Give Me Back My Valentine!

 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

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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).

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