Give Me Back My Valentine!

St-valentine-baptizing-st-lucilla-jacopo-bassano

 I claim there ain’t
Another Saint
As great as Valentine.
     —Ogden Nash

On Sunday, February 9, the Catholic Church celebrated World Marriage Day.

This Friday, February 14, the universal Church will not celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, even though everybody else will. This even though he has been venerated by Catholics for about 1,700 years as the patron saint of love and marriage.

St. Valentine used to be honored by a Mass on his feast day. But my free calendar from the local Catholic parish simply lists February 14 as “Valentine’s Day,” stripped of its “St,” as if it were some desiccated secular observance like “Administrative Assistant’s Day.”

How did this happen? In 1966, a book written by a Franciscan (ironically named Agostino Amore) claimed that Valentine never existed. Fr. Amore’s thesis was that the ancient Basilica of St. Valentine in Rome was named after a wealthy tribune who just happened to be named Valentine—and not a martyr priest. Apparently it did not occur to Fr. Amore that it was common for a benefactor to give money to build a church in honor of his patron saint. And that Catholics don’t tend to name churches after themselves…

Three years later, in 1969, St. Valentine was dropped from the Universal Calendar of saints of the Roman Catholic Church. His 1700-year popularity notwithstanding, it was argued that there was insufficient evidence of his existence—although officially, the Church did not go so far as to declare that St. Valentine never existed.

Thus, pseudo-educated Catholics could congratulate themselves on their sophistication and a few pious souls could continue praying to him. The indifferent remainder of the world took it as a cue to rededicate the day to mid-February lechery, as in ancient times.

According to most traditions, St. Valentine was a priest and physician who was martyred under the Emperor Claudius II on February 14, 269, for aiding Christians. Some say his crime was marrying couples in defiance of a law forbidding soldiers to marry. That may not be provable, but at that time, Claudius was leading a life-or-death struggle for Rome against the invading Goths, and he had a reputation for brutality—it was claimed that Claudius could knock out the teeth of a horse with a single punch. 

Valentine was beaten with clubs and then beheaded on the Via Flaminia, just outside what is now the Porta del Popolo in Rome (not far from the Spanish Steps). For centuries, this gateway to the Via Flaminia (the main highway into Rome from the north) was named Porta Valentini in his honor.

His body was buried in a pit about a mile up the Via Flaminia, east of the highway below the northwestern cliff of Monte Parioli. Less than 75 years after his death, a Basilica was built over his grave by Pope Julius I. It became the first stop for pilgrims on their way into the Eternal City. It subsequently fell into ruin and a later one was built over the catacombs nearby. This site is not far from the Milvian Bridge, where Constantine—who claimed to be descended from Claudius II—defeated Maxentius and became Emperor about 40 years after Valentine’s death. That battle ended three centuries of persecution and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

In 496 (a little over 200 years after his martyrdom) Valentine was canonized by Pope Gelasius—who himself was a saint, scholar, and a poet who wrote many hymns. Gelasius canonized not only St. Valentine, but also St. George (who was likewise bumped off the calendar in 1969). He remarked that these two men were among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” His point was that if a man dies for Christ, he is worthy of canonization, even if he didn’t leave the Summa Theologica behind to keep the cynics quiet.

But archaeological evidence of St. Valentine’s life is still with us. Besides the remains of the original Basilica, St. Valentine’s skull is in Rome’s Santa Maria in Cosmedin—consistent with the tradition that he was beheaded. More relics are kept at St. Praxides in Rome, and a significant casque of relics made its way to Ireland, to the Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on Whitefriar Street in Dublin.

(To this day, that church celebrates February 14 with a special blessing of rings for engaged couples. To heck with the revised calendar—they aren’t about to spurn the tourists.)

The saint was honored continuously—and not just on greeting cards—until recent times. In the New York Times of February 28, 1905, the paper’s Rome correspondent reported on St. Valentine’s Day celebrations in the city:

The Cultores Martyrum have a special celebration every year on this day at his catacomb, on the Flaminian Way, outside of Porta del Topolo [sic], to the right at the foot of the Monti Parioli. Here, too, above the ground are a few remains of the basilicate raised by Pope Julius I in the middle of the fourth century and dedicated to St. Valentine.

The Times article goes on to mention that the catacomb had been abandoned, but was recovered and explored in 1880 by Prof. Horace (Orazio) Marucchi, director of the Christian Museum of the Lateran.

Marucchi published many books on Christian antiquities, among them a memorial volume on St. Valentine. So, in 1905 quite a bit about Valentine was known, but for some reason, in 1969 it was forgotten or ignored. 

