In the first thousand years of Christianity, St. Martin of Tours was one of the most widely-venerated and beloved saints in the Church. Born to pagan parents just a few years after the legalization of Christianity in 313, Martin embraced the Christian faith at an early age. As the son of a retired Roman military official of high rank, Martin was expected to serve in the army. He likely served in an elite calvary unit that was part of the imperial bodyguard. One day, during a blizzard, the young calvary officer was traveling on horseback near the French city of Amiens. He noticed a poorly-clad beggar by the city gates, shivering in the cold. Instinctively, Martin used his sword to cut his heavy military cloak in two, giving half of it to the poor man. That night, he had a dream in which the beggar was revealed to be Jesus, still holding the gift that Martin had given Him.
With the ascendancy of the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who had been raised as a Christian but ultimately rejected his faith, Martin decided he needed to resign imperial service. To do so, however, was to be charged with the crime of cowardice – a capital offense. No coward, Martin volunteered on the eve of a battle to join the front-line troops unarmed, a satisfactory arrangement for his military judges, as it meant certain death. Just before the battle, however, terms were negotiated and the battle was called off. Thus, Martin was released and free to pursue a life devoted to Christ. He became a follower and friend of the bishop St. Hilary of Poitiers. Martin demonstrated a soldier’s courage in joining St. Hilary’s long struggle against the Arian heresy, and suffered to defend the authentic Catholic teaching that had fallen out of favor in the Empire. Despite his having suffered at the hands of Arians, Martin denounced the practice of executing heretics, advocating instead for mercy. Martin’s reputation for holiness was such that the people of the city of Tours wanted him to be their bishop. They sent for Martin, asking him to come under the pretext that they wanted him to visit someone who was sick. When he arrived, they acclaimed him their bishop. Martin would have much preferred to remain a monk, but after some resistance, he reluctantly accepted ordination and from 371-397 devotedly served the Church in Tours.
Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim (Norway) writes that St. Martin’s decision to accept the episcopacy was difficult, but a great blessing. It was a blessing because by dying to himself in this way for the sake of caring for souls, his life revealed the meaning of the gospel. It was a blessing also because, as Bishop, Martin spent his days doing the invaluable work of preaching, helping people to understand the faith and to distinguish “light from darkness, truth from untruth.” St. Martin’s only desire in life, writes Varden, was “to follow God’s plan, [and] to do it wholeheartedly, with joy.” Varden concludes his reflection on the great saint reminding us that, “To be human, is serious stuff. Each of us has the opportunity to accomplish great, truly great things if, like Martin, we step into God’s plan, instead of squeezing him into ours.” The feast day of St. Martin of Tours is this Friday, November 11.