St. Martin of Tours is known as the glory of Gaul and the light of the Western Church in the 4th century.
Martin was born around 316 AD in Lower Hungary, near the border of modern day Austria. His father was an officer in the Imperial Army and they moved to Italy where he was raised and educated. Even though his parents were pagan, Martin was infused with a special grace. At age ten, against their permission and wishes, he began to attend a Catholic Church and enrolled himself as a catechumen. By age twelve he expressed the desire to follow a monastic life in the desert, but his tender age and the adamant opposition of his family prevented him. An Imperial Order was passed that all sons of veteran officers and soldiers had to join the army and Martin's father was overjoyed that his son would now "leave his dream world in the clouds and come back the hard reality of earth." Martin was forced to bear arms and entered the Roman cavalry. Although not yet baptized, he strove zealously to keep himself from all vice and to grow in the practice of all virtues - the army life provided him with ample opportunity to exercise humility, charity, patience, and to help the afflicted.
St. Sulpicius narrates the famous story that one cold day while marching near the city of Amiens, a poor man, almost naked, begged for alms from those passing by. Most did not even notice this miserable wretch, and so Marin approached him. On account of his tendency to give so many alms, he had nothing left, except his arms and clothes. Thus he drew his sword and cut his great cloak in half. This he gave the beggar so he could fend off the cold. Many saw this and ridiculed Martin. The following night, Jesus visited Martin in his dream - he was dressed in the half cloak Martin had given the beggar. Our Lord said: "Martin, yet a catechumenate, has clothed me with this garment." Upon awaking, Martin was consumed with the desire for baptism, which Providence did not grant him until he was 18 and after he had served still two more years in the army. It appeared Martin was finally going to receive his dismissal from the army in order to be baptized, when the Germanic Barbarians advanced on their position in Gaul. His superiors surmised that he only wanted to escape the battle and denied Martin's long sought desire to leave in order to be baptized. The saint boldly proclaimed that he had no fear of death and that he would willingly be placed in the front lines without arms for "In the name of the Lord Jesus, and protected not by a helmet and buckler, but by the Sign of the Cross, I will thrust myself into the thickets squadrons of the enemy with fear!" Yet that night the barbarians unexpectedly sued for peace, and thus Martin was able to receive holy Baptism. After serving his obligatory five years in the army, Martin left to study under the tutelage of the St. Hilary, the holy Bishop of Poitiers.
Once St. Martin was under St. Hilary in Poiters (west-central France, about 200 miles southwest of Paris), the bishop quickly recognized his great sanctity and virtue. Hilary wanted to ordain him a deacon, but out of his great humility, Martin preferred a lower clerical state (namely, that of exorcist). Martin received permission to visit his parents in Pannonia (in today's map this includes parts of Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, and Austria) and he had to travel across the Alps. On this journey he was ambushed and attacked by robbers. One of them lifted his sword ready to strike Martin dead, but hesitated as Martin showed no fear and this truly took him aback. Upon being question by the thieves, Who are you? Why are you not afraid? Martin explained that he was a Christian, baptized, and had never been more calm or serene than under this danger, because he trusted completed in divine goodness. He had no reason to fear because God our Creator and Savior is in control of all events. If God chose His death that moment, Martin would be happy to obey and accept His holy will! Martin continued explaining that what did grieve him was that these thieves were in the greatest of danger, for they had deprived themselves of the mercy of Christ. The thieves greatly admired his courage, honesty, and humility and spared his life. The one who had attempted to kill him afterwards sought Baptism, became a Christian, and lived a penitential religious life in a monastery. It is that thief who related this story for subsequent generations.
