St. Martin was born in what is now Hungary, the son of a military tribune and grew up in Pavia, Italy.
Although his parents were pagan, Martin was interested in Christianity. When an imperial edict arrived, he was commanded to take up the sword and putting an end, so it seemed, to his desire of a life of solitude and prayer. Forced to enlist, Martin became a soldier and was stationed in the territory of Gaul.
A famous story about the saint tells how around the year 335, Martin, now an Imperial guard, was making his rounds on horseback, when he came across a half-naked beggar. Taking compassion on the poor man, Martin took his military cloak, cut it in two, and gave half to the beggar.
The following night, Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream, wearing the cloak. Addressing the angels who accompanied him, the Lord said, “Behold, here is Martin, an unbaptized Roman soldier: He has clothed me.”
The dream left a grave impression on the young soldier, and Martin was baptized the following Easter. He continued to serve in the army for twenty more years.
When he left the army, Martin traveled to Poitiers to meet Hilary, the bishop, who was a firm adversary of the Arian heresy. On account of his strong stance, Hilary was exiled by the emperor Constantius II (who supported the Arians).
Upon hearing the news of Hilary’s exile, Martin, who in the meantime had gone to visit his family in Pannonia, retired to a hermitage near Milan. When Hilary returned from exile, Martin went to France to find him and obtained the bishop’s permission to found a monastery near the city of Tours.
Martin traveled through France, where many came to know him. His popularity led the people to choose him to be Bishop of Tours in 371. He ultimately agreed to be consecrated but maintained an ascetic lifestyle. He refused to live like a prince while the people suffered; and the poor, the sick and prisoners continued to find shelter under his mantle. He lived near the city walls in the monastery of Marmoutier, said to be the oldest in France. Dozens of monks, including many of noble birth, lived with him and shared his austerities.
In 397, Bishop Martin, now almost 80 years old, traveled to Candate (now Candes-Saint-Martin) to heal a local schism. On account of his virtue and strong personality, he was able to restore peace; but before he was able to return home, he fell ill with a violent fever. He asked to be laid out on the bare earth and breathed his last before a great crowd.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini