Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Who was he?

The saint we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, the Saint Valentine of Rome, is but one of a dozen or more individuals named Valentine in the annals of Christendom.  The name derives from “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful.  It was a popular name through the eighth century and several martyrs from the 2nd - 8th centuries bore that name. The official Roman Catholic roster of saints lists a dozen or so Valetines including St. Valentine Berrio-Ochoa, a Spaniard of the Dominican order who was a bishop in Vietnam until his beheading in 1861. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988 (so obviously the day is not named after him). History records a Pope Valentine who served a mere 40 days around 827 AD (so most likely it was not him either).  A flower-adorned skull of St. Valentine is on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. It came from an excavation of a catacomb near Rome in the 1800s.  This led to bits and pieces of those remains being distributed throughout Europe and the UK.

The day was not observed until the fourteenth century.  Medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer seems to invented the day in his work “Parliament of Foules.”  The poem references to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. Chaucer wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” This is probably the start of the day, though not of the saint.  St. Valentine is thought to have been a real person who died around 270 AD but that is not without some controversy.  In 496 by Pope Gelasius I described the martyr and his acts as “being known only to God.” Later accounts (from the 1400s) identify him as a temple priest beheaded near Rome by the emperor Claudius II, allegedly for assisting Christian couples to marry.  Or he could have been Bishop of Terni, also martyred by Claudius II on the outskirts of Rome.  You can see why they are thought to have been the same person.  The confusion, however, led Rome to banish him from the calendar in 1969 even though he remains on the list of officially recognized saints.

Anyway, it took the shift from agape to eros to put this day on our calendars and turn it into a booming commercial success, at least for the florists, chocolatiers, and jewelers.  Alas, no one seems to care about the faith of the saint anymore.  The only thing that is on the minds of most folks is love -- the kind that arouses rather than inspires.  So perhaps it is better no Valentine lays claim to the day or what it turned into and we cannot accurately assess its origin either.  And you may have thought that Christmas was stolen from the Church!  The images of chubby little cherubs and arrows shot through the heart have little value as symbols of the faith but they have done remarkably well to turn an obscure day into one that is forgotten at your own peril.  Happy St. Valentine's Day.

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