With Saint Valentine’s Day upon us, it is worth noting, precisely because it is all too easy to forget (if many of us ever knew it to begin with), that this too is but another holiday (holyday) that we owe to Western civilization’s historic faith, Christianity.
But who exactly was the man in whose name Americans spend more money every February 14 than they spend at any time of the year besides the Christmas season?
Well, it is exactly because very little is known with anything approximately certainty that the Roman Catholic Church decided over 50 years ago to remove St. Valentine from the General Roman Calendar. This means that, as of 1969, St. Valentine would no longer be honored by way of liturgical celebrations.
Nevertheless, the Church continues to recognize Valentine as a saint.
More than one tradition regarding Valentine’s identity has emerged over time. This has led some to conclude that these traditions refer to two separate individual men.
Still others believe that they are but variations on the life of one man.
According to one account, St. Valentine was a Roman priest and physician who suffered martyrdom in about the year 270 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Claudius II (Gothicus). Reportedly, Valentine had been marrying Christian couples (supposedly to prevent the men from having to go to war) and helping persecuted Christians. Because both were considered grave offenses by the Roman government, St. Valentine was incarcerated.
During his incarceration, a relationship between the Emperor and Valentine began to develop. But when the latter began to try to persuade the former of the truth of Christianity, the Emperor became infuriated and issued Valentine an ultimatum:
Either he renounce his Christian faith or else he would be beaten to a pulp with clubs and beheaded.
Needless to say, St. Valentine did not avail himself of the first option. Consequently, he was put to death on February 14, 269 A.D. outside of the Flaminian Gate.
Another account of St. Valentine informs us that he was the Bishop of Terni, Narnia, and Amelia. During his tenure as Bishop, he was on house arrest with a judge by the name of Asterius. While engaged in one of their regular discussions over Christianity, Judge Asterius challenged Valentine to prove that his faith in Christ was true.
And Judge Asterius achieved this by presenting Valentine with Asterius’ blind daughter—whose vision he was ordered to restored.
If Valentine did this, Judge Asterius promised him that he would honor all of Valentine’s requests.
The man who would be canonized as a saint placed his hand upon the blind girl’s eyes and returned her sight to her.
Asterius was ecstatic. He destroyed all of the images of false gods that Asterius had littered throughout his home. He also freed all Christian inmates and converted all of the members of his family and the 44 members of his household to the Christian faith.
Still another tradition informs us that St. Valentine was imprisoned for having refused to worship pagan deities. While in jail, he healed his jailer’s blind daughter.
On the day that he was scheduled to be executed, he left the little girl a note with the signature: “Your Valentine.”
Reportedly, Pope Julius I built a church in the memory of St. Valentine near Ponte Mole.
In any event, it is agreed that St. Valentine was indeed a historical personage—even if little about his life can be known. We know that he exists because the church that Julius I dedicated to his memory has been unearthed by archaeologists. The History Channel’s website reads as follows:
“The flower-adorned skull of St. Valentine is on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. In the early 1800s, the excavation of a catacomb near Rome yielded skeletal remains and other relics now associated with St. Valentine. As is customary, these bits and pieces of the late saint’s body have subsequently been distributed to reliquaries around the world.”
Interestingly, “bits of St. Valentine’s skeleton [are] on display in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Scotland, England, and France.”
Why, though, is St. Valentine’s Day associated with romantic love? The tradition that we continue to celebrate today, it is believed, derives from the medieval period, specifically, the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who, we are told,
“…often took liberties with history, placing his poetic characters into fictitious historical contexts that he represented as real. No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem Chaucer wrote around 1375. In his work, ‘Parliament of Foules,’ he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day—an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention.”
Chaucer’s poem is worth quoting. Here, he identifies February 14 as the day that both birds and humans work together to find mates: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s Day/Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
The holiday that we recognize today could very well have its origins in this poem—composed over one millennium after Saint Valentine was sent to receive his eternal reward.
St. Valentine is the patron saint of engaged and married couples, yes, but as well as lovers, epileptics, and beekeepers.
The historical St. Valentine was a man of God. Those who celebrate his namesake’s holiday this February 14th could use this as an occasion to remember that.