Martin reached his parents. His mother and many others were converted to Christianity, but his father remained in his infidelity. Martin traveled in Illyricum (modern day Serbia, Bosnia, Albania) for he had heard that the Arian** heresy had grown very strong there. He preached against the Arians with such zeal and conviction, and with such a powerful and moving example of virtue, that the so-called Christian religious leaders of that land (Arian heretics that is) had Martin scourged and banished from their country. Once cast across the Aegean Sea into Italy, he thought of returning to Poitiers, but learned that the Arians had gained power there too and banished St. Hilary from his Diocese! Instead he drew near the walls of Milan and entered the monastic life. Yet in Milan too an Arian usurper, Auxentius, subsequently invaded and conquered the Church and ruled the state. Auxentius readily heard of Martin's great zeal, and especially of his defense of the True Faith at a council in Nice (France), and thus he persecuted Martin and drove him far away from Milan. In this great distress, who knows what would have happened to our saint, had not Divine Providence provided for him. He fell into the company of a good and holy priest. Together a small group of them founded a monastic life on the desert island of Gallinaria (along the Italian coast between Genoa and Nice). Here he lived a life of great austerity, surviving on roots and wild herbs. Once he even ate a great quantity of a poisonous herb (hellebore) and was upon his last breath, yet by much prayer and a miraculous intervention God preserved his life from death.
** NOTE: The Arians deny that Jesus Christ is truly God, of the same nature and substance as the Father, eternally begotten. I would rank it as one of the four worst heresies to inflict the Catholic Church, right up there with Gnosticism, Protestantism and Modernism. Yet in terms of its destructive power and destroying the Church from within, the Arian heresy is probably the worst the Church has had to suffer until Modernism, that synthesis of all heresies that Pope St. Pius X recognized had begun to flow in the very veins of the Church.
In 360 AD, St. Hilary was finally able to return to his Diocese. Martin heard the news, overtook him on the road, and accompanied him back home. It was Martin's earnest desire to live a life of monastic solitude and this Hilary granted him. He was given some land and founded the first monastery in all of Gaul. His visitors at the monastery were many varied peoples, all who came to enjoy the solitude, penance and prayer. On one occasion, three catechumens were staying there and learning the faith. Martin had to leave for three days on account of the divine service and upon his return found that one of them had fallen ill of the fever and died suddenly without baptism. Martin was mortified, even considering himself guilty for negligence and the loss of the Beatific Vision for this catechumen who had placed himself under his charge. He burst into a flood of tears, ordered everyone out of the chamber, and began intense prayer. Like the great prophet Eliseus of old, he stretched himself over the dead body of the man and pleaded God with the greatest earnestness. The catechumen was restored to life! He said he had found himself before the divine tribunal and sentenced to a dark dungeon, but then two angels, fueled by the graces from Martin's prayers, had come to rescue his soul and re-infuse it into his body. Martin immediately baptized him and this man lived a good Christian life for many more years. There was another man who had hanged himself, and Martin restored him to life as well, so that he could repent and lead a life of penance. These two incidents especially gained him great fame and spread his reputation far and wide.
When St. Hilary passed away (371 AD), all the people demanded St. Martin be their third bishop. But they also knew he would never accept a station of such honor, dignity, and authority. Therefore, they tricked him! They brought a sick man to his monastery, claiming he needed prayers. When Martin stepped out of the monastery to give him a blessing, a strong guard surrounded and trapped the saint. Thus was Martin transported to Tours. The people's stratagem had included conveying neighboring bishops to their empty See. These bishops came to formalize the election. A few of the bishops commented that the meanness of his dress and appearance, his slovenly air, showed him unfit for such a dignity; but such objections were actually recommendations for the servant of God. The other bishops and local populace prevailed upon them to correctly perceive the Divine will of God. And so it happened that the humble Martin was ultimately made a successor of the Apostles and consecrated Bishop of Tours.
