The Great St. Valentine – Martyr for Marriage
As colorful signs of romantic love appear everywhere during the month of February, it is good to ponder the life and legacy of the man for whom Valentine’s Day is named. The Roman Martyrology (3rd Turin edition, Loreto Publications) includes eight different Valentines. Two are listed on February 14, the first being a Roman priest and martyr, the second being a bishop and martyr in Terni, Italy.
Priest, bishop by same name – both beheaded
Neither St. Valentine started a greeting card or boxed chocolate company. To the contrary, the first was a priest and a strong advocate of Christianity under the persecutions of Claudius II. His work with St. Marius to help martyrs—and possibly his officiating at Christian marriages— attracted the attention of Roman authorities, as they tried to make him renounce his faith in Jesus Christ and go along with the pervading beliefs of the day. Their failed attempts were followed by a directive to have the saint beaten with clubs and beheaded. He was buried on the Via Flaminia (an ancient road to Rome across the Apennine Mountains and along the Adriatic Sea) on February 14 around the year 270.
The second St. Valentine (of Terni) is likewise commemorated on February 14, and also died around 270. He is listed in the Roman Martyrology as a bishop imprisoned and beheaded in the middle of the night. Because of the proximity of martyrdom in place and time, it has been suggested that the two Valentines are the same person. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints (Loreto Publications), most of his relics are preserved in the Basilica of St. Praxedes, in Rome, although churches in Madrid, Spain and Dublin, Ireland claim some as well.
Dedication and devotion, from Italy to America
Pope Julius I is believed to have dedicated a basilica to one or both St. Valentines, and one of the gates of the Aurelian Walls in Rome—Porta del Popolo—had been called Porta Valentini. There is a statue of St. Valentine in the Terni Cathedral today and devotion to him has emigrated across the Atlantic. Although he is certainly not the most common saint to place a parish under the patronage of, there is, for example, a St. Valentine Church in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania.
It is generally believed that the association of St. Valentine— particularly the one of Terni— with romantic love began during the Middle Ages. It is said that birds began to pair up in the middle of February (the 14th), so the custom began for humans to write letters or give gifts to their own mates. St. Valentine’s feast day happened to coincide with that time of year, so he might have become associated with romantic love quite randomly. However, some believe the pagan practice of young people choosing names of those of the opposite gender in the middle of February was redirected by priests who had names of saints chosen instead. This would make St. Valentine and other holy people part of a deliberate replacement (or reiteration) program to encourage devotion to those who had been celebrated more commonly before.
Commercial glitz eclipses religious meaning
Regardless of how St. Valentine became associated with romantic love, it is indisputable that February 14 is now a day when very few people think of the martyr who predates secular society’s popular practices. In a similar way to Christmas, an entire industry has been created around a Catholic day. This is generally lamented by those who wish to see the faith expressed in its purity, but it can also be an opportunity to evangelize.
The next time someone is wished a happy Valentine’s Day, he can reply, “Thanks. Did you know that the day is named after St. Valentine, an early Christian martyr?” It can even be pointed out that the red and pink hearts so commonly seen around February 14 are, for Christians, reminders of the blood of martyrs, whose love for God was so great that not even torture and death could extinguish it. Then it could be explained that such extraordinary love could only be possible through the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was pierced for the sake of every soul in the world.
The transition from romantic love to the self-sacrificing and heroic love of a martyr has been made by Catholics who pray to St. Valentine of Terni as a patron of engaged couples and happy marriages. People in either of these categories (or who know others in either of them) would do well to invoke St. Valentine’s intercession for a pure love that joyfully sacrifices for the sake of the other. While St. Thomas More and St. John the Baptist probably come to mind more quickly as patrons of the sanctity of marriage, the great St. Valentine can be added to that list. Knowing that the love of God surpassed earthly love immeasurably, he willingly gave up all earthly goods (including a favorable reputation in a corrupt society) to give testimony to the eternal charity that triumphantly burns in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
St. Valentine of Terni and all St. Valentines, pray for us.
TRENT BEATTIE is a freelance writer based in Seattle. He is the author of Fit for Heaven, a book about Catholicism and sports published by Dynamic Catholic in 2015