Today is Veteran's Day in the United States. In Europe and the former British Commonwealth it's Remembrance Day, commemorating the end of the Great War at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918. But it is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers, beggars, innkeepers, and drunkards.
During much of the 1980s I was a member of St. Martin's Episcopal Church on the West Side of Chicago. I wrote the an early version of this essay for its newsletter. A few years ago I reworked it for The Winged Ox, the newsletter of the Memorial Church of St. Luke's in Philadelphia. I've tweaked it a little since then. I honor St. Martin not for his legendary miracles, but for his actions as an elderly bishop, when he tried to prevent the church from executing heretics.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote British historian Lord Acton. The feast day of St. Martin of Tours, November 11, celebrates a man who fought the corruption of power in the church.
Until the fourth century, the Christian church had little or no power. When the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 314, the church was endowed with great, if not absolute power.
Martin was born in 316, in Pannonia (modern-day Hungary), of pagan parents. At the age of 15 he was conscripted into the Roman army, where he was eventually stationed at Amiens, in Gaul. By this time he had become a catechumen, or inquirer into the Christian faith. One winter day, according to legend, he met a half-naked beggar outside the city gates. Moved with compassion, he cut his military cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. In a dream that night, Christ appeared to him wearing the half cloak.
Martin then appealed to be released from the army. When he was accused of cowardice, he offered to face the enemy armed only with the cross of Christ. Before the battle began, the enemy sued for peace, and Martin was allowed to leave the army. He might be considered the first conscientious objector.
Martin eventually made his way to Poitiers, in southern Gaul, to become a disciple of Bishop Hilary. He lived as a hermit, but attracted so many followers that he had to establish a monastery. Legend says that he did not want to become the Bishop of Tours in 371, but was persuaded to visit the city to give last rites to a dying woman, and was there made bishop by acclamation. As bishop, Martin had no qualms about destroying pagan shrines. But he would not accede to the taking of human life.
Priscillian, bishop of Avila, preached asceticism: vegetarianism, teetotalism, and celibacy. His call for the renunciation of marriage brought him the censure of Church authorities. The Council of Saragossa condemned his teachings in 380. After unsuccessfully appealing to Pope Damasus and Ambrose of Milan, Priscillian and six of his followers appealed to Emperor Magnus Maximus at Treveris (modern-day Trier, Germany). It wasn’t a good move. Maximus, at the urging of Bishop Ithacius of Ossanova, had Priscillian and his disciples condemned to death.
For Martin, excommunication, not execution, was the proper punishment for heresy. He made the long journey to Trier, where he persuaded the emperor to remove Priscillian and his companions from imperial jurisdiction. But soon after Martin left Trier, Ithacius prevailed on the emperor to have the men beheaded. They were the first, though sadly not the last religious dissenters to be executed at the behest of church authorities.
Martin refused to communicate with Ithacius after learning of his treachery. But later, when Martin returned to Trier to plead for the release of two rebels held by the emperor, Maximus would agree to the pardon only if Martin would make peace with Ithacius. Martin did so to save the lives of the men, though he later reproached himself for his weakness. For me, Martin’s compassion was his greatest strength.
Martin is the patron of soldiers and beggars. Because his feast day coincided with the pagan feast of Bacchus, he is also the patron of drunkards and innkeepers. But he also needs to be remembered as a man of Christlike love, who stood against the abuse of power by church and imperial authorities.