As a bishop, St. Martin continued his very simple, austere and penitential life. Interrupted by too many visits, he left the small cell near the Cathedral that had become his habitation and moved to a monastery outside the city once again. To this day that famous abbey still stands, Marmoutier Abbey (it miraculously survived the ravages of the French Revolution). He lived in a small cell made of wood, but some of his monks actually lived in holes hollowed out of the rock (one of those niches is claimed today as once having been St. Martin's own habitation). Despite the severe conditions at the monastery (e.g. camel hair shirts, frequent fasts, etc) many men came to live under his inspiration and tutelage. In the years to come, many bishops were also selected from there as every town desired a bishop trained by St. Martin. Thus began a great and holy conquest of France for the glory of God, and rose the once great nation to the title of 'eldest daughter of the Church.' St. Martin traveled all over the diocese doing much good. The greatest fruit of his apostolate, his miracles, his virtue and piety, was the utter elimination of idolatry and paganism from the land around Tours. He felled many "sacred trees" and leveled many pagan temples, cleansing his diocese of these malignant demons. Two stories of particular note are the following.
In the woods there was a small chapel and altar which the people venerated as the tomb of a martyr. Yet St. Martin was credulous, as the eldest clergy could not vouch for its authenticity and none of the relics associated with it had the customary assurance of the Church. Thus he visited the place and prayed to God, asking Him who was buried there. An evil spirit appeared, which none, but the saint did see. The others however heard his voice. By the power of Christ and the authority St. Martin wielded as exorcist, he commanded the spirit to reveal himself. The fierce and tortured soul explained he was a robber who had murdered many and executed there, but vile men had lead others to venerate him as a glorious martyr. St. Martin banished him and had the location destroyed, thus freeing the people from the evil superstitions. (Note: By virtue of their episcopal ordination, every bishop is the exorcist of his diocese; if he chooses, he in turn may delegate those powers to another, but he remains the chief exorcist.)
St. Martin was also willing to challenge the State, and as it happens it was the state officials that feared him. Valentinian I was Roman Emperor at this time (364-375), and many consider him the last great Roman Emperor. Under his leadership, the West and East remained strongly unified, even though the East had its own emperor, and he led his Roman legions to make incursions into the Barbaric lands in Germania and Gaul, and maintained all Rome's borders. His regular court was at Milan, but he often resided in Gaul as well. After his death, the decline of Rome was more clearly seen. However, Valentinian had succumbed to the Arian heresy. Martin therefore determined to prevail upon Valentinian to grant clemency and favor to the Christian religion and not continue the persecutions on account of his Arianism. Justina, Valentinian's wife, was an adamant heretic and strongly turned her husband against Martin. Hearing Martin was coming; the Emperor gave order that he was not to be admitted. His great awe for the man's reputation however prevented him from issuing any further evil against him. Martin tried to gain entry to the royal palace numerous times over the span of days but was always rebuffed. So he turned to his greatest (and ordinary) weapons. He put on hair cloth, covered his head with ashes, abstained from all food, and began to pray day and night. After seven days, and angel instructed him to boldly go to the palace. St Martin arrived, and none dared challenge him. Disheveled as he was, he strode into the royal court. The Emperor got word and furiously demanded why his ordered had not been obeyed. He and Justina shut themselves in their inner chambers and refused to see the bishop. However a fire suddenly broke out in that section of the palace, and it forced the emperor 'out of his hiding place.' Upon seeing St. Martin, the emperor was greatly moved to contrition. God's grace pulled him inexorably and the emperor embraced Martin. He insisted that the saint remain with him for days, eat at his table, and granted him all that St. Martin requested regarding the necessary favors and protections for the Holy Church. The emperor even wished to bestow great riches upon him, but these St. Marin humbly and graciously refused. Through the aid of St. Martin, Valentinian also abandoned his Arian heresy and returned to the True Faith.
There are numerous other stories regarding the Saints' miraculous accomplishments for Christ. He expelled many demons and cured many sick. Once in Paris he kissed a most loathsome leper and he was immediately healed. A young girl sick of palsy was at the point of death, yet he placed blessed oil on her mouth and restored her to full health. Passing through Chartes, a town which at that time was utterly pagan, he felt great pity for the crowds and begun to preach so sweetly those who heard him thought it was an angel or God Himself. One lady greatly moved brought him her dead son, her only child. St. Martin perceived a miracle would have great effect and thus prayed the boy be revived. God granted this request and the entire town was converted. As he attempted to destroy one pagan temple, its satanic priests resisted. They agreed to fell their sacred tree if he, who trusted so much in his God, would stand beneath it. Prompted by divine Providence, he allowed himself to be tied beneath where the tree would fall. The pagan chief priests eagerly felled the tree to kill him, yet just before it came down on him, St. Martin made the Sign of the Cross. The tree fell in the other direction and smashed the temple to bits. All the people converted, asked St. Martin to pray for them, and entered the catechumenate.
