The fragrance of Christ, when it is allowed to penetrate our lives, is irresistibly moving
The city of Tours, France, is replete with images of the charity of St. Martin, the city’s great saint. Depictions of the saint’s kindness can be found on signs, store fronts, roadside statues, and more. As the legends go, St. Martin, who was then a soldier and not yet a Christian, passed by a beggar shivering in the cold. Moved with pity at the sight of the man’s suffering, St. Martin took his fine cloak, cut it in half, and gave the portion to the freezing poor man.
That night, the Risen Christ visited Martin in a dream, clothed in the garment Martin had handed the beggar. “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me” (Mt. 25:40). After the visit from Christ, Martin was baptized and became a Christian. Martin embraced a monastic life, and after the bishop of Tours died, Martin was made bishop of Tours by popular acclaim of the town’s people in 371.
Martin was known far and wide for his compassion. He desired to live in solitude, choosing the monastic life, and yet he was so loved by the people of Tours that they begged him to serve as their bishop. St. Martin of Tours is one of the earliest non-martyrs to be venerated as a saint. In fact, the basilica built in his honor (tragically destroyed during the 18th-century French Revolution), was one of Medieval Europe’s most popular pilgrimage destinations.
Martin was beloved because his life shone; he radiated the light of Christ. In the words of Psalm 112, “Light shines through the darkness for the upright; he is gracious and merciful and just.” Martin clothed the naked man before him. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn …”
An over-attachment to riches and things is fundamentally incompatible with genuine love for the poor. St. John Chrysostom vigorously declares, “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” Imitation of the compassion of Jesus, living a life that is simple and just, is inextricable from the basic tenets of the Gospel.
The example of such a life is powerful. It was powerful in the fourth century, when St. Martin was active in Tours. It was powerful in the 16th century, when the English Deist Lord Peterborough lodged with the saintly Archbishop Francis Fenelon of Calais. Peterborough was so moved by Fenelon’s charity and way of life, that he is said to have exclaimed, “If I stay here much longer, I shall become a Christian in spite of myself!” And the example of Mother Teresa of Calcutta moved the skeptic journalist Malcolm Muggeridge to Christianity; he died a Catholic in the end. Muggeridge once wrote of Mother Teresa, “It is impossible to be with her, to listen to her, to observe what she is doing and how she is doing it, without being in some degree converted.”
This is the power of lived Christianity. To be “the light of the world” means to exude Christ. To be so imbued with it, that like a strong tea, the flavor of the Gospel is unmistakable.
When, therefore, the poverty of Christ is abandoned and Christian leaders forsake the care of the needy, when the Church seems neither “city set on a mountain” nor “light on a lampstand” – what then?
Pope Pius XII wrote, in 1943, that Jesus, “willed that His Church should be enriched with the abundant gifts of the Paraclete in order that in dispensing the divine fruits of the Redemption she might be, for the Incarnate Word, a powerful instrument that would never fail” (Mystici Corporis). The holiness of the Church is not the sum total of the holiness of her ministers or members.
The Church is a light to nations because Christ is a light. On Calvary, through his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus opened up the fountain of graces—flowing as blood and water from his pierced side—so that all could believe in Him and live as He lived. The Church is holy, because Christ makes it so.
No sinner is excluded from life in the Church. The call to belong to the city on a hill, to be salt and light, demands constant conversion. To love as Christ loved, to serve as Jesus has served: nothing else will suffice. Pope St. Leo the Great exhorts us, “Recognize, O Christian, your dignity, and being made a sharer of the divine nature, go not back to your former worthlessness along the way of unseemly conduct. Keep in mind of what Head and of what Body you are a member.”
May our charity abound! May we never cease to seek Christ in the poor! May they know we are Christians by our love!