by Brian Grab
St. Valentine's Day can be a polarizing holiday. Some love it, some find it silly or unnecessary, but few on either side know what exactly it commemorates. In this regard, it bears a slight resemblance to St. Patrick's Day, a Boston favorite. Just as there's something holy and a bit mysterious behind the green-tinted beer, there's something similarly holy behind the hearts and flowers of St. Valentine's Day. Like any good Christian feast, this one is about love, love of God for humanity and love of humanity to God. Like any good saint’s day, it involves some heroic holiness.
According to the limited historical evidence we have, St. Valentine—officially known as St. Valentine of Rome—was a Roman priest who was executed for on February 14 sometime between AD 269 and AD 280 either after an unsuccessful attempt to convert the Roman Emperor, or for marrying Christian couples in secret. While the second reason might seem a little silly from our perspective, Roman Law prescribed strict rules regarding who could and could not marry whom, generally aimed at preserving the integrity of the upper classes. Since Christians did not regard these laws as legitimate and came from all socio-economic backgrounds in the Empire, one particular incident lost to history might have sparked a violent response. If this is the case, Valentine opposed imperial power and married Christian couples in secret despite knowing full well the risks associated with it. For this he was imprisoned.
Some accounts describe an earlier incident where Valentine escaped prison by means of a miracle. His case was presented to Judge Asterius, who challenged Valentine to prove his faith by healing his blind daughter. The saint prayed for her health and she was miraculously healed. This miracle opened the eyes of the judge to the truth and beauty of the Christian faith. He went home and smashed his idols. Then he and his whole household were baptized. As a sign of goodwill, he freed all Christian prisoners including Valentine.
Be that as it may, the saint was ultimately sentenced to be beaten to death outside the Flaminian Gate on the northern border of Rome. The place is now known as Piazza del Popolo and features one of the entrances through the Aurelian walls, which was formerly referred to as Porta Valentini. His last recorded words were at the end of a letter to the judge’s daughter signed “your Valentine.”
Despite scant historical and hagiographical resources on the saint, he was celebrated in the early Church. Archeologists have uncovered a catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to St. Valentine. In addition, his relics were spread throughout Europe, including some being found in the catacombs of St. Hippolytus in the Via Tiburtina in Rome which are labeled as his remains. His flower-crowned skull is on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Churches in the Czech Republic, Poland, France, Austria, Malta, Scotland, and Ireland. Part of the difficulty of teasing out the story of St. Valentine from the pages of history is the mention of another St. Valentine, Bishop of Terni, who was likewise also martyred around the same time. Several people have questioned whether the two Valentines are really the same person, but the evidence simply does not give us a clear-cut answer either way.
Traditionally, St. Valentine died a witness to the Christian faith united to Christ in suffering. His life and death should serve as a testament that Christian marriage is worth dying for, and that true love is more than just sentiment, rather requiring a true commitment to denying one’s self for the sake of the beloved. In an age that that struggles and often disregards this truth, our contemplation of the example of saints and martyrs such as St. Valentine is that much more important.