A modern myth claims that St. Valentine’s feast day was invented just to replace the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. No, actually, Lupercalia was abolished by the Roman Senate in the late 400s and replaced with the feast of the Purification of Mary. Truly, the Catholic-feast-day-invented-to-supplant-the-ancient-pagan-festival explanation is wearing a little thin—maybe they’ve run out of pagan events and are starting to recycle them….

Moreover, some Christian saints were purposely martyred during pagan festivities. St. Perpetua and her companions were killed at the Emperor’s birthday celebration. Would it be a big surprise if Valentine were martyred on the eve of Lupercalia—and that he wound up taking over the party? Think of it this way: Which gesture would you find more attractive—getting smacked with a piece of raw, smelly goat hide, or getting flowers in memory of the patron of lovers, who loved “unto death”?

In any case, why should it matter? If you actually believe in God and his Providence, it makes sense to assume that there is a saint or a feast day for every legitimate custom or desire—since God created both. Some celebrations invented before the Christian feast were valid prefigurements by people searching for the truth and awaiting the Light of the World. Other pagan feasts were debauched riots.

Maybe those persistent legends about St. Valentine are true. Maybe he really was a priest and physician who secretly married couples in defiance of the Emperor Claudius II, and maybe he really was martyred for it on February 14, 269. Maybe it was on the eve of the feast of Lupercalia, or Juno, or maybe it doesn’t matter. Even dead, he seems to have rather handily outlived everything.

Some public schools in New Jersey have banned Valentine’s Day—possibly for fear that some kid will one day ask the forbidden question, “Uh—who is Valentine?” Today’s Catholic Church is likewise too timid to embrace his feast day—and it seems the devil has been more than happy to take it over.

It would be nice to have our Valentine back. With the red vestments, the little prayer for the Mass of the day, and the “St.” back in front of his name on our free parish calendars. I am no theologian, but I suspect it’s time to get over ourselves. Are we going to celebrate Valentine’s Day with or without the guest of honor?

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “St. Valentine Baptizing St. Lucilla” painted by Jacopo Bassano in the 1500s. 

Karen Anderson

By

Karen Anderson writes about art and culture. She teaches art history at the Regina Caeli Academy in Wilton, Conn., and is the author of A Fairy-Tale Christmas (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang; 2006).

  • Paul Sho

    “Who shall
    we celebrate our Valentine day with? Who shall we celebrate our love
    with?

    With the one who loves us more than any other person loves us. With the
    one who loves us more than we love ourselves. That person is Jesus of
    Nazareth. A king. The King of the known Universe, who wishes to share
    his kingship and glory with us. How wonderful it will be to rule the
    whole world as co-regents with our Lord Jesus. How wonderful it will be
    to have the freedom to explore the whole Universe – so many Galaxies in
    so many Multiverses. Can anybody wait? We can’t wait!” culled from http://www.popeleo13.com

  • ForChristAlone

    Doesn’t this just about say it all concerning what has happened to our Church since the 1960’s? We’ve been hijacked and we’re just now finding out about it. Excuse me, but I’ll be taking back my Church now. Thank you!

  • bethannbee

    This is a wonderful article which takes the modern Church to task for creating their own modern myths to debase the saintly people of God. Thanks for those who love and write about the Truth found in the Traditions of the Catholic Church

    • Stephen Anderson

      Stop the negativity. Get your facts straight. Today the church celebrates the Memoial of Sts. Cyril and Methodious AND THE OPTIONAL MEMORIAL OF ST VALENTINE

  • Richard Norman

    Great article. I was raised a Baptist, and prior to my conversion I was unaware the St. had been removed from St Valentine’s Day, and that the Church no longer celebrated this Saint. However, most Protestant Bibles have removed the St from the title of the Gospels of Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but have never been able to erase the St from the hearts and minds of all Protestants. Many of us always called these men Saints, even if we didn’t know precisely what was meant. I suspect many will always honor St Valentine with his title and honor his day appropriately. Happy St Valentine’s Day!

  • Michael Lee

    It should be noted that the Holy Father met with over 10,000 engaged couples in St. Peter’s Square today (St. Valentine’s Day 2014) in celebration of the Saint’s feast; so it’s not exactly being ignored. Also, while the information on “this” St. Valentine is interesting, one of the reasons for which the feast was dropped from the General Calendar is that there are at least 4 individuals who form a composite character who has become the popular saint known as St. Valentine. The Church never said the feast could not be celebrated, yet the Church typically does not include composite figures on the general calendar. There is no Anti Saint Valentine movement, so I think this article — while providing some interesting background information — is largely making a big deal out of a non-issue.

