from the Believing Thomas archives
musings on the church calendar from one who seldom doubts
Whenever February reappears, what is the first date that jumps into your mind? Might it be February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day? That is a date celebrated by all romantics for centuries, but what do we know of this Saint Valentine? I tried to research this subject with pretty sparse results.
Here is what little I have been able to find: According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there were apparently as many as three “Saint” Valentines, each a martyr. They appear to have been a priest of ancient Rome, a bishop of Interamna (now known as Ternia) and a third person, the last one martyred along with others in Africa. According to this source, there exist what the Roman Catholics refer to as “Acta” (or deeds) preserved relative to the first two, but they are of too recent date to be accorded historical value. With regard to the third Valentine, only his martyrdom appears to be known. Both of the first two Valentines are thought by some others to be the same person and to have been martyred on February 14th after the middle of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way near a church named St. Valentine’s. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the priest was also a physician martyred during the persecutions of Christians by Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus and the bishop’s relics were taken to Terni. This source also reports that Pope St. Julius I built a basilica over the burial site on the Flaminian Way and recognizes that the two may be the same person. Curiously, this source also reports that there was a pope named Valentine who served quite briefly in the 9th century from August to September in 827 A.D. Of his life nothing else is reported other than this brief pontificate.
Other than the ultimate act of love in dying for their adoration of Christ, what in the world did any of these persons have to do with the celebration we now call Valentine’s Day? Oddly enough, both the scholar James Kiefer, biographer of the saints, and the Catholic Encyclopedia refer to the belief in Europe that the middle of February is the time when birds began to pair up for mating season. The latter source even quotes Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules as follows:
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
Again, this source points out (and Kiefer agrees) that this appears to be the only connection between lovers and Saint Valentine, that being the day when mating season of the birds led to a special occasion for communicating with cards, letters and other acknowledgments of affection. If we think of it, however, isn’t love the cornerstone of our faith? Of course, the love of Christ is quite different from romantic love. Perhaps it would not be such a bad commemoration of this ancient saint’s life if we who are today’s Christians should resolve to make a special effort this month to express brotherly love to all those around us. As with so many other Christian “Holy Days” which have become secularized, it might be a wonderful gesture to bring the observance back to what may well have been its true original purpose.+
(c) 2001, 2017 Thomas H. Peterson