Martin of Tours, an important saint in our church calendar, is worth reflecting on today. Saints are the antidotes to the poison of their times, Chesterton said. So what poison did Martin confront?
One was the poison of militarism. Martin was born in 316 into a military family. His father, a Roman officer who came up through the ranks, commanded troops on the Roman frontier along the Rhine and Danube rivers. When his son was born his father naturally figured he would become a soldier like him. He named him Martin, after Mars, the god of war.
Heroes then were soldiers like Constantine and even Diocletian: warrior emperors. Rome was mobilizing to stop the barbarians threatening their frontiers. It needed soldiers. But Martin wanted nothing to do with war. Even as a young boy he heard a message of non-violence from Christians he knew. Over his father’s strong objections, he gave up prospects for an army commission and became a Christian catechumen, preparing for baptism.
Later on as a bishop, he was known as a peacemaker who spent a lot of time reconciling enemies. In fact, he died on his way to settle a dispute among some of his priests.
Another poison Martin opposed was the poison of careerism. When Constantine came into power he wanted to promote Christianity in the empire and one way to do that was to give Christian bishops more power in civil society. The emperor gave them money and authority over projects and jobs. You can see why a lot of men wanted to become bishops. It promised a rich lifestyle and prestige.
When Martin became Bishop of Tours at the invitation of the people of that diocese, he adopted a lifestyle that was opposite to that of most of the bishops of Gaul. One of his biographers said he never went to bishops’ meetings. He couldn’t stand them. The bishops liked life in the cities. Martin preferred to minister in the country, to the “pagani”, the uneducated poor.
Are the poisons of militarism and careerism still around today? We remember our war veterans today. How many died in wars in the past 100 years? Too many. And too many bear the scars of war. Militarism is still around.
I think careerism is still around too.
The story that epitomizes Martin, of course, is his meeting with the beggar in the cold winter as he was coming through the gate in the town of Amiens, a catechumen but still a soldier. He stopped and cut his military cloak in two and gave one to the poor man. That night, the story goes, Christ appeared to him in a dream, wearing the beggar’s cloak. “Martin gave me this,” he said.
Pope Benedict XVI has a beautiful comment on this event.
“ Martin’s gesture flows from the same logic that drove Jesus to multiply the loaves for the hungry crowd, but most of all to leave himself to humanity as food in the Eucharist… It’s the logic of sharing. May St Martin help us to understand that only by a common commitment to sharing is it possible to respond to the great challenge of our times: to build a world of peace and justice where each person can live with dignity. This can be achieved if an authentic solidarity prevails which assures to all inhabitants of the planet food, water, necessary medical treatment, and also work and energy resources as well as cultural benefits, scientific and technological knowledge.”
That’s well said.