About Saint Valentine

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The UGCC commemorates the Death of Cyril, Apostle to the Slavs on February 14, while the Roman Church observes the Memorial of Saints Cyril and Methodius. The Feast of St. Valentine was removed from the Roman Calendar in 1969, but this formal change did not diminish the popularity of the occasion, which became associated with love and affection during the late Middle Ages.

Certain times throughout the year provide opportunities to draw attention to the Christian heritage of secular culture. For example, while Christmas is typically equated with consumerism and time off from work, the holiday’s true meaning is evident in its very name. The word Christmas, of course, derives from the liturgical celebration of December 25: Christ’s Mass. In the same vein, Catholic media outlets write about St. Nicholas of Myra (ca. 270-343) each year around his feast day on December 6 to remind us that this humble bishop from Asia Minor inspired the modern Santa Claus. Valentine’s Day offers still another chance to see the lasting influence of our faith on an age that has forgotten it.

Valentine’s Day derives from St. Valentine whose martyrdom was historically observed on February 14. As sometimes happens with the saints, especially those who lived in antiquity, we do not know exactly which Valentine is intended. In a fascinating study of the holiday’s origins, historian Jack B. Oruch writes, “The name itself was a popular one in the later Roman empire, no doubt because of its meaning (from valeo, to be strong). Several [Roman] emperors and a pope bore the name, and more than thirty Valentines and a few Valentinas achieved sainthood, primarily through martyrdom.” Thankfully, Oruch identifies the two likeliest candidates: “a priest of Rome and a bishop of Terni…both supposedly beheaded on February 14.” The beheading would have taken place around the year 270.

These fuzzy details did not keep Pope Julius I (r. 337-352) from dedicating a basilica to St. Valentine that remained popular for centuries. Neither did it prevent devotion to the saint from growing throughout the Middle Ages. There were, in fact, four churches of St. Valentine built in Rome before the year 1300. Yet the greatest impacts on his legacy came from literature rather than architecture.

The oldest extant texts about St. Valentine(s) date to the 6th and 7th centuries. These evolved and were expanded upon over many, many years. The enormously popular collection of saints’ lives known as the Golden Legend, compiled ca. 1255, includes him. There was even a French play titled Saint Valentin performed in 1367. Remarkably, none of these works associates the martyr with love or affection; rather, they depict St. Valentine as “a healer of sick or handicapped children.” Romantic cliches only became connected with St. Valentine more than a thousand years after his death.

The role of February 14 in the European popular imagination fundamentally changed during the late Middle Ages, especially due to the influence of English author Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1340s-1400). Chaucer is best known for writing Canterbury Tales, but it was his poem Parlement of Foules (Parliament or Assembly of Birds) that connected Valentine’s Day with romance through the symbolism of lovebirds. So whether you prefer candy hearts or a box of chocolates, Valentine’s Day evokes these and similar things thanks to Chaucer’s late medieval poem about an ancient martyr’s feast.

By Sean McLaughlin

 

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