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Will the Real St. Valentine Please Stand Up?

It's hard to figure out who St. Valentine really was, but easy to ascertain why he makes such an impression on the imagination even today

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about St. Valentine is that no one knows any facts about him at all. Whether he was one man, or two, or fifty; whether he was a priest or a bishop or a doctor, or from the south of Italy or the north; or whether he healed the blind daughter of a judge or a jailer, Valentine is one of those strange saints for whom the only thing we can be sure of is that he is in heaven—which, to be fair, is the most important thing about him, whoever he was.

Valentine’s life is so stretched and stimulated by legend that the Church dismissed him from the general calendar of the saints, but not from the general heavenly assembly. In 496, only some 200 years after Valentine’s reported death, Pope Gelasius referred to Valentine’s life as “being known only to God.” Thus, Valentine reminds us that sanctity is the enduring quality of our existence, whereas names and narratives will eventually be swept into dustbin of time. Those who love the “Lover of Mankind” may lose their history, but not their hagiography.

No one knows who Valentine was, but he is cherished as an imagined saint of lovers, for we are all enchanted with the promise that God will love us and forever hold us dear when the cold world has forgotten us.

By one particularly popular account, Valentine was a third-century Italian bishop of Terni, a city north of Rome, who was put under house arrest in the residence of a Roman judge named Asterius for practicing the Christian faith against the command of Emperor Claudius II. Undaunted by persecution and punishment, Valentine spoke to the judge often about Jesus Christ, until the unbelieving judge challenged the bishop to cure his blind daughter to prove the authenticity of his God. Valentine placed his hands on the girl’s eyes, and they were opened. Asterius quivered with wonder and asked Valentine what he should do in light of such a miracle. Valentine ordered him to destroy all the false gods in his house and be baptized.

After the conversion of Asterius’s whole household, as they stood in the rubble of idols, Valentine was summoned to appear before the emperor, and though Claudius found Valentine charming, he ordered the bishop to be executed for standing firm in the faith. And so, Valentine was beaten with clubs and beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14, 269—but not before he wrote a note of comfort to the girl whose sight he had restored, signing it, “From your Valentine.”

A lovely tale, whether it is true or not, and one that shines with the love of God and his saints. That love is true, without doubt, and Catholics do not need a true story to enshrine the truth of love. Nor does the rest of the world, be it Christian or pagan.

Let us have another. This one has Valentine as a Roman priest giving aid to Christians suffering persecution under the reign of Claudius. In a flash of maniacal brilliance, Claudius determined that single men made better soldiers than married ones, and so he outlawed marriage for young men as he prepared to draft soldiers into his army. But Valentine began marrying couples in secret, allowing the husbands to claim exemption from conscription in the pagan ranks of the emperor. Valentine was discovered and dragged before the emperor, and, though he made out winningly with Claudius, he was sentenced to death for refusing to budge an inch from his faith.

And so the stories run, too numerous to catch them all, though we may try. Here is Valentine refusing to worship at the altars of pagan gods, being thrown into prison, and there healing his jailer’s blind daughter before being dragged to execution, leaving a note in his cell for the girl from her Valentine. There he is now cutting hearts out of parchment and cloth and slipping them into the hands of his persecuted flock to remind them of God’s love and their vows to love God even under duress. And now he is helping Christian captives escape from dark Roman dungeons. Now his name is etymologically connected to the word valor. Now he has fallen in love himself with the jailer’s daughter, leaving her that tender letter on the day of his death. Now he is a doctor who became a priest so he could turn his great love for mankind to the soul as well as to the body.

And where is the real St. Valentine? He is in all of these, as an icon of love, a champion of lovers, and a beloved son of the Lord who is love.

As it stands, Valentine’s Day has been boiled down to roses, chocolates, cupids, and romance: sensualism and consumerism sugared over with some classical philanthropic platitudes. The spiritual element has been lost. As can be seen in other holy days, the things the Church has established as upright are the things the world turns upside-down. The dark powers, in a startling balance of cunning and confidence, turn holy days into silly and specious holidays. Instead of Easter commemorating the most significant event in human history, it is now about a pastel bunny. Instead of Halloween commemorating the triumph of life over death, it is now about the triumph of death over life. Instead of Christmas commemorating peace, it is now about pressure. Instead of St. Patrick’s Day commemorating the faith of the Irish, it is now about the thirst of the Irish. Instead of Valentine’s Day commemorating the patron saint of love, it is now about the patron saint of greeting cards.

But should any self-respecting Catholic cease to celebrate the sacred calendar just because the secular has interfered with it? Furthermore, why should any Catholic stand by and let hell (or Hallmark) claim what heaven has instituted or called its own?

It is never too late to re-baptize what has been desecrated. Even the feast day of St. Valentine has been thought of historically as taking the place of a pagan February festival of love called Lupercalia, a fertility rite in honor of Romulus and Remus. As Western civilization was Christianized, this feast of Venus became the feast of Valentine, celebrating a new divine love that makes earthly love fruitful and holy. By the Middle Ages, no less of a poet than Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized Valentine’s role as a patron of lovers by weaving his name and lore into his poem, “The Parliament of Fowles.”

It is of great cultural, or even existential, significance that one of the few saints that has survived the ravages of modernism and secularism is one who sanctifies love. It may be a cliché to say love will save the world, but it is far less of one to say that a saint who blesses love and champions lovers will not let the world damn itself, no matter how hard it tries. So long as there is love, there is hope—and, thank God, “love is patient, love is kind.”

St. Valentine, pray for us that we may love well and love eternally. Be our Valentine.

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