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The Feast of St. Valentine, Priest and Martyr

The 2004 edition of the Roman Martyrology includes the following simple entry for February 14th:

At Rome, on the Via Flaminia, near the Milvian Bridge, Saint Valentine, martyr.

How is it that a simple entry on the death of a martyr could inspire the holiday we celebrate today in the United States with flowers, candy, and romance?  

This is what we know from tradition about St. Valentine, Priest and Martyr: 

The emperor, Claudius II, after questioning him, “turned Valentine over to the prefect to be held in custody.  When Valentine came into this man’s house, he said: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, true Light, enlighten this house and let all here know you as true God!’  The prefect said: ‘I wonder at hearing you say that Christ is light.  Indeed, if he gives light to my daughter who has been blind for a long time, I will do whatever you tell me to do!’  Valentine prayed over the daughter, her sight was restored, and the whole household was converted to the faith.  Then the emperor ordered Valentine to be beheaded, about AD 280” (Voragine. The Golden Legend. Vol I. p. 160). 

His grave is in the basilica dedicated to his honor in Rome.  “The church in which he is buried existed already in the fourth century and was the first sanctuary Roman pilgrims visited upon entering the Eternal City” (Parsch. The Church’s Year of Grace. Vol 2. pg. 369). 

There are actually three St. Valentines listed in early martyrologies for the date of February 14th.  How these martyrs came to be associated with “a celebration in honor of lovers seems to have been more an accident than a design, though there are interesting complications that conspired to make this so” (Newland, The Year and Our Children. Image, 1956; p. 109). 

“Long ago the Romans celebrated the eve of their Lupercalia on February 14.  This being a time of great festivity it is thought by some that the martyrdom of the saints on this day was merely an added attraction to the pagan celebration.  Still another possibility connects the Roman celebration in honor of Juno with this feast.  The drawing of partners for the festival by maidens and youths oftentimes degenerated into extreme improprieties, and it is thought the desire to redeem the day suggested to the Christians that they fix it as the date of the martyrs’ feasts.  Pope Gelasius appointed it an official feast in the fifth century and named St. Valentine the patron saint of lovers” (109-110).

Mary Reed Newland suggests that we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day by making it a feast of true and holy love.  This is “the kind of love that leads men to shed their blood, die in prison, burn at stakes, part with their heads for love of Him who is All Love.  If we use the graces of the feast well, perhaps we can translate this in terms of the love required by our vocation.  We may not presently be called to violent death for the love of God, but with grace we may daily slay a little of the self-love that is between us and God, trying harder to love the people in our lives who are not so easy to love” (111).  She further suggests that we reconsider what it means to say “Be my Valentine!”  What if we turned that around so that it read from God to man?  “This makes ‘be my valentine’ rich with possibilities.  Could it be that Christ has been saying this to us all these years on this feast and we have missed the point?  Perhaps it means ‘Be My martyr.  Be My saint’” (112). 

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