The Soldier Who Became a Saint

How fitting that the Church observes the Feast of St. Martin on Nov. 11 — Veterans Day.  For St. Martin was a soldier before he was a monk, and he was a bishop before he was a saint.

Here’s a short biography of St. Martin of Tours from the Confraternity of Penitents website:


One of the most popular saints of medieval times, Saint Martin of Tours was born in 316, the son of a pagan army officer in Sabaria, Pannonia, on the Danube, which today is Hungary.  From there he moved with his family to Pavia, Italy where his father was transferred.  Martin was attracted by Christianity whose principles he began to study and, at the age of ten, became a catechumen.

At that age of fifteen, Martin was forced into the army  where he lived more like a monk than a soldier.  In 337, in  Amiens, France, Martin’s heart was deeply moved by a freezing, nearly naked beggar who was pleading for alms at the city gate.  In an act of great generosity, Martin, who had no money, drew his sword and cut his military cloak in two, giving half of it to the shivering man.  That night, Martin was granted a vision of Christ, wearing half of his cloak, Who said, “Martin, yet a catechumen, has covered me with his garment.”  The vision prompted Martin to be baptized immediately.

When Martin was twenty years old, his army defeated a barbarian invasion of Gaul.  Refusing his war bounty, Martin relinquished his sword to take up the armor of Christ.  When the emperor Julian accused Martin of cowardice, he offered to enter the battle unarmed.  Instead of being taken up on the offer, Martin was thrown into prison where he remained until being released during an armistice and then discharged from military duty.  Martin then went to Poitiers where the bishop St. Hilary received him as a disciple.

Upon his return home, Martin’s zeal converted his mother and sisters to Christianity.   Martin fought Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ, and was publicly scourged and banished.  When St. Hilary, who had also been banished for his own battle against the Arians, was allowed to return to Poitiers in 360, Martin joined him  and became a hermit at Liguge, the first monastic community in France.  Martin was gifted with many mystical graces and was the outstanding monastic pioneer before Saint Benedict.

In 371, the local clergy and people of Tours demanded that Martin be made their bishop.  When forced to accept this office, Martin continued to live simply and poorly.  To discourage frequent visitors, Martin founded Marmoutier Abbey in a desert place enclosed by a steep cliff on one side and a river on the other.  From here, he governed his diocese, visiting his outlying parishes yearly.

Paganism greatly decreased in Tours through Martin’s teaching and his active destruction of pagan temples,  sacred groves, and other objects.  Some of these incidents involved miracles and other extraordinary spiritual happenings.  Martin was also favored with revelations, mystical visions, and prophecies.  His prayers brought about healings and obtained mercy for prisoners.

When Priscillianists, heretics who believed in two Kingdoms, one of light and one of darkness, were being marked for death, Martin interceded, asking that they be excommunicated but not murdered.  His plea was only partly successful.

Martin fell mortally ill at Candes, a village in his diocese where he had gone to foster peace.  When the people begged him not to die, he replied, “Lord, if thy people still need me, I will not shirk the toil. Thy will be done.”   God, however, was calling Martin home, and, after receiving a premonition of his death, Martin died November 8, 397.  By his request, Martin was buried in the Cemetery of the Poor in Tours on November 11.  Martin’s relics were transferred to the basilica of Tours, a scene of huge medieval pilgrimages and many miracles.


If you want to give spiritual support to today’s soldiers, you might consider donating to Frontline Faith Project which provides MP3 players that are preloaded with all sorts of Catholic audio files — Mass and other liturgies, music, sermons, readings, etc.

Frontline Faith can help sustain a Catholic soldier when a military chaplain isn’t available, and that’s likely to be most of the time when deployed — there are only 281 Catholic chaplains to serve all military personnel, worldwide.  So donate to Frontline Faith, and pray that St. Martin might intercede both for all military personnel and for an increase in vocations to the Archdiocese of the Military Services.


About Joel Whitaker

Joel Whitaker is a long-time professional journalist (Tampa Bay Times, Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Bulletin, Institutional Investor, executive newsletters) and Catholic convert. He is the RCIA coordinator for his parish.
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