Throughout the ages, there have been faithful saints who served in the military. Though some, like St. Martin of Tours, ultimately objected to armed conflict, others, like St. Joan of Arc, led armies in sweeping victories that would be remembered for centuries to come. Their stories may not all conjure visions of epic battles and anthems of valor, but each of these servants of God was ultimately driven by the courage to honor Him in all they did.
As we approach the observance of Veteran’s Day this year, we invite you to reflect upon the lives of three saints who were soldiers, and discover where they are portrayed in the Basilica.
St. Joan of Arc
In the early 1400s, when she was just 13, Joan of Arc received a miraculous vision in which the Archangel Michael and two women saints encouraged her to help restore the dauphin to the throne. At first, she was not taken seriously when she offered her assistance to the dauphin, but eventually he accepted her help. Joan became a military commander, helping the struggling army break a siege on Orleans and leading them in a series of impressive victories. She became known as the “Maid of Orleans,” and when the dauphin was restored to the throne in 1429, Joan lived as a member of the royal court. She was also granted a coat of arms for her heroic actions.
In a later military conflict, Joan was captured by the rebels of Burgundy and sold to England. There, she was imprisoned and subjected to constant interrogation as an ecclesiastical court tried to convict her of heresy. When the court could find no fault with her theology, she was eventually convicted for wearing men’s clothing. On May 30, 1431, 19-year-old Joan was burned at the stake. Two decades later, her family petitioned to have her case retried, and she was declared innocent. However, she wasn’t canonized until nearly 500 years later, when in May of 1920, the Church recognized her heroic faith.
St. Joan of Arc is featured in the Southwest Nave Bay, and the Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel also contains a stone from the dungeon in which she was imprisoned before her execution.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola
Ignatius was born in Spain as Inígo López de Loyola in 1491. He was a rising star in the Spanish military, when at age 30 during the battle of Pamplona, he was hit with a deadly cannon explosion that rendered him bedridden. In this invalid state, Ignatius requested to read romances to fill the long hours of free time. However, he was informed that there were no romances available for him – only volumes on the lives of saints. Though tales of saints were not what Ignatius had hoped to immerse himself in, he found himself fascinated by their examples of faith and devotion. As he was a knight dedicated to a code of honor, the faith-based action of the saints likely inspired him. His reading sparked a journey that would lead him to an even higher code of honor: dedicating his life to be a “a knight for the glory of God.”
His injury, however, left him with a limp that would plague him the rest of his life. Once he recovered sufficiently to walk, he decided to make a pilgrimage to the Catalonian shrine of Our Lady at Montserrat. In the months that followed, he experienced a series of mystical visions, and began to write the work that would eventually be known as his Spiritual Exercises – a practical guide for meditation. Intrigued with the Gospel stories, he made various pilgrimages to the different sites mentioned in the accounts.
He returned from his pilgrimages in 1524 with the resolution to dedicate his life to Christ. After earning his master’s degree from the University of Paris, in 1534 he joined with six friends from the university to form what would become known as the Society of Jesus, and eventually, the Jesuits. It was dedicated to spreading Christ’s presence throughout the world. When it was officially recognized by Rome in 1540, it consisted of just ten members. Over the following fifteen years, under Ignatius’ leadership, it expanded to 1,000 members, and when he passed away in 1556, their presence spanned nine countries and provinces in South America, Europe, and India. Today, the Jesuits are the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church.
St. Martin of Tours
Born in Hungary, St. Martin of Tours was drafted into the Roman army at the age of fifteen. But he soon grew uncomfortable with his military career, especially as he began learning about Christianity. The more he learned, the more he felt that it promoted a message of peace inconsistent with the life of a Roman soldier.
However, it wasn’t until his winter encounter with a beggar in Amiens, France, that Martin converted to Christianity. Upon seeing the beggar, Martin felt compelled to tear his cloak in two and give half to the man. Later that night, he had a dream that Jesus was wearing the other half of his cloak, which inspired him to become baptized immediately. Following his conversion, he remained in the army, but refused to fight and was imprisoned on charges of cowardice.
After his release, he lived as a hermit on an island in the Gulf of Genoa before founding the first monastery in Gaul. Despite his protestations, he was eventually made Bishop of Tours, but still lived the life of an unassuming monk. He was instrumental in reaching out to unchurched people in the countryside, bringing the Gospel to many who might not otherwise have heard. Today, he is honored as the patron saint of soldiers.
Butler’s Lives of Saints, ed. Bernard Bangley
Cowan’s The Way of Saints
Rohling, Geraldine M., PhD, MAEd. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: Guide and Tour Book. Washington, D.C.: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 2018.