About 550, St. Martin arrived in Galicia, now northern Portugal, aboard a ship transporting pilgrims from the Holy Land. We know little about Martin’s background, except that he had received a Greek education in the East and training as a monk in the tradition of the Egyptian desert. The young monk seems to have come to Galicia as a missionary to a church infected with heresy.
The Suevi, a Germanic tribe that controlled Galicia, had adopted Priscillianism, a version of gnosticism that denied Christ’s humanity. Martin took a strategic approach to winning the Suevi to the Catholic Church. First he became the friend of King Theodomir and won the admiration of the royal family. Then, building on his personal relationships, Martin converted the king and his court.
Martin founded a monastery at Dumium, which served as his missionary base. Out of respect for him, the Suevian monarchs made him bishop of Dumium. Later they appointed Martin as archbishop of Braga, which established him as the preeminent leader of the Galician church. In that position he held several councils that condemned Priscillianism and he promulgated teaching that restored its adherents to the church.
Gregory of Tours declared Martin the greatest scholar of his age. His writings included a guide to the Christian life, a description of superstitious peasant customs, a set of moral maxims, and a version of the sayings of the Egyptian fathers. Listen to Martin’s voice in the following selection from his little essay on vanity:
A person desires nothing more than to be praised, nor is there a single thing that he would consider it more agreeable to receive than some- one’s admiration for him as a person of renown... For those who have usurped the things above, all that is left, so it seems to me, is the things below...Everyone everywhere strives to spread his own fame, and therefore the cure for such vanity is most difficult, because it mingles not only with vices, but also with virtues…For when he rejoices in other people’s praises his joy is followed by exalted triumph, and his triumph, in turn, by pretentiousness and overestimation of himself…This is that deadly vice of which the Lord spoke in the gospel thus to the Jews: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory which is from the only God?” (see John 5:44).
Martin of Braga served the Christians of Galicia for nearly a quarter of a century. He died at his monastery at Dumium in 579. He is the true gospel-bearer that carries it in his hands, in his mouth and in his heart. A person does not carry it in his heart that does not love it with all his soul.