He was born 1700 years ago this year in Hungary, yet has left an unparalleled legacy across Europe. Five thousand monuments commemorate him in Italy, where he spent much of his childhood as son of a Roman military officer. Fourteen European cathedrals are named after him. Nearly quarter of a million French people have his name as their surname. He also gave his name to 225 municipalities in France and some 37,000 churches worldwide. He is considered the father of western monasticism, founding some of the first monasteries in the west.
While derived from Mars–the Roman god of war–his name has become synonymous with mercy and compassion through his actions. And it is forever linked with the French city of Tours where he was made bishop by the people against his own will.
For Martin of Tours continues to inspire and influence contemporary Europeans to reflect and act on the teachings of Jesus. This commemoration year is attracting pilgrims to Tours and the basilica where he is buried, as I discovered while travelling in France last week.
Born around 316, very soon after Emperor Constantine’s conversion, Martin wanted to serve God at the early age of ten years, we learn from his biographer, Sulpitius Severus (c. 363–c. 425). But his father had no sympathies for his son’s spiritual aspirations and Martin was forced to join the army and take the military oath.
As a young 18-year-old soldier, Martin was posted in Amiens in Gaul, north of Paris, when he encountered a naked beggar at the city gates. Severus writes: What should he do? He had nothing except the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already (given away) the rest of his garments. Taking therefore his sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed himself with the remainder. Upon this, some of the bystanders laughed, because he was now an unsightly object, and stood out as but partly undressed. However many who were of sounder understanding groaned deeply because they themselves had done nothing similar. They especially felt this, because, being possessed of more than Martin, they could have clothed the poor man without reducing themselves to nakedness.
This event would become legendary after Martin’s ministry and fame began to spread, thanks to Severus’ account. Eventually, the half cloak he kept himself was preserved as a relic as ‘St Martin’s Cape’ in the oratory of the line of Frankish kings known as the House of Capet, starting with Hugh Capet (c.940–996). The little shelter built to house the cape became known as a Capel or chapel. The priest who accompanied the cape carried into battle along with soldiers, as a relic to guarantee St Martin’s blessing on the outcome, was called capellan, or chaplain.
Young soldier Martin however had great difficulty reconciling his Christian faith with military service and told his commander on the eve of a battle with barbarians near Worms in Germany, ‘I am the soldier of Christ, it is not lawful for me to fight.’ Accused of cowardice, Martin volunteered to stand unarmed on the frontline the next day: ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus, protected by the sign of the cross and not by shield or helmet, I will safely penetrate the ranks of the enemy.’
As dawn broke the next day, the enemy surrendered before fighting began and the vindicated Martin was discharged from service. Martin headed to Poitiers in Gaul to become a disciple of St. Hilary. In his mid-thirties, Martin gathered a number of monks around him, eventually forming the core of a monastic community from which later developed the celebrated Benedictine Abbey of Ligugé.
Martin’s military background helped him see the strategic potential of such a community for supporting evangelistic outreach. He himself set out to evangelise the pagan inhabitants of central and western Gaul. Many legends survive about the saint’s exploits. Severus tells of miracles of healing through Martin’s ministry and even the raising of three different individuals from the dead. One personally told the biographer how, after leaving his body, a heavenly tribunal told him that he would go back to earthly life due to Martin’s prayerful intervention.
Despite becoming bishop of Tours, he continued to live in a cell outside the city as he carried out his new duties with simplicity and evangelistic fervour. Again he was soon joined by other hermits, and another monastic community emerged, which still exists today: Marmoutier.
Martin died in his eighties around 397 and became one the most revered saints in France’s history. Since the 1918 Armistice ending the Great War on his feast day of November 11, he has been regarded as the unofficial patron saint of this very secular nation.
Till next week,