  • John O’Neill

    Vatican II’s legacy continues. The feast of good Saint Valentine was eliminated in order to placate the secularists who quickly turned it into Valentine’s day, a day of gross consumerism and media supported fornication. The state that the Church finds itself in today is one of its own making.

  • Joe

    In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, which was never abrogated, the Universal Church continues to commemorate St. Valentine on Feb 14. Another point against the pseudo-educated!

    • tjf

      You beat me to it! Happy St. Valentine’s Day!

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  • Stephen Anderson

    Way off base. Today the Church celebrates the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodious and the OPTIONAL MEMORIAL of St. Valentine. Forget your local parish calendar and consult he 3rd edition of the Roman Missal. Further more today in St. Peter’s Square when the Holy Father met 30thousand + engaged couple, Archbishop Paglia when addressing the Holy Father and couples DEVOUTED A GOOD PORTION OF HIS REMARKS TONSt. Valentine. So ST. VALENTINE has never been taken from you dear writer

    • ColdStanding

      The beef, StephenAnderson of ALL CAPS, is that a feast which was an expression of significant popular piety centered on a much loved saint has been displaced on dubious grounds during a time when much that was loved got tossed out the window by people that were supposed to be preserving and defending the faith.

      It is good that the Bishop of Rome has mentioned St. Valentine in his address. But when was the last time it happened? The damage has been done. Tradition has been maimed.

      And this isn’t the only thing that has been shorn from the faith, so don’t go waving your finger at us saying, “Oh, it is in the book.” If only we could get the priest and bishops to pay attention to that book with some degree of seriousness!

      No, dear ALL CAP’r, there are a significant number of people that dearly want the full, rich, glory of the Catholic faith, that aren’t getting it, are none too happy about that, and will not put up with it any more.

      • ForChristAlone

        It’s not just that St. Valentine has been relegated to the dust bin of history by a Church who had honored him as one emblematic of sacrificial love. It’s that this has been done during the period of the past 60 years when sacrificial love as intrinsic to what marriage is has been decimated by the secular culture.

        When we most needed examples of true life – love that was willing to go to the death for the beloved (cf Jesus Christ) – we find ourselves bereft. Don’t think that this hasn’t spilled over into the Christology of the post Vat II Church. We were treated for too many years to a steady diet of “Social Justice Jesus” who was removed from the cross so that he could take His place among the social workers. After all, who needs a savior when sin has been eradicated from our midst.

    • elarga

      I have the third edition of the Roman Missal in hand, and there is no mention of any “optional memorial” for Valentine on Feb. 14.

  • GaudeteMan

    And what about those old superstitious travelers that invoke the mythical St. Christopher!

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  • Fr Eric

    Michael Lee has a good comment. And…

    St. Valentine existed, and in an attempt to reorganize the sanctoral cycle, the Church gave place to Sts Cyril and Methodius because of the importance of their lives, evangelization, mix of East and West, and the clear facts of their lives. These brothers are not optional memorials due to their importance. However, this “tidying up” of the sanctoral cycle has legitimate cause for concern. Everyone should take heart that Benedict XVI and John Paul II both reinstated saints who had been removed, e.g., Holy Name of Mary. Differing countries have differing Saints as well.

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  • margaret Allain

    Thank you so much for this, will treasure it and pass it on to other generations.

  • NSatin

    Excellent summary, but I have one minor point of historical contention:

    “That battle ended three centuries of persecution and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.”

    Constantine did not make Christianity the state religion of the Empire. He merely decriminalized it. As I have written elsewhere, there was never any doubt as to Constantine’s personal stance on the pagan/Christian divide, however, he was an incredibly tolerant ruler when it came to paganism. He was harsher to what can be called non-Orthodox Christians than to pagans, as a matter of fact.

    http://ramblingspirit.com/3/post/2013/12/conquer-by-this-the-real-history-of-constantine-the-great-part-3-of-3.html

  • erudite_recondite_eremite

    Not only does my parish’s calendar simply give St, Cyril and St. Methodius, but it adds insult to injury by identifying the day (without St.) as Valentine’s Day. I suppose I should be happy they did not drop the “apostrophe and s” since so many churches are incorrectly doing so in their names, e.g., St. Mary Church instead of St. Mary’s Church.

  • Bernonensis

    Pseudo-educated Catholics are a problem, I grant you, but it’s the educated pseudo-Catholics, cleric and lay, who are dragging them off to hell.

  • Grant M

    I did find it ironic one February 14th, when the world was exchanging red roses, while the revised calendar made no mention of St Valentine…meanwhile our local traditionalist priest was donning a red chasuble at his home…not often traditionalism synchs so neatly with the popular culture.

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