Saint Martin, Bishop and Confessor


Three thousand six hundred and sixty churches dedicated to St. Martin in France alone, and well-nigh as many in the rest of the world, bear witness to the immense popularity of the great thaumaturgus. In the country, on the mountains, and in the depth of forests, trees, rocks, and fountains, objects of superstitious worship to our pagan ancestors, received and in many places still retain, the name of him who snatched them from the dominion of the powers of darkness to restore them to the true God. For the vanquished idols, Roman, Celtic or German, Christ substituted their conqueror, the humble soldier, in the grateful memory of the people. Martin's mission was to complete the destruction of paganism, which had been driven from the towns by the martyrs, but remained up to his time master of the vast territories removed from the influence of the cities.

While on the one hand he was honored with God's favors, on the other he was pursued by hell with implacable hatred. At the very outset he had to encounter Satan, who said to him: "I will beset thy path at every turn (Sulpit Sever. Vita, vi);" and he kept his word. He has kept it to this very day: century after century, he has been working ruin around the glorious tomb, which once attracted the whole world to Tours; in the sixteenth, he delivered to the flames, by the hands of the Huguenots, the venerable remains of the protector of France: by the nineteenth, he had brought men to such a height of folly, as themselves to destroy, in time of peace, the splendid basilica which was the pride and the riches of their city. The gratitude of Christ, and the rage of Satan, made known by such signs, reveal sufficiently the incomparable labors of the pontiff, apostle, and monk, St. Martin.

A monk indeed he was, both in desire and in reality, to the last day of his life. "From earliest infancy he sighed after the service of God. He became a catechumen at the age of ten, and at twelve he wished to retire to the desert; all his thoughts were engaged on monasteries and churches. A soldier at fifteen years of age, he so lived as even then to be taken for a monk. After a first trial of religious life in Italy, he was brought by St Hilary to this solitude of Liguge, which, thanks to him, became the cradle of monastic life in Gaul. To say the truth, Martin, during the whole course of his life, felt like a stranger everywhere else, except at Liguge. A monk by attraction, he had been forced to be a soldier, and it needed violence to make him a Bishop: and even then he never relinquished his monastic habits. He responded to the dignity of a Bishop, says his historian, without declining from the rule and life of a monk. At first he constructed for himself a cell near his church of Tours; and soon afterwards built, at a little distance from the town, a second Liguge, under the name of Marmoutier or the great monastery (Cardinal Pie, Homily pronounced on occasion of the re-establishment of the Benedictine Order at Liguge, Nov. 25th 1853)."

The holy Liturgy refers to St. Hilary the honor of the wonderful virtues displayed by Martin. What were the holy bishop's reasons for leading his heaven-sent disciple by ways then so little known in the West, he has left us to learn from the most legitimate heir of his doctrine as well as of his eloquence. "It has ever been," says Cardinal Pie, "the ruling idea of all the Saints, that, side by side with the ordinary ministry of the pastors, obliged by their functions to live in the midst of the world, the Church has need of a militia, separated from the world and enrolled under the standard of evangelical perfection, living in self-renunciation and obedience, and carrying on day and night the noble and incomparable function of public prayer. The most illustrious pontiffs and the greatest doctors have thought, that the secular clergy themselves could never be better fitted for spreading and making popular the pure doctrines of the Gospel, than if they could be prepared for their pastoral office by living either a monastic life, or one as nearly as possible resembling it. Read the lives of the greatest bishops both in East and West, in the times immediately preceding or following the peace of the Church, as well as in the middle ages: they have all, either themselves at some time professed the monastic life, or lived in continual contact with those who professed it. Hilary, the great Hilary, had, with his experienced and unerring glance, perceived the need; he had seen the place that should be occupied by the monastic Order in Christendom, and by the regular clergy in the Church. In the midst of his struggles, his combats, his exile, when he witnessed with his own eyes the importance of the monasteries in the East, he earnestly desired the time when, returning to Gaul, he might at length lay the foundations of the religious life at home. Providence was not long in sending him what was needful for such an enterprise: a disciple worthy of the master, a monk worthy of the bishop (Cardinal Pie, ubi supra)."

Elsewhere, comparing together St. Martin, his predecessors, and St. Hilary himself in their common apostolate of Gaul, the illustrious Cardinal says: "Far be it from me to undervalue all the vitality and power already possessed by the religion of Jesus Christ in our divers provinces, thanks to the preaching of the first apostles, martyrs, and bishops, who may be counted back in a long line almost to the day of Calvary. Still I fear not to say it: the popular apostle of Gaul, who converted the country parts, until then almost entirely pagan, the founder of national Christianity, was principally St. Martin. And how is it that he, above so many other great bishops and servants of God, holds such pre-eminence in the apostolate? Are we to place Martin above his master Hilary? With regard to doctrine, certainly not; and as to zeal, courage, holiness, it is not for me to say which was greater, the master's or the disciple's. But what I can say is, that Hilary was chiefly a teacher, and Martin was chiefly a thaumaturgus. Now, for the conversion of the people, the thaumaturgus is more powerful than the teacher; and consequently, in the memory and worship of the people, the teacher is eclipsed and effaced by the thaumaturgus.

