ala (auxiliary unit). When he was eighteen he was stationed in Gaul in what is now Amiens. It was then that he met a beggar, scantily clothed, and he divided his cloak in two to share with the poor man. That night Martin dreamed of Jesus, wearing the half cloak he had given away. He heardhim say to some of the angels, “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.” After this Martin was baptised.

It is not clear exactly when he left the army but at some stage he declared that “I am a soldier of Christ; it is not lawful for me to fight.” He was charged with cowardice and jailed, but in response he offered to go unarmed in front of the troops. He was saved from doing this because the expected battle never took place. Martin was then released from military service.

He became a follower of Hilary of Poitier’s Christian orthodoxy and opposed the Arianism of the Imperial Court. This heresy denied that the Son was equal to the Father and made him into a created being. Hilary was forced into exile and Martin, being directed in a dream to visit his home, went to Pannonia. He converted his mother and some other people but he could not win his father over. While in Illyricum (modern Balkans) he took sides against the Arians and received a public flogging. He was then forced to leave. On his return he was confronted by the Arian Archbishop of Milan, who expelled him from the city. He then decided to seek shelter on an island, now called Isola d’Albenga in the Ligurian sea. Here he lived as a hermit but was not always alone, for Hilary of Poitiers was there some of the time. Martin lived on roots and wild herbs. He also ate Hellebore, which he did not know was poisonous. He was on the point of death but prayed and was miraculously cured.

Hilary returned to his see and Martin established a hermitage, which soon attracted converts. Here the Benedictine monastery of Ligugé was established. It became a centre for the evangelisation of country districts. Martin went through Gaul preaching.

In 371 Martin was acclaimed Bishop of Tours, where he had impressed the city. He had actually been drawn to Tours by a ruse, being urged to go to minister to a sick person. He was brought to the church, where he reluctantly allowed himself to be consecrated bishop. According to one version, he was so unwilling to undertake the office that he hid in a barn full of geese but their cackling soon made his whereabouts known.

As bishop, Martin set out zealously to destroy pagan temples, altars and sculptures. His friend and biographer Sulpicius relates that Martin withdrew from the city to Marmoutier, the monastery that he had founded, which faces Tours on the opposite shore of the river Loire. Here he and some of the monks that followed him built cells of wood; others lived in caves.

Martin introduced a rudimentary parish system. Once a year he visited each of his parishes, travelling by foot, donkey or by boat. He continued to set up monastic communities and extended the bounds of his episcopate from Touraine to distant Chartres, Paris, Autun and Vienne. He was so dedicated to the freeing of prisoners that when authorities heard he was coming they would refuse to see him because they knew he would request mercy for someone and they would be unable to refuse.

Martin became involved in the opposition to Priscillian, bishop of Avila, and his followers, who taught that material is evil and spirit good. Martin, though he was against the heresy, did not believe that heretics should be put to death. He also tried to prevent the intrusion of the Emperor into such matters. However, in spite of a promise to spare Priscillian, the Emperor Maximus yielded to the bishop Ithacius and ordered Priscillian and his followers to be beheaded. Martin then pleaded for a cessation of the persecution of Priscillian’s followers in Spain.

Martin died in Candes Saint Martin, Gaul (central France), in 397. There was a dispute as to where he should be buried. One evening after dark several residents of Tours carried Martin’s body to a boat which was rowed to Tours. It was met by a large crowd of people. One chronicle states that 2,000 monks and nearly as many white robed virgins walked in the procession to a small grove outside of Tours where Martin was buried.

The Abbey of Marmoutier which Martin had founded became a stopping-place on pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. St Ninian spent time there and St Columbanus prayed at the tomb of St Martin. In 1453 the remains of the saint were transferred to a new reliquary donated by Charles VII of France. It was disestablished at the French Revolution, used as a stable and finally demolished. However, excavations were made in the nineteenth century and the tomb of St Martin was rediscovered in 1860. A new basilica was begun with the revival of devotion to him and it was consecrated in 1925.

Many countries have celebrations around the time of his feast day. For example in the Netherlands, Flanders, parts of Germany and Austria children carry paper lanterns in procession. In parts of Belgium children receive presents on his feast day instead of at Christmas. In Portugal, where his feast is celebrated throughout the country, families gather round the fireplace and eat roast chestnuts and drink wine.

Much of the information about St Martin comes from Sulpicius Severus who knew Martin personally and wrote his life story with letters and dialogues.

St Martin of Tours, pray for us.