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St. Martin of Tours (316-397)

320px-El_Greco_-_San_Martín_y_el_mendigo

He was the son of a pagan Roman officer and born in 316 in what is now Hungary. Educated in Pavia in northern Italy. From the age of ten, he knew he intended to become a Christian but was enrolled in the Imperial calvary five years later against his will and before he could be baptized. One bitterly cold night at Amiens, he gave half of his cloak to a freezing naked beggar and soon afterwards saw a vision of Christ wearing it. This is the basis of his invocation against impoverishment and has been depicted by numerous artist including El Greco (seen above). As a result of this event, he was finally baptized.

He asked for a discharge because he believed that as a Christian he was not allowed to fight and was accused of cowardice. His answer to that was to stand unarmed in battle holding only a cross-at the sight of which the enemy surrendered. He was given his discharge in 339 and became a disciple of St. Hillary of Potiers; he ended up converting his mother to Christianity. Martin later travelled in Italy and Dalmatia. He lived as a hermit for ten years before rejoining Hilary who encouraged him to found a community of monk-hermits at Liguge, the first monastery in what is now France.

In 372, Martin, now 56, accepted the episcopate in Tours. He was reluctant to accept the position and continued to live as a monk, first in a cell near his church and later at Marmoutier where he established another great monastic center. He continued to live in a strict monastic way until his death. He was zealous in the discharge of his duties. As bishop of Tours, he was a dedicated missionary to the Franks and other northern tribes who had invaded the region. As a former soldier, he used military methods in missionary work. He travelled to the remotest parts of the diocese by foot, by donkey and by boat. From Tours, he led an army of monks through France destroying idols, pagan temples and graves and preaching. Martin was also a wonder worker whose miracles included healing lepers and raising a man from the dead.

Martin opposed Arianism and Priscillianism, the two great heresies of the day, but condemned the practice of putting heretics to death. He actually interceded with the emperor Maximus in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the execution of Priscillian and others for heresy, declaring that it was sufficient to declare them heretics and excommunicate them.

The first great pioneer of Western monasticism, Martin died at Candes, near Tours in 397. More than 2,000 monks attended his body on its return to Tours. He is the patron saint of France. His feast day is November 11. The saint has given his name to a spell of good weather around his feast day (Nov. 11) known as St. Martin’s summer; the English equivalent of the American Indian summer. His biography, written by Sulpicius Severus, was extremely popular in the Middle Ages and his cult was widespread. In France, over 4000 churches are dedicated to him. And the Benedictine monastery near me where I am going to be an oblate is named after St. Martin of Tours. A popular saint indeed, he is the patron saint of not only France, but also soldiers, horses, riders, geese and wine growers. His emblems are a globe of fire and a goose.