"Now-a-days there is much talk about the necessity of reasoning in order to persuade men as to the reality of divine things: but that is forgetting Scripture and history; nay more, it is degenerating. God has not deemed it consistent with His Majesty to reason with us. He has spoken; He has said what is and what is not; and as He exacts faith in His word, He has sanctioned His word. But how has He sanctioned it? After the manner of God, not of man; by works, not by reasons: non in sermone, sed in virtute, not by the arguments of a humanly persuasive philosophy: non in persuasibilibus humance sapientice verbis, but by displaying a power altogether divine: sed in ostensione spiriius et virtuis. And wherefore? For this profound reason: Ut fides non sit in sapientia hominum, sed in virtute Dei: that faith may not rest upon the wisdom of man, but upon the power of God (I Cor. ii. 4). But now men will not have it so: they tell us that in Jesus Christ the theurgist wrongs the moralist; that miracles are a blemish in so sublime an ideal. But they cannot reverse this order; they cannot abolish the Gospel, nor history. Begging the pardon of the learned men of our age and their obsequious followers: not only did Christ work miracles, but he established the faith upon the foundation of miracles. And the same Christ,--not to confirm His own miracles, which are the support of all others; but out of compassion for us, who are so prone to forgetfulness, and who are more impressed by what we see than by what we hear,--the same Jesus Christ has placed in His Church, and that for all time, the power of working miracles. Our age has seen some, and will see yet more. The fourth century witnessed in particular those of St. Martin.

"The working of wonders seemed mere play to him; all nature obeyed him; the animals were subject to him. 'Alas!' cried the Saint one day: 'the very serpents listen to me, and men refuse to hear me.' Men, however, often did hear him. The whole of Gaul heard him; not only Aquitaine, but also Celtic and Belgic Gaul. Who could resist words enforced by so many prodigies? In all these provinces he overthrew the idols one after another, reduced the statues to powder, burnt or demolished all the temples, destroyed the sacred groves and all the haunts of idolatry. Was it lawful? you may ask. If I study the legislation of Constantine and Constantius, perhaps it was. But this I know: Martin, eaten up with zeal for the house of the Lord, was obeying none but the "Spirit of God. And I must add, that against the fury of the pagan population Martin's only arms were the miracles he wrought, the visible assistance of Angels sometimes granted him, and, above all, the prayers and tears he poured out before God, when the hard-heartedness of the people resisted the power of his words and of his wonders. With these means Martin changed the face of the country. Where he found scarcely a Christian on his arrival, he left scarcely an infidel at his departure. The temples of the idols were immediately replaced by temples of the true God; for, says Sulpioius Severus, as soon as he had destroyed the homes of superstition, he built churches and monasteries. It is thus that all Europe is covered with sanctuaries bearing the name of St. Martin (Cardinal Pie, Sermon preached in the cathedral of Tours, on the Sunday following the patronal feast of St. Martin, Nov. 14th, 1858)."

His beneficial actions did not cease with his death; they alone explain the uninterrupted concourse of people to his holy tomb. His numerous feasts in the year, the Deposition or Natalis, the Ordination, Subvention and Reversion, did not weary the piety of the faithful. Kept everywhere as a holiday of obligation (Concil. Mogunt. an. 813, can. xxxvi), and bringing with it the brief return of bright weather known as St. Martin's summer, the eleventh of November rivalled with St. John's day in the rejoicings it occasioned in Latin Christendom. Martin was the joy of all, and the helper of all. St. Gregory of Tours does not hesitate to call his blessed predecessor the special patron of the whole world; while monks and clerics, soldiers, knights, travellers and inn-keepers on account of his long journeys, charitable associations of every kind in memory of the cloak of Amiens, have never ceased to claim their peculiar right to the great Pontiff's benevolence. Hungary, the generous land which gave him to us, without exhausting its own provision for the future, rightly reckons him among its most powerful protectors. But to France he was a father: in the same manner as he labored for the unity of the faith in that land, he presided also over the formation of national unity; and he watches over its continuance. As the pilgrimage of Tours preceded that of Compostella in the Church, the cloak of St. Martin led the Frankish armies to battle even before the oriflamme of St. Denis. "How," said Clovis, "can we hope for victory, if we offend blessed Martin?" 

O my God! Who art all love, I thank Thee for having raised up so many holy doctors to confound heresy and to defend our faith. Grant us the grace to imitate the detachment, mortification, and piety of St. Gregory and St. Basil, the faith of St. Hilary, and the charity of St. Martin. I am resolved to love God above all things, and my neighbor as myself for the love of God; and, in testimony of this love, I will have none but virtuous friends. Amen

The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.

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