Ordained an exorcist by Saint Hilary of Poitiers, he lived a life of solitude in various places before establishing a monastery at Ligugé, where he remained until he was named bishop of Tours in 371. After his episcopal consecration, Martin continued to lead the same life of humility and mortification he had lived as a monk; he later founded the abbey of Marmoutier, which became a center of evangelization for the region. In time, Martin founded a number of other communities and he is popularly honored as the founder of monasticism in Gaul.
The life of Saint Martin was one of constant prayer and service to his monks and his people. Honored as a miracle worker, his biographer, Saint Sulpicius Severus, also presents him as having been a mystic and visionary. Although many criticized Martin for his simple way of life and austere spirit—including his confrere and successor, the irascible Saint Brice—he bore all criticism with humility and patience.
Saint Martin died at a rural parish where he had gone to try to bring peace to the divided clergy on November 8, 397; he was buried in Tours three days later. After his death, he immediately became the object of popular devotion and his shrine became one of the most visited in Europe. Saint Martin is honored as one of the patrons of France and, with Saint George, he is invoked as the patron of soldiers.
Martin of Tours is one of those saints whose life seems far removed from our lives today: a figure of the distant past, whose monastic prayer and episcopal service is partially obscured by the passage of time and a very foreign way of life. But for centuries, Saint Martin was the model for both monks and bishops (many of whom were former monks). For this reason, monks and nuns have honored him among the great saints of the monastic tradition. His life brings together the ideals of prayer, community, and service that would later be celebrated by Saint Benedict of Nursia in his Rule.
But, like all those whom the Church honors as saints, Martin is a model and intercessor for all times and all places. While it is worthwhile to focus on Martin the solider, monk, and bishop (asking his intercession as we celebrate Veteran’s Day and as the US Bishops are having their annual gathering in Baltimore), we can also be inspired by Martin as a model of charity. His act of cutting his soldier’s cloak in half and giving the piece to the freezing beggar changed the course of his life. Although he hadn’t yet been baptized (remember, he was only a catechumen), the vision of Christ that he had that night, in which Jesus was wearing that same piece of cloak, was a milestone in his life of faith. Martin had taken to heart the words of the Gospel, “whatever you did for the least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40), and his life was never the same.
In a reflection on Saint Martin, Pope Benedict XVI observed:
Martin's charitable gesture flows from the same logic that drove Jesus to multiply the loaves for the hungry crowd, but most of all to leave himself to humanity as food in the Eucharist, supreme Sign of God's love, Sacramentum caritatis. It is the logic of sharing which he used to authentically explain love of neighbor. May Saint Martin help us to understand that only by means of a common commitment to sharing is it possible to respond to the great challenge of our times: to build a world of peace and justice where each person can live with dignity. This can be achieved if a world model of authentic solidarity prevails which assures to all inhabitants of the planet food, water, necessary medical treatment, and also work and energy resources as well as cultural benefits, scientific and technological knowledge.
So, today, make a resolution to pay attention to those around you. Who is the beggar sitting at the gate asking to be noticed and, more importantly, to be cared for? It might be a family member, a fellow parishioner, friend, or a stranger. Everything done in and for Christ, no matter how small the gesture, has meaning and value. To help us remember this, we can take to heart the words that Martin heard Jesus say in that life-changing vision: “Martin is still only a catechumen, but he has clothed Me with this garment.”
Lord God of hosts,
you clothed your servant Martin the soldier with the spirit of sacrifice,
and set him as a bishop in your Church to be a defender of the catholic faith:
Give us grace to follow in his holy steps,
that at the last
we may be found clothed with righteousness in the dwellings of peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from Holy Women, Holy Men)