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St. Martin of Tours

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By CAROLE BRESLIN In the fourth century, after the signing of the Edict of Milan, which enacted toleration of Christianity, paganism still flourished on the European continent. It would be centuries before France would be called the Daughter of the Church. It would not be a man of Gaul who would convert much of France. Rather it would be a young man born of pagans, whose father was a soldier in the Roman army. St. Martin of Tours was born around AD 315 in Sabaria which was located in Pannonia, now known as the eastern part of Croatia. Since his father was in the army, the family moved as needed. Thus, Martin’s father took his young family to Pavia, which is about 35 kilometers south of Milan in northern Italy. It was probably here where Martin, at the age of ten, first experienced the Christian religion. By the age of 15, as a son of a soldier, Martin was required to join the army. Even though young and not yet baptized, he lived an exemplary life. His peers noted that he lived less like a soldier and more like a monk. The incident for which he is most frequently remembered occurred in Amiens, in northwestern France, where he was posted. Martin met a beggar at the gates of the city. The cold weather with the ground hardened by frost found a poor man shaking with cold in his near nakedness. Martin observed the passersby ignoring the wretched man, giving him no alms or comfort. Thus Martin decided that the miserable man was left for him to take care of. As he realized that he had nothing but his arms and his cloak to give to the man, he removed his cloak, drew his sword, and rent it into two pieces. Keeping one piece for himself, he wrapped the other around the beggar. This earned him the ridicule of the witnesses, yet they were also ashamed that they had not helped the man themselves. Martin fell asleep that night and dreamed about the incident. There was Jesus Christ, dressed in the very same half-garment that Martin had given to the poor wretch at the gate. Our Lord looked on Martin with great love and said, “Martin, yet a catechumen, has covered me with the garment.” According to Sulpicius Severus, Martin’s biographer, Martin had been a catechumen since the age of ten. After this dream, he rushed to be baptized, becoming a faithful Christian. Nevertheless, he remained in the army, witnessing the invasion of Gaul by the barbarian multitudes. When he, along with his comrades, stood to receive their bounty from the Emperor Julian, Martin declined. Instead, he sought his release from the army stating, “I have served you as a soldier, let me now serve Christ.” Enraged, Julian accused him of cowardice, to which Martin responded by offering to advance against the enemy with no arms to prove his bravery. Julian had him thrown into prison. Later, when an armistice was reached, Martin was released. Now free, he traveled to Poitiers to be with St. Hilary. Soon after, having a dream calling him to return home, he went back to his parents and, among others, converted his mother. Sadly, his father did not convert. He began preaching with great zeal to refute the Arians and suffered because of it. He went to Milan rather than returning to Poitiers, since the Arians had driven St. Hilary out of the city. Not long after, the Arian heretic, Auxentius, drove Martin from Milan. With a priest as his companion, he settled on an island in the gulf of Genoa until 360 when he returned to Gaul to reunite with St. Hilary. Because Martin yearned for solitude, Hilary gave him some property where he and a few of his associates lived like hermits — the first monastic community in all of Gaul. Here he stayed for ten years. Eventually a large monastery was built there. (It is he same site as today’s Abbey of St. Martin in Ligugé.) Many miracles were worked through his intercession throughout the countryside, where he preached to the people. In 371, about 70 miles north of Poitiers, the people called for Martin to become their bishop. The city of Tours had just lost its bishop, but Martin declined. The citizens of Tours were so determined that a wealthy man agreed to call Martin to attend to his sick wife. However, upon entering the city, Martin was taken to the church to be installed as bishop. His appearance of poverty and as a man without worldly attachments led the other bishops to find him unfit for the office. However, the other priests and people of Tours raised such a clamor that they acceded to their wishes. As bishop of Tours, Martin remained unchanged in his lifestyle. The interruptions of his position led him to retire at the abbey in Marmoutier. As popular as he was, he soon had over 80 monks and other noblemen join him. Tours and its environs soon experienced a great decrease in paganism as a result of the zeal of Martin, in both his preaching and his example. When he went about the countryside destroying pagan temples, many miracles were worked. As Martin escaped death by a falling tree that suddenly fell to the side, or by an onrushing pagan with a sword who also fell to the side, many pagans were converted. According to Severus, Martin also experienced visions and made prophecies during these final years, which were not without their hardships. His attendance to his flock required that he travel many miles to visit the various parishes. Though he sometimes journeyed by donkey or by boat, for the most part he traveled by foot. Martin also sought out prisoners about to be tortured and put to death, begging for their freedom. His tenacity in such endeavors won freedom for many men condemned to death. Needless to say, the Devil will not rest facing such holiness. Thus Martin was faced with the accusations of the Priscillianists, an offshoot of the Manicheans. He clashed with them as well as with Ithacius, the bishop of Ossanova, when he called for the heretics to be put to death. St. Martin, as well as St. Ambrose, begged the bishop to spare the men, claiming that excommunication was sufficient punishment. Their pleas were ignored. As the years passed, Martin received knowledge of his approaching death. In 397, St. Martin fell ill and died on November 8. He was buried on November 11, the day on which the Church now celebrates his feast. His burial site is one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in Europe even to this day. Dear St. Martin, who converted so many pagans by your simple lifestyle and extraordinary zeal, obtain for us the grace to practice spiritual poverty, heroic charity, and steadfast zeal in winning many souls for the joyous Kingdom of Heaven. Amen. + + + (Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ. She is celebrating her 20th anniversary with the organization.)

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