14 February 2013

With the Saints in Lent (2): Saint Valentine, 14 February

The shrine of Saint Valentine in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are into the second day of Lent, but for many people, especially young couples, today [14 February] is Saint Valentine’s Day. Thousands of locks will be secured to bridges and fences across Europe, Juliet’s supposed balcony in Verona will be visited by countless tourists and the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street, Dublin, will be full for special masses marking Saint Valentine’s Day, when the martyr’s reliquary is taken from a special shrine in a side chapel and placed before the High Altar.

‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou?’ ... Juliet’s balcony in Verona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Valentine is a widely believed to have been a third century Roman martyr. He is commemorated on 14 February and since the High Middle Ages he has been associated with young love.

Yet, despite his popularity, we know nothing reliable about Saint Valentine apart from his name and the tradition that he died a martyr’s death on 14 February on the Via Flaminia, north of Rome. We do not know even whether there was one Saint Valentine or two – or perhaps even three – saints with the same name, and many of the stories that have grown up around his life are mythical and unreliable.

Because of these myths and legends, Saint Valentine was dropped from the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints in the post-Vatican II revision in 1969. Nevertheless, the “Martyr Valentinus who died on 14 February on the Via Flaminia close to the Milvian Bridge in Rome” is still on the list of officially recognised saints. This day is celebrated as Saint Valentine’s Day with a commemoration in Common Worship in the Church of England in other churches in the Anglican Communion.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Valentine the Presbyter is celebrated on 6 July and the martyr Saint Valentine, Bishop of Interamna (present-day Terni) in Italy, is celebrated on 30 July.

Italian romance ... locks secured to fencing along the Via d’Amore in the Cinque Terre in Italy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The name of Valentinus is not found in the earliest list of Roman martyrs in the year 354, but he is named in later lists in the second half of the fifth century and the first half of the sixth century.

The feast of Saint Valentine on 14 February was first named in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Saint Valentine among all those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” Perhaps this wording implies that even Pope Gelasius knew nothing about the life of this saint and martyr.

Some sources speak of three saints named Valentines who are associated with today – a Roman priest and a Bishop of Interamna, who are both buried along the Via Flaminia outside Rome, at different distances from the city, and a third saint who was martyred on the same day with a number of companions in the Roman province of Africa.

According to tradition in the Diocese of Terni, Bishop Valentine was born and lived in Interamna and was jailed and tortured in Rome on 14 February. However, different dates are given for the year of his martyrdom, including 269, 270 and 273. He was buried hastily in nearby cemetery and a few nights later his disciples came and brought him home.

The Roman Martyrology lists only one Saint Valentine; who died a martyr’s death on the Via Flaminia.

Popular legend says Valentine was a Roman priest who was martyred during the reign of Claudius II, “Claudius Gothicus.” He was arrested and imprisoned when he was caught marrying Christian couples and helping persecuted Christians.

It is said Claudius took a liking to this prisoner. But when Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor, he was condemned him to death. He was beaten with clubs and stones; when that failed to kill him, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate.

Another legend says Saint Valentine was the Bishop of Terni in southern Umbria in central Italy. While Valentinus he was under house arrest, he was discussing his faith with Judge Asterius.

The judge tested Valentinus by bringing his adopted blind daughter to him. If Valentinus succeeded in restoring the girl’s sight, Asterius would do anything he asked. Valentinus laid his hands on her eyes and the child’s vision was restored. Immediately humbled, the judge asked Valentinus what he should do. Valentinus replied that all the idols in the judge’s house should be broken, that the judge should fast for three days, and that he should then be baptised.

Asterius obeyed, freed all his Christian prisoners and was baptised with all his family and 40 other people.

However, Valentinus was soon arrested again nd was sent to the Prefect of Rome and then to the Emperor Claudius. Claudius too took a liking to Valentinus until he tried to convert the emperor. Claudius sternly refused to be converted and ordered that Valentinus should either renounce his faith or be beaten with clubs and beheaded. Valentinus refused and he was executed outside the Flaminian Gate on 14 February 269.

Many churches throughout Europe are dedicated to Saint Valentine, but it seems none was dedicated to him in either England or Ireland.

Until the 13th century, it was said the martyr’s relics were kept in Saint Valentine’s Basilica on the Via Flaminia, and they were then moved from there to Santa Prassede.

The 18th century English antiquarian, Alban Butler author of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, suggested Saint Valentine’s Day was created as an attempt to supersede the pagan mid-February holiday of Lupercalia in Rome, honouring Juno, queen of the Roman gods and goddesses. However, many of the legends about Saint Valentine can be traced only to 14th century England and the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle, when 14 February was already linked with romantic love.

The reliquary with the remains of Saint Valentine in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The flower-crowned skull of Saint Valentine is kept in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. When some relics were exhumed from the catacombs of Saint Hippolytus on the Via Tiburtina near Rome in 1836, they were identified with Saint Valentine; placed in a casket, and brought in a procession to the high altar for a special Mass dedicated to young people and to people in love.

That same year, Father John Spratt, an Irish Carmelite friar and famous preacher, was in Rome where he preached a popular and acclaimed sermon in the famous Jesuit church in the city, the Gesu. Following this sermon, Pope Gregory XVI gave him a gift of the remains of Saint Valentine and “a small vessel tinged with his blood.”

When the Reliquary with Saint Valentine’ remains arrived in Dublin on 10 November 1836, they were brought in a solemn procession to the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street where they were met by Archbishop Murray.

But there other churches also claim to hold the relics of Saint Valentine, including a church in Roquemaure, in France, the Stephansdom in Vienna, a church in Balzan, Malta, the Blessed John Duns Scotus Church in the Gorbals, Glasgow, and the Birmingham Oratory.

After Father Spratt died, interest in the relics in Dublin faded and they were placed in storage. But during a major renovation of the church in the 1950s and the 1960s, they were given a new place in the church, and a special altar and shrine were built for them. A statue carved by Irene Broe shows Saint Valentine in the red vestments of a martyr and holding a crocus in his hand.

The shrine is visited by thousands of couples throughout the year, especially on 14 February, when the reliquary is taken out from under the side-altar and is placed before the high altar in the church. There are special celebrations of the Eucharist at 11 a.m. and 3.15 p.m., with a blessing of rings for couples who are about to be married.

Although the story of Saint Valentine is inextricably linked with romantic young love, it is good to be reminded of love at the beginning of Lent, and that our Lenten pilgrimage is a journey towards fully accepting the love of God offered to us through Christ on Good Friday and Easter Day.

Tomorrow (15 February): Thomas Bray.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin).

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