The whole world now celebrates Valentine’s Day, a day on which people show special affection for their loved ones. But who was St Valentine? I answered the question several years ago in my column in the Catholic Weekly. Here is the answer, which is question 288 in my book Question Time 2.
288. St Valentine
When I was growing up we used to exchange Valentine’s Day cards on February 14, which we called Valentines, and the day still seems to be associated with romantic love. I believe there was once a feast of St Valentine in the Church’s calendar. Can you tell me anything about this saint and why he is associated with romance?
It seems certain that there was an historical figure named Valentine, but as many as three St Valentines are mentioned in the early martyrologies for 14 February. They were all martyrs and little is known with certainty about them.
One is described as a priest who was martyred around 269 and another as a bishop of Interamna, the present-day Terni, who was put to death some years earlier. Both of them seem to have been buried on the Flaminian Way outside Rome, in different places. The third St Valentine appears to have suffered for the faith in the Roman province of Africa with a number of companions, but nothing further is known about him.
According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Valentine the priest, along with St Marius and his family, was arrested and imprisoned for assisting Christians who were being persecuted during the reign of the emperor Claudius II, who died in 270. Apparently, the emperor took a liking to Valentine, but when the saint tried to convert him, the emperor sent him to the prefect of Rome. When Valentine resisted the efforts of the prefect to make him renounce his faith, he was ordered to be beaten with clubs and was then beheaded. He died on 14 February, around the year 269.
Pope St Julius I, who was Pope from 337 to 352, is said to have built a church near Ponte Mole in his memory, and the nearby Porta Flaminia, now known as the Porta del Popolo, was for a long time called the Porta Valentini or Valentine Gate. In 496 Pope Gelasius decreed that the feast of St Valentine was to be celebrated on 14 February. The feast was kept on that day until 1969, when the liturgical calendar was revised.
In 1836, Pope Gregory XVI donated to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin relics identified with St Valentine that were exhumed from the cemetery of St Hippolytus on the Tibertine Way near Rome. They are the object of much veneration, especially on 14 February, when the casket containing them is carried in procession to the altar for a special Mass dedicated to young people and to all those in love. Most of St Valentine’s relics are in the church of St Praxedes in Rome.
As regards the association of St Valentine with romantic love, two possible explanations are given. Fr Butler in his Lives of the Saints says that there was an ancient custom of boys drawing out the names of girls in honour of the goddess Februata Juno on 15 February. To Christianise the custom pastors substituted the names of saints for those of girls. The other explanation refers to a common belief in England and France during the Middle Ages that on 14 February, half-way through the second month of the year, birds began to mate. Thus Chaucer wrote in Parliament of Foules, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
Later, in the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews wrote to a young man who she hoped would marry her daughter: “And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that you shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.” Shortly afterwards the daughter herself wrote to the same man, addressing it “Unto my rightwell beloved Valentine, John Paston Esquire”.
Whatever may be the origin of the custom, St Valentine is regarded as the Patron Saint of engaged couples, happy marriages, lovers, travellers and young people. He is often represented in pictures with birds and roses.