Martin of Tours (335–397) was the Bishop of Tours in Gaul (modern France) and became the patron saint of France. He was the first non-martyr to be canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. Much of what we know of Martin comes from the writings of Sulpicius Severus, who is said to have known him personally.
Martin was born to pagan parents in Sabarria, Pannonia (modern Hungary). At age 15 he joined the military. However, after three years, Martin converted to Christianity as the result of a vision of Christ. The story of his vision is one of the things that Martin of Tours is best known for. It is said that, as a young soldier, Martin cut his cloak in half so that he could help clothe a beggar in winter. That night in a dream Martin heard Christ say that Martin had clothed Him. When Martin awoke, the cloak was whole again. This prompted him to be baptized as an act of conversion.
Ultimately, Martin left military service as he felt that he could not fight in good conscience as a Christian. Instead, he became a monk and a hermit and helped to establish the first monastery in Gaul.
In AD 371 or 372 Martin reluctantly became the bishop of Tours. (It is reported that he was lured to the city by being told that he needed to minister to someone who was sick. The perpetrators knew he would not refuse to go.) Even serving as bishop, Martin continued to live the monastic lifestyle and encouraged others to adopt it as well, and monasticism began to spread throughout the country. He also encouraged evangelization of rural areas and established rural parishes throughout Gaul. He actively participated in the destruction of pagan shrines and temples. As the interruptions and distractions of his position became too great, he and a group of disciples moved to a more remote location, where he continued to live as a monk.
Martin of Tours is also known for his intervention on behalf of Priscillian, a Spanish bishop accused of heresy and immorality. Although Priscillian was not condemned by the church, the Emperor Maximus charged him with sorcery and condemned him to death. Martin pled for mercy on Priscillian’s behalf because he did not believe that the state should enforce punishments for ecclesiastical offenses. Although Maximus promised to spare Priscillian, he broke his promise and executed the heretic; this act was denounced by Martin of Tours.
Upon Martin of Tour’s death, a huge crowd attended his funeral, and his successor built a chapel at Tours in his honor. Martin is the first non-martyr to be venerated as a saint. The veneration of St. Martin has taken on a life of its own and has become a significant cultural force in France over the centuries.
Much is unknown about the life of Martin of Tours. From what we do know, we can praise Martin’s commitment to charity while at the same time rejecting his promotion of the unbiblical practice of monasticism.