Many years ago I came upon a church dedicated to Saint Valentine. Apart from the usual Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary I was not used to seeing so many hearts displayed in a church. These ranged from the doily kind adorning the bulletin board to the hearts carved into the heart-shaped granite baptismal font. If I hadn’t known any better I might have thought a heart to be the attribute for Saint Valentine. And yet, contrary to common belief and despite the recent onslaught of red heart-shaped boxes filled with mediocre chocolates, it is not.
Why all the hearts? And what is it about this obscure saint that is supposed to send the hearts of the romantic sort all aflutter? The meaning of his name, derived from the Latin word valens meaning worthy, strong and powerful may do it for some but surely not for all.
A quick search for Valentine reveals that the Catholic Church venerates not one but twelve saints named Valentine, three of whom are said to have been martyred on February 14. Among those three, two were martyred in Rome and one was martyred in the Roman province of Africa. Of the two who were martyred in Rome one was a priest while the other was the bishop of Terni. Father Valentine is said to have been martyred in the second half of the third century. The official history of the diocese of Terni mentions that Bishop Valentine was martyred while visiting Rome on February 14, 273. Some have suggested that both men were actually one and the same person, a claim which can be made because we know close to nothing about saint or saints Valentine.
In 496 Pope Gelasius, who established the feast of St. Valentine on February 14 admitted as much saying that St. Valentine ought to be reverenced though for reasons known to God alone. Because St. Valentine is cloaked in near perfect obscurity he suffered the same fate as many other obscure saints as was removed from the official Roman Calendar of Saints after the Second Vatican Council. However, his name is still inscribed in the Roman Martyrology, the official list of Catholic Saints. This means that churches can still be dedicated to him; people can venerate him and his feast may be celebrated when no other higher ranking saint is to be celebrated on that day. In the United States we celebrate Saints Cyril and Methodius, 9th C. missionaries to the Slavs on February 14, not St. Valentine.
As far as the connection between Valentine and the hall-mark romance he has come to represent, there simply is none. As a matter of fact the attribution of love is to the date (February 14) rather than to the saint. Its origin pertains to birds rather than humans. During the Middle Ages it was believed that birds found their mate by February 14, i.e. Saint Valentine’s Day. Because of this belief St. Valentine’s Day was thought a perfect day for romance, also for humans. A well-known reference to this may be found in Chaucer’s funny poem "The Parliament of the Fowles."
Once this connection was made, stories about Valentine’s commitment to love quickly were attributed to him. According to one of these stories he was put to death because he performed weddings for Roman soldiers while it was against the law for soldiers to be married. This infuriated the emperor and thus Valentine is said to have met his unfortunate fate.
The one question remaining pertains to the custom of sending written “valentines” to one’s “valentine.” This is rooted in the medieval courtly love custom of writing love notes and poems to mostly unattainable love interests. By the 18th C. this courtly love custom and the Valentine movement had intersected and given rise to our current valentine customs.
So, are we to celebrate St. Valentine or not? Celebrate of course, but it is always good to know what it is one celebrates. And if you plan to donate one of those heart-shaped boxes, please humor me and do yourself a favor by filling it with Belgian Chocolates.
I am sure you can’t wait to learn what I have to say about St. Patrick.