Following the death of the Emperor Valentinian, he was succeeded by Gratian, and the Western Empire was shaken to its very foundations. Civil war broke out, when the legions in Rome declared their general, Maximus, to be the emperor (383 AD). He passed into Gaul and received support from mutinous soldiers there. He met Gratian in battle near Paris and killed him. He then set the seat of his empire in Trier (near today's German, France, and Luxemburg border). In order to prevent further bloodshed and injury to the Empire, the emperor in the East, Theodosius I negotiated a peace treaty between Maximums and Graitan's brother, Valentinian II. Maximus was granted Britnannia and Gaul while Valenitian II ruled Italy, Hispanola, Africa and Pannonia.This proved an uneasy truce and five years later Maximus invaded Italy where Theodosius I defeated him in battle (388 AD). Maximus was the last emperor who enjoyed any significant success north of Lyon. Moreover, huge cracks within the Empire were on display for the world to see and soon thereafter commenced waves of Barbaric invasions which ultimately destroyed the Western Roman Empire.
These were tumultuous years for the people and left none unaffected, including St. Martin. Once in control of Gaul, Maximus had decreed that all those who supported Gratian were to be executed. St. Martin thus traveled to Trier to intercede for them. However, St. Martin refused to dine with Maximus because he would not support a revolutionary who had usurped the power of the rightful ruler. Maximus in turn argued that he had not chosen this, but the soldiers had thrust it upon him and his incredible success was proof that it was the will of God. He further promised that none of his enemies, save those who died in battle, would lose their life. Thus the great saint won over this emperor as well, and consented to dine with him. Overjoyed, Maximus prepared a glorious banquet. An incident of note is that when the court official bearer presented the Emperor with the customary "first cup", the emperor humbly asked that it be given to St. Martin. He of course expected Martin to then give it to him as the next most worthy person in the company; yet Martin turned instead and gave it to a priest who had accompanied him. The guests were stunned; yet the emperor applauded St. Martin's decision. The empress was also very moved by St. Marin and the royal couple both prevailed upon him to remain in their company, to be their guest at various feasts, and preach to them regarding the Faith. Although he was over seventy years, St. Martin agreed. The empress for her part assigned herself the specific task of always waiting on the aged bishop when he was at their royal table.
While St. Martin was at the emperor's court he also became involved in the Priscillian controversy. Pricscillian had been a noble Spanish leader that fell into a variation of the Manichaen-Gnostic heresy. Two Spanish bishops supported him (Instantius and Silvianus). They organized their followers into a new oath-bound society (akin to secret sects today) and rapidly began spreading their errors. The bishops of Spain held a synod at Zaragosa (380 AD) and excommunicated all the leaders of this heresy. In defiance, Priscillian was ordained to the priesthood by the other heretical bishops and they declared him Bishop of Avila. The heretics then appealed to the imperial authorities, but Gratian exiled them. They tried to visit Pope Damasus in Rome, but he refused to receive them. Next they traveled to Milan and St. Ambrose, but there met the same result. By some devious machinations (and many not too insignificant bribes), they were able to convince some of the Roman Court to not only revoke their exile but also grant them their dioceses back. They even gathered sufficient support to banish the leading orthodox bishops: Ithacius, Idcius, and Hyginus. These faithful bishops then appealed their exile to Gratian, but before the emperor could act, he was killed by Maximus. The new emperor wished to gain the support of the orthodox Catholic bishops and so he supported Ithacius, who led a synod at Bordeaux. There Ithacius was so vehement and violent in his denunciations, that he called for the blood of all the heretics. This is when St. Martin intervened. He taught that the heretics should not be killed, but excommunication was the appropriate penalty. In this way they would have a chance to repent, and if they did not, they would suffer the eternal fires of hell, which was a far worse punishment than mere death. Yet if they killed these men, the orthodox bishops would have their blood on their hands. After St. Martin left Trier, Ithacius prevailed upon the Emperor to have his enemies executed. The heretical bishops and Priscillian was put to the sword, and many of their followers were banished and their property confiscated.
