Who is the Patron-Saint of Western Europe? Perhaps many would reply that the protector of Western Europe is not a saint, but the Saviour Himself. Others might argue that the Mother of God, the greatest of those born of a woman, is the Patron of the West. But how can such universal figures be particular protectors of only one small part of the world? Would it not be absurd and even pretentious to make such universal figures into patrons of only one small part of the world?
So who is the Patron-Saint of Western Europe? There are many answers to this question, but each appears to bring with it considerable reservations. For example, why could there not be two Patron-Saints of Western Europe, the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul? Some would again answer that, as in the cases of the Saviour and the Mother of God, their scope is universal, far greater than mere Western Europe, especially the recent nations of Europe. With the Apostle Peter founding the Patriarchate of Antioch, the Apostle Paul that of Rome (and many other Churches), they encompass not only Europe, they are not only the Patron-Saints of the Roman Empire of Europe and Asia, but of the whole of Christendom.
Could the Patron-Saint of the West then be the Holy Apostle Andrew? But surely he is also widely venerated outside Europe, where he is venerated in particular only in some countries, for instance, the Ukraine, Romania, Greece and Scotland? Others might put forward candidates from later times, after the Apostles. What about St George the Great-Martyr? Is he not already the Patron-Saint of Georgia, England, Portugal, Catalonia, Venice, Genoa and Moscow? But then St George himself came, like the Apostles, from the Near East. He was not himself a European and we know little about his life on earth. A similar argument could be made with regard to St Nicholas of Myra, in Asia Minor. Certainly, he is universally venerated, but he was not actually from Europe, let alone Western Europe.
Could the Patron of the West then be St Benedict of Cassino? But surely he is the Patriarch and Patron-Saint only of the monks of the West. Could it be Sts Cyril and Methodius? But they are little known outside Eastern Europe and only widely venerated by one constituent people of Europe, the Slavs. No doubt, similarly, other peoples would put forward their own candidates, but the influence of each of these is limited. Thus, the veneration of Sts Constantine and Helen is largely limited to Greece and Cyprus, St Patrick to Ireland, St Denis to France, St Boniface to Germany, St Olaf to Norway etc.
Some might object that all these saints lived a very long time ago, long before modernity, the car, the aeroplane and the computer. We could therefore put forward a near-contemporary candidate. He is St John the Wonderworker (1898-1966). Born in what is now the Ukraine, he lived in the Russian Empire, then in the Balkans, and, after a period as a bishop in China, he was consecrated Archbishop of Western Europe, with his see first in Paris and then in Brussels, before becoming Archbishop of San Francisco. He spoke modern European languages. He visited most of the countries of Western Europe. He encouraged the veneration of all the saints of Europe. He had passed first from the East to the West, and then from the Far East to the Far West.
However, some might oppose St John as the Patron-Saint of Western Europe. He spent much of his time outside Europe. Perhaps, for example, he should rather be considered to be the Patron-Saint of Shanghai? Or perhaps rather he should be considered the Patron-Saint of All Europe (not just the small Western part)? Perhaps he is too universal to be tied only to Europe? Others might object that he is still little known outside the Orthodox Church. In all the litany of the saints, is there one who could truly meet all the criteria and be called the Patron-Saint of Western Europe?
I believe that there is one saint, a European, for whom we have an excellent and even well-known life, and for whom there might be more unanimity. This is one whose veneration was much promoted by the above St John the Wonderworker: he is St Martin the Merciful, Bishop of Tours, the Wonderworker. Like St John the Wonderworker, he also came from the East to the West.
Martin was born in Pannonia in modern Hungary, probably in c 330. (Indeed, in the year 1000 St Stephen of Hungary founded the Hungarian national shrine of Pannonhalma in the reputed birthplace of St Martin). Said by some sources to be Slav by his pagan father, when he was ten years old, his family moved to Pavia in Italy. Here he ran away from home, asking to be baptised by Bishop Anastasius of Pavia. At the age of twelve, he conceived the desire to live like the hermits of the East, of whom he had then heard. At the age of fifteen his father had him join the Roman army and he served in the Roman cavalry at Amiens in what is now northern France, where he was baptised.
In about 350 he was released from the army at his request and thereupon he made for Trier in Germany. Here, where St Athanasius the Great had lived in exile, Martin became a disciple of St Maximinus, Bishop of Trier. The latter had already sheltered the exiled St Athanasius and also St Paul of Constantinople. It was here that Martin met yet another Church Father, St Hilary of Poitiers, the ‘Western St Athanasius’. Martin went back to Gaul with him until, in 355, following instructions given in a dream, Martin made the perilous crossing of the Alps to return to Pannonia, where he converted his mother to Christ.
From here, persecuted by Arians for his Orthodoxy, Martin went to Italy. Here, together with a priestly companion, he went to live as a hermit on a tiny island off the Italian coast, now called Gallinare. Hearing that his mentor, St Hilary, had returned from exile in Egypt and Palestine to Poitiers in Gaul, in 361 Martin then moved back to western Gaul. Here he founded a monastery, at Liguge just outside Poitiers, where he was ordained priest. Now Martin began to work miracles, even raising two people from the dead. As a result, ten years later, in 371, Martin was forced by popular acclamation to become the Bishop of Tours.
Near Tours, in caves above the banks of the Loire, he founded another monastery, called Marmoutiers - the Great Monastery, or Laura. His monasticism, inspired by the example of St Anthony in Egypt, in turn inspired the monasticism of St Ninian in Scotland (+ c 432) and St Patrick in Ireland (+ c 461), the former of whom he may personally have known, the latter of whom was later a pilgrim to Marmoutiers. As bishop, Martin struggled against paganism, gave everything to the poor and honoured the saints, receiving relics from his friend, the great Church Father, St Ambrose of Milan in Italy (+ 397). He fought sternly against heresies, but was merciful to heretics. On the other hand, he was intolerant of the injustices of the powerful and on several occasions opposed their corruption successfully. His influence in Western Europe as an ascetic and a bishop, a monk of great humility and a wonderworker, is not to be underestimated. After his repose in 397 in Candes, near Tours, Martin appeared to his friend, St Severinus of Cologne, in Germany (+ 403).
St Martin’s influence was felt firstly all over Gaul. Even today, some 4,000 churches are still dedicated to him in France, where 485 towns and villages are named after him, and his name has become the most common of all French surnames, the French equivalent of Smith in the English-speaking world. His feast-day in France, 11 November, also marks the day that peace broke out in the bloodiest of all wars endured by France, the First World War. His name, Martin, which in Latin means ‘of Mars’, the god of war (no doubt the name was the choice of his military-minded father), is thus associated with peace.
However, St Martin’s influence was and is Westernwide. Thus the name Martin has become one of the most common and international Christian names. Even by the end of the eleventh century place-names formed around the name Martin had become the most common of all throughout Western Europe, from Spain to Poland. His monastic influence was felt universally in Western Europe and he was the great inspirer of St Benedict in Italy. After St Martin of Tours were named such great saints as St Martin of Braga, in what is now Portugal (520-580), who was also born in Pannonia, St Martin I, Pope of Rome (+ 655), much venerated in the East where he was martyred in the Chersonese, and, in the twelfth century, St Martin of Turov in Belarus.
No doubt there are arguments in favour of other Patron-Saints for Western Europe. Nevertheless, the international profile of St Martin, as described in his Life written even before his repose, makes him a man of many lands, and his international significance throughout Western Europe, surely makes him one of the most fitting of all possible Patron-Saints of Western Europe.
Holy Wonderworker Martin, Pray to God for us!