He was moved to Pavia in Italy in his early years when his father, a military tribune, was transferred. Martin accompanied him and when he reached adolescence, he was enrolled in the Roman army in agreement with the recruiting laws. Touched by grace at an early age, he was among the first attracted to Christianity, which had been in favor in the military camps since the conversion of Emperor Constantine.
His regiment was soon sent to Amiens in Gaul, and this town became the scene of the celebrated legend of the cloak. At the gates of the city on one very cold day, Martin met a shivering and half-naked beggar. Moved with compassion, he divided his coat into two parts and gave one to the poor man. The part kept by himself became the famous relic preserved in the oratory of the Frankish kings under the name of “St. Martin’s cloak.”
St. Martin, who was still only a catechumen soon received baptism and was finally released from military service at Worms on the Rhine a short while later. As soon as he was free, he hastened to set out to Poitiers to enroll himself among the disciples of St. Hilary, the wise and pious bishop whose reputation as a theologian was already passing beyond the frontiers of Gaul. However, he desired to see his parents again and returned to Lombardy across the Alps. The inhabitants of this region were infested with Arianism and bitterly hostile towards Catholicism. St. Martin did not conceal his faith and was very badly treated by the order of Bishop Auxentius of Milan, the leader of the heretical sect in Italy. He was very desirous of returning to Gaul, but learning that the Arians persecuted that country and had even succeeded in exiling St. Hilary to the Orient, he decided to seek shelter on the island of Gallinaria now Isola d’Albenga, in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
As soon as St. Martin learned that an imperial decree had authorized St. Hilary to return to Gaul, he hastened to the side of his chosen master at Poitiers in 361. After having obtained permission from him to embrace the solitary life that he had adopted in Gallinaria, he settled in a deserted region now called Ligugé. His example was soon followed and a great number of monks gathered around him. Thus was formed in this Gallic Thebaid a real laura, from which later developed the celebrated Benedictine Abbey of Ligugé. Martin remained about ten years in this solitude and often left it to preach the Gospel in the central and western parts of Gaul where the rural inhabitants were still plunged in the darkness of idolatry and given up to all sorts of gross superstitions. The memory of these apostolic journeys survives to our day in the numerous local legends where St. Martin is the hero and which roughly indicate the routes that he followed.
When St. Lidorius, second Bishop of Tours, died in 371 or 372, the clergy of that city desired to replace him by the famous hermit of Ligugé. But, as St. Martin remained deaf to the prayers of the deputies who brought him this message, it was necessary to resort to a ruse to overcome his resistance. A local by the name of Rusticius was a rich citizen of Tours and went and begged him to come attend to his wife who was in the throes of death and to prepare her to die. Without suspicion, St. Martin followed him in all haste, but hardly had he entered the city when, in spite of the opposition of a few ecclesiastical dignitaries, popular acclamation constrained him to become Bishop of the Church of Tours.
Consecrated on July 4, Martin brought to the accomplishment of the duties of his new ministry, all the energy and the activity that he had shown in the past. He did not however change his way of life. He fled from the distractions of the large city and settled himself in a small cell a short distance from Tours beyond the Loire. Additional hermits joined him there and thus was gradually formed a new monastery that surpassed the Ligugé, as is indicated by the name, Marmoutier, Majus Monasterium, which it has kept until today.
Thus, by an untiring zeal and great simplicity St. Martin administered to his pastoral duties and so admirably succeeded in sowing Christianity throughout Touraine. Nor was it a rare occurrence for him to leave his diocese when he thought that his appearance in some distant locality might produce some good. He even went several times to Trier, where the emperors had established their residence in order to plead the interests of the Church or to ask pardon for some condemned person.
His role in the matter of the Priscillianists and Ithacians was especially remarkable. St. Martin hurried to Trier, not to defend the Gnostic and Manichaean doctrines of Priscillian, but to remove him from the secular jurisdiction of the emperor. The Council of Saragossa had justly condemned the Spanish heresiarch Priscillian and his partisans and angry charges were brought before Emperor Maximus by some orthodox bishops of Spain, led by Bishop Ithacius.
Maximus at first consented to St. Martins’s request but when he departed, Maximus yielded to the solicitations of Ithacius and ordered Priscillian and his followers to be beheaded. Deeply grieved, St. Martin refused to communicate with Ithacius. However, when he went again to Trier a little later to ask pardon for two rebels, Narses and Leucadius and Maximus would only promise pardon on the condition that he would make his peace with Ithaeius. To save the lives of his clients, he consented to this reconciliation, but afterwards reproached himself bitterly for this act of weakness.
After a last visit to Rome, St. Martin went to Candes, one of the religious centers created by him in his diocese and there he was stricken with a malady, which ended his life. Ordering himself to be carried into the presbytery of the church, he died there in 400 at the age of about 81, according to some authorities more probably in 397. He died demonstrating the same exemplary spirit of humility and mortification that he had always practiced until the last moment of his life.
The Church of France has always considered St. Martin one of her greatest saints, and hagiographers have recorded a great number of miracles due to his intercession while he was living and after his death. Devotion to him was very popular throughout the Middle Ages and a multitude of churches and chapels were dedicated to him along with a great number of places named after him.
His body was taken to Tours and enclosed in a stone sarcophagus above which his successors, St. Britius and St. Perpetuus built a simple chapel first and later a basilica in 470. St. Euphronius, Bishop of Autun and a friend of St. Perpetuus, sent a sculptured tablet of marble to cover the tomb. A larger basilica was constructed in 1014, which was burned down in 1230 and rebuilt soon afterward on a larger scale. This sanctuary was the center of great national pilgrimages until 1562, the fatal year when the Protestants sacked it from top to bottom, destroying the sepulcher and the relics of the great wonder-worker, the object of their hatred.
The ill-fated collegiate church was restored by its canons, but a new and more terrible misfortune awaited it. The revolutionary hammer of 1793 was to subject it to a final devastation. It was entirely demolished with the exception of the two towers that are still standing so that its reconstruction might be impossible and the atheistic municipality ordered two streets to be constructed on top the site.
In December 1860, skillfully executed excavations located the site of St. Martin’s tomb, of which some fragments were discovered. These precious remains are at present sheltered in a basilica built by Msgr. Meignan, Archbishop of Tours, which is unfortunately very small and only faintly reflects the ancient and magnificent cloister of St. Martin.
On the eleventh of November each year, the feast of St. Martin is solemnly celebrated in this church in the presence of a large number of the faithful of Tours and other cities and villages of the diocese.
LÉON CLUGNET (Catholic Encyclopedia)