Saint Martin was born in Hungary to pagan parents somewhere between the year 316-336 A.D. His Father was an officer in the Roman military. Christianity had been made legal not long before and promoted by the Emperor Constantine, but it was not yet widely accepted in all parts of the Empire. It tended to be more popular in the East and in the cities. Among members of the military the cult of Mithras was still much more prevalent. His parents were very distressed when, as a boy, Martin began attending services at a Christian church as a catechumen, or a student preparing for baptism. His father had him sent away to be trained for the military as it was customary for the sons of Roman officers.
At age fifteen he was required to join the cavalry and by 18 he was stationed in Gaul. During his service to the military on one bitterly cold winter’s night, Martin game across a poor man begging at the city gate. The man was clothed in little more than rags and was fiercely shivering. Martin had nothing to give him at the time, only his sword, his uniform, and cloak. Martin took his cloak and divided it down the middle giving half to the beggar to wrap himself in. That night as he lay in his bed he saw a vision of Christ wrapped in the garment he gave to the beggar. Jesus spoke and said, "Martin, still an un-baptized catechumen, has covered me with his cloak." It wasn’t long after that night that Martin accepted Baptism.
Becoming a Christian put Martin in a very difficult situation in relation to his profession as Roman Soldier. Christians at that time were pacifist, they were not permitted to go to war or to kill another person in combat. When Gaul fell under threat from barbarians during the reign of Julian the Apostate, Martin refused to go to battle. He declared, "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight." He was thrown in jail for cowardice, but volunteered to go out in the front of battle unarmed. His superiors were prepared to take him up on this, but the opposing forces surrendered and made terms of peace before the battle even began!
Because St. Martin laid down his arms for Christ, traditionally on this day November 11th the Feast of Saint Martin, peace treaties were often signed in his honor. This makes it very fitting that this day is celebrated as Veteran’s Day and in Europe Armistice Day. For, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, on the feast of this true Christian soldier who chose the way of Christ over war, in the year 1918, by the grace of God the First World War came to an end with the signing of the Armistice.
After leaving the army, Martin became a disciple of Bishop Hilary of Poitiers a staunch defender of Trinitarian, Nicene, Christianity against the Arian heresy which was rampant in the imperial court. It was a time of intense persecution for catholic Christians. Hillary was sent away into exile at which time Martin returned home where he was able to lead his mother to Christ. His father would not accept Christianity.
In Milan Martin preached against Arianism and was resisted by the Arian Bishop Auxentius. He was beaten and thrown out of the city. He found shelter on an island where he lived the solitary life of a hermit.
Despite the fact that he courageously suffered persecution for his commitment to the catholic faith, Martin is well known for advocating for mercy for heretics and opposing the death penalty.
He opposed the execution of the heretic Priscillius who lead a large movement in Spain that taught compulsory celibacy for lay people as well as other oddities. His entreaty was refused however and Priscillius was executed. Martin was even accused of being a sympathizer despite his vigorous opposition to Priscillus’ errors.
When Bishop Hilary returned from exile, Martin founded the first monastery in Western Europe at Ligugé near Poitiers in AD 360. He later created a much larger monastic complex near Tours when he becomes the bishop.
The story of his elevation to the seat of Bishop in Tours is an amusing one. Martin was an extremely humble individual, dedicated to the quiet life of a monk, but the people of Tours were determined that he come and be their bishop. According to legend, when the delegation came to bring him to Tours to be ordained, he hid in a barn among a flock of geese. The delegation searched all over for him, but couldn’t find him. His hiding place was at last given away by the honking of the geese. They drug Martin by force back to Tours where he was consecrated as Bishop. This is why it is a custom throughout Europe to celebrate his feast by eating roast goose.
Saint Martin died at the age of eighty of natural causes. Although he did not die a martyrs death it is said he received a martyrs honor.