St. Martin was a Roman soldier in the tradition of his father. However, he was attracted to Christianity from a very young age in the military camps, due to the spread of Christianity in the military after the conversion of the emperor Constantine earlier in the fourth century. It was when his unit was sent to Amiens, in modern-day France, that the famous event took place, the one that is always depicted, as in the bas relief below- "the celebrated legend of the cloak." As the story is handed down to us, it was at the gates of Amiens on a bitterly cold day that Martin encountered "a shivering and half-naked beggar." Martin was deeply moved by the beggar's need and so "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.' Martin, who was still only a catechumen, soon received baptism." Shortly after being baptized he left military service and quickly set out for "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."
The cultus of St. Martin "was very popular throughout the Middle Ages." As a result of his popularity and the efficacy of his intercession many "churches and chapels were dedicated to him, and a great number of places have been called by his name. His body, taken to Tours, was enclosed in a stone sarcophagus, above which his successors, St. Britius and St. Perpetuus, built first a simple chapel, and later a basilica ([AD]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 [AD] 1014 which was burned down in [AD] 1230 to be rebuilt soon on a still larger scale This sanctuary was the cent[er] of great national pilgrimages until [AD] 1562, the fatal year when the Protestants sacked it from top to bottom, destroying the sepulchre and the relics of the great wonder-worker." Eventually the basilica "was restored by its canons, but a new and more terrible misfortune awaited it.
The revolutionary hammer of [AD] 1793 was to subject it to a last devastation. It was entirely demolished with the exception of the two towers which are still standing and, so that its reconstruction might be impossible, the atheistic municipality caused two streets to be opened up on its site. In December, [AD] 1860, skilfully 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 Mgr Meignan, Archbishop of Tours which is unfortunately of very small dimensions and recalls only faintly the ancient and magnificent cloister of St. Martin. On 11 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." Someday I will celebrate my birthday there.
Over on Fr. Barron's wonderful The Word on Fire blog today, Fr. Stephen Grunow, in a lovely reflection on St. Martin, writes these words:
"Martin did see the Lord Jesus, just as clearly as he saw the beggar, and he was able to see in both the divine image of God become man in Christ. But more than this ( if there could be more!) he saw in that half of his cloak that God who made himself a beggar for our sake deserved not half of what we have been given, but everything. To truly follow Christ means not simply to give part of ourselves to the Lord, but to give ourselves over to him completely.In a letter written long ago about the death of St. Martin, Sulpicius Severus said, "Filled with joy, Martin was welcomed by Abraham. Thus he left this life a poor and lowly man and entered heaven rich in God's favor." In his life and in his death my heavenly patron, St. Martin of Tours, verified the truth of what my dear Don Giussani testified to in Rome before the world: "The true protagonist of history is the beggar: Christ who begs for man's heart, and man's heart that begs for Christ."
"Martin knew that Christ did not simply want his cloak, he wanted the man who owned the cloak- Christ wanted Martin.
"And the Lord who so wanted Martin, also desires all of us."