The conduct of Bishop Ithacius immediately met with the severest reprobation. Numerous Gallican bishops, including St. Martin, refused communion with him, not on account of doctrinal matters, but because of a moral and disciplinary issue. St. Martin quickly returned to Trier in order to stay the emperor's hand, for his armies were already en route to Spain to murder more of the Priscillian heretics. Ithacius had poisoned the emperor's ear and convinced him that he needed to take a stand against Martin to prove his authority. St. Martin in turn argued that the heresy should be punished by the Church and her authorities and not the State. Maximus therefore offered a compromise: he would stay his hand and not kill the heretics if Martin would communicate with Ithacius and thus preserve the peace and stability of the Church within his empire. St. Martin agonized over the decision. He knew is was not a violation of Church law, as Ithacius was not excommunicated, but it was against his better judgment. Nonetheless, in order to save the lives of countless Priscillian heretics, he agreed to communicate with Ithacius. After leaving Trier, St. Martin suffered great remorse and spiritually distress. An angel appeared to him in prayer and comforted him, letting him know that his action was excused as charity had rendered it necessary and excusable. Nevertheless, from that day forward St. Martin never spoke of this incident without shedding tears. He also testified that from that time forward he struggled far more in casting out demons: he had to pray much longer. He understood that he had to overcome even this small defect of his past with even greater humility and more severe penances and trials. (Interestingly, Priscillain and other executed heretics were hailed as martyrs, their cult grew, and their heresy grew stronger for many more years as a result of Ithacius vengeful actions. Ithacius himself was later condemned for his actions by the pope and stripped of his title as bishop.)
St. Martin finally passed away at age ~80. He never relaxed his disciplines or penances. His last major act as bishop was to travel to Cande, at the extremity of his diocese, where the priests had grown very lax. He reprimanded them and remained there to ensure all was put back in order. It was here that he fell gravely ill and all his clergy prayed unceasingly for him. They could not bear to lose their shepherd, fearing that ravenous wolves would attack the sheep once he passed away. St. Martin in turn prayed to God that although he ardently desired to see His Lord, he would not refuse any labors on earth that God still wished to entrust him with. He perfectly resigned himself to the Will of God. Despite a horrible fever that racked his frail body in these last days, the saint continued to spend nights in prayer, wore hair cloth, and lay himself in ashes. His disciples begged him to lay on a little straw but he responded: "It becomes not a Christian to die otherwise than upon ashes. I shall have sinned if I leave you any other example." He prayed greatly for his clergy and just before expiring the devil appeared to tempt him. St. Martin harshly rebuked the devil, reminded all his priests that they must always keep their gaze fixed on heaven, and commended himself to God. He died on Nov 8, 397. He was widely venerated and his burial place became a great shrine with a glorious church and monastery. He continued to work many miracles in death. (Sadly, during the Protestant Revolution, the French Hugenots attacked his shrine and scattered his relics. A few churches were able to recover preserve some of his relics.) In particular, St. Martin had wrought many miracles with blessed oil. Oil he had blessed as a bishop remained in the possession of the Church for many years and continued to have miraculous healing powers, including sometimes miraculously increasing. His feast day was set on the 11th of November, which was the date of his ordination. He was included in the Litany of Saints. He became one of the most widely venerated saints in all France and Europe and remains a very popular and favorite saint of many to this day.
St. Martin or Tours, ora pro nobis!