13 February 2016

Visiting the shrine of Saint Valentine in
Dublin and meeting the Irish Carmelites

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

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day [14 February 2016], and the theme of love is running through some of the services organised by this tutorial group in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute during this residential weekend for part-time MTh students.

As part of this exercise this morning, we are visiting the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street, Dublin, which will be full tomorrow with young couples seeking a blessing or