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St. Martin, Bishop of Tours

Saint Martin Saint Martin  (© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana)

There are few people whose life story can be summed up in a single indelible act. Saint Martin belongs in this special category. The story of Martin giving up half of his cloak is emblematic of his life.
Martin was born around the year 316, in Pannonia, now Hungary, on the peripheries of the late Roman Empire. The son of a military tribune, he grew up in Pavia, Italy, after his father was given land in that city. Although his parents were pagan, Martin was interested in Christianity, and already at age twelve showed an interest in becoming an ascetic and retiring to the desert. But an imperial edict arrived, commanding him to take up the sword and putting an end, so it seemed, to his dream of a life of solitude and prayer. Forced to enlist, Martin became a soldier and was stationed in the territory of Gaul.

Giving half to Christ

Sometime around the year 335, Martin, now an Imperial guard, was making his rounds on horseback, when he came across a half-naked beggar. Taking compassion on the poor man, Martin took his military cloak, cut it in two, and gave half to the beggar. The following night, Jesus Himself appeared to Martin in a dream, wearing the cloak. Addressing the angels who accompanied him, the Lord said, “Behold, here is Martin, an unbaptized Roman soldier: He has clothed me.” The dream left a grave impression on the young soldier, and Martin was baptised the following Easter. He continued to serve in the army for twenty more years, in an environment totally removed from his youthful dreams.

From monk to bishop

As soon as possible, Martin left the army, and travelled to Poitiers to meet Hilary, the bishop, who was a firm adversary of the Arian heresy. On account of his strong stance, Hilary was exiled by the emperor Constantius II (who supported the Arians). Upon hearing the news of Hilary’s exile, Martin, who in the meantime had gone to visit his family in Pannonia, retired to a hermitage near Milan. When Hilary returned from exile, Martin went to France to find him and obtained the bishop’s permission to found a monastery near the city of Tours. Having erected small huts for himself and his companions, Martin, the former soldier who had clothed the poor Christ, himself became poor, as he had always desired. Dedicated to prayer and the preaching of the Gospel, Martin travelled through France, where many came to know him. His popularity led the people to choose him to be Bishop of Tours in 371. Martin ultimately agreed to be consecrated, but maintained an ascetic lifestyle. He refused to live like a prince while the people suffered; and the poor, the sick, and prisoners continued to find shelter under his mantle. He lived near the city walls in the monastery of Marmoutier, said to be the oldest in France. Dozens of monks, including many of noble birth, lived with him and shared his austerities.

A true knight

In 397, Bishop Martin, now almost 80 years old, travelled to Candate (now Candes-Saint-Martin) to heal a local schism. On account of his virtue and strong personality, he was able to restore peace; but before he was able to return home, he fell ill with a violent fever. He asked to be laid out on the bare earth, and breathed his last before a great crowd.