There stood Emperor Julian, the last Roman Emperor in the dynasty of Constantine. Breaking the line of Christian emperors, Julian had returned to Rome’s pagan religious roots and was desperately attempting to manufacture a revival. Before him was a young, but accomplished, soldier named Martin. Desiring to seek out St. Hilary, the bishop of Poitiers, and be ordained, the young Roman legionnaire had requested a dismissal. In reply, Julian scolded Martin as a coward. To this, the young man said, “With the sign of the cross, I shall more certainly break through the ranks of the enemy than if armed with shield and sword.” The young soldier went off to live an exemplary life and become known as St. Martin of Tours. The emperor’s attempt to foster the old pagan ways would fail, and he would become known as Julian the Apostate.
On November 11, the Church will celebrate the life of St. Martin of Tours and ask for his intercession. The areas under his patronage are numerous: soldiers, poverty and impoverishment, reformed alcoholics, and many others.
While the legend of the cloak generally consumes most discussions of the saint, it is his proclamation to Julian the Apostate that centers our narrative here. St. Martin lived his life as a sign of the cross of Christ, and he broke “the ranks of the enemy,” both as a member of the Church Militant and as a saint in the Church Triumphant. He lived at a time when the external enemies of the Church sought to restore paganism to its former glory. While contending with these external factions, he was also persecuted by a bishop who led the thriving Arian heresy in Italy. His hagiography even speaks of a time when Satan came wrapped in the form of Christ in an attempt to trick the saint. On the occasion of his death, a demon appeared, and Martin exclaimed, “What do you want, you horrible beast? You find nothing in me that’s yours!” In the face of pagans, heretics and demons, St. Martin was able to heroically preach the Gospel, found monasteries and die a holy bishop.
When he died and joined the Church Triumphant, his spirit and courage still remained a favorite target for heretics and pagans. The Protestants sacked a great stone basilica built around his sarcophagus in 1562, destroying even his relics. However, the legacy of St. Martin endured, and the church was rebuilt. In 1793, the church was demolished at the hands of the French Revolution and its children: the militant secularists. In an attempt to stifle the spirit of the great saint, the atheistic regime constructed an intersection that ran between the two remaining towers and over the sacred ground.
Surviving the original onslaught of the French Calvinists and then the atheists, relics of St. Martin and his basilica lay waiting deep in the earth. In 1860, an excavation site discovered these lost fragments, and the Archbishop of Tours declared a new basilica would be built to house the discovery. Finished in 1924, the much smaller, but exquisite, neo-byzantine church dedicated to the relics of St. Martin of Tours still stands today.
As Catholics, we do not believe that time is cyclical, but we do heed Scripture’s maxim: “There is nothing new under the sun.” And I would be remiss to exhort St. Martin’s courage without describing the need for our own courage today. I often wonder whether today’s secularism is not just a rebirth of paganism. The gods are more ambiguous, because they do not carry such proper nouns as Moloch or Jupiter, but rather names like economy, opportunity, and pleasure. However, it appears to make little difference whether children are sacrificed on the altar of a god or on the altar of our selfishness. As the Catholic principles that shaped the West are slowly abandoned, it seems the pagan principles of old are rematerializing. Secular or pagan, many of the reasons change, but the outcomes do not.
St. Martin of Tours and the rest of our forefathers worked tirelessly to convert the pagan world and then hold their ground against its final throes. And while Catholics can have hope that the waves of our current adversaries will always break upon the shield of faith, followers of Christ must remember that our saints suffered persecution, exile, discrimination and even greater evils in order to fight the good fight. Let us be clear, this is not a call for the End Times; this is a call to realize we live on the same planet of our forefathers. We need to be courageous. We need to be alert. We need to be willing.
St. Martin of Tours, pray for us.
Also, as we honor these veterans of the faith, let us remember and honor the veterans of our country who have fought and died for us and our freedom.
How do you plan to honor our veterans this year?
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