St. Martin the Merciful, Bishop of Tours (397) Commemorated on November 112 min read
This holy and beloved Western Saint, the patron of France, was born in Pannonia (modern-day Hungary) in 316, to a pagan military family stationed there. Soon the family returned home to Italy, where Martin grew up. He began to go to church at the age of ten, and became a catechumen. Though he desired to become a monk, he first entered the army in obedience to his parents.
One day, when he was stationed in Amiens in Gaul, he met a poor man shivering for lack of clothing. He had already given all his money as alms, so he drew his sword, cut his soldier’s cloak in half, and gave half of it to the poor man. That night Christ appeared to him, clothed in the half-cloak he had given away, and said to His angels, “Martin, though still a catechumen, has clothed me in this garment.” Martin was baptized soon afterward. Though he still desired to become a monk, he did not obtain his discharge from the army until many years later, in 356.
He soon became a disciple of St Hilary of Poitiers (commemorated January 13), the “Athanasius of the West.” After traveling in Pannonia and Italy (where he converted his mother to faith in Christ), he returned to Gaul, where the Arian heretics were gaining much ground. Not long afterward became Bishop of Tours, where he shone as a shepherd of the Church: bringing pagans to the faith, healing the sick, establishing monastic life throughout Gaul, and battling the Arian heresy so widespread throughout the West. Finding the episcopal residence too grand, he lived in a rude, isolated wooden hut, even while fulfilling all the duties of a Bishop of the Church.
His severity against heresy was always accompanied by love and kindness toward all: he once traveled to plead with the Emperor Maximus to preserve the lives of some Priscillianist heretics whom the Emperor meant to execute.
As the holy Bishop lay dying in 397, the devil appeared to tempt him one last time. The Saint said, “You will find nothing in me that belongs to you. Abraham’s bosom is about to receive me.” With these words he gave up his soul to God.
He is the first confessor who was not a martyr to be named a Saint in the West. His biographer, Sulpitius Severus, wrote of him: “Martin never let an hour or a moment go by without giving himself to prayer or to reading and, even as he read or was otherwise occupied, he never ceased from prayer to God. He was never seen out of temper or disturbed, distressed or laughing. Always one and the same, his face invariably shining with heavenly joy, he seemed to have surpassed human nature. In his mouth was nothing but the Name of Christ and in his soul nothing but love, peace and mercy.”