Saint Martin grew up in what is now northern Italy in the early 300s. When he was only 10 years old, he went to church against his parents’ wishes.
At age 15 he had to join the military, at his father’s behest, and so he became a Roman soldier. He served in the cavalry in Gaul (modern day France), meaning he had an army-issued horse. That’s why we most often see him depicted on horseback, and that’s how his most famous saint story happened. When he was riding into a city with his unit, he saw an impoverished beggar at the gate who was cold. Without hesitating, he took his sword and cut his army-issued cloak in half so the man could have a blanket to keep warm. Later that night, he had a dream that Jesus was wrapped in the cloak and said to him, “Martin! Martin, who isn’t even baptized yet, clothed me with this robe!”
Martin had been going to church but wasn’t even baptized yet, and he still behaved in a Christ-like way. When we awoke, the cloak was mysteriously restored to its full size.
A few years later he was baptized, and as he continued to go to church and study he decided he needed to leave the military. It hurt his soul to have to go to war. He continued to help care for and love his fellow soldiers as an unarmed chaplain until he was discharged.
After the war, he went away to an island to rest and recover. While he was resting, he started a monastery and kept studying the Christian faith. After several years of mental healing, he started to travel around Italy preaching and ministering to many Christians.
Because he was a good and trustworthy minister, people made him the Bishop of Tours in 371. He had been drawn to Tours by a ruse — he was urged to come to minister to someone sick — but instead was brought to the church, where he reluctantly allowed himself to be consecrated bishop.
Legend has it that he was so unwilling to be made bishop that he hid in a barn full of geese, but their cackling gave him away to the crowd. As bishop, he planted many new churches and monasteries. He visited every single one of them every year, travelling to them by foot, donkey, or boat. This is something that our own bishops today still try to do.
Martin was also very dedicated to the freeing of prisoners. When authorities, even emperors, heard he was coming, they refused to see him because they knew he would request mercy for someone and they would be unable to refuse.
During Martin’s time as bishop, a Christian teacher named Priscillian, bishop of Avila in Spain, was accused of heresy. Some of Martin’s fellow bishops were happy to use imperial power to put Priscillian on trial and execute him. Martin objected vehemently. He thought Priscillian was wrong in his teaching, and that what he was teaching was harmful to people, but he also thought it was wrong to put him to death. His experience as a soldier made him care especially about prisoners and want mercy for everyone. He is remembered by many for his mercy during these conversations, and his strong moral conviction. He was an example to many.
We learn many things from Saint Martin’s example. We learn to be generous. We should not hesitate to help those who need our help. We must be the change we want to see in the world. If we believe in mercy, we should first be merciful ourselves. We learn that Christians are called to a high moral standard even when it puts us in opposition with what others think is justice. Christians are supposed to be just and merciful even beyond what society’s rules say. Our work in the Church is different from the work of the State. And we learn that it is important to retreat and pray, to retreat and learn, and to be brave enough to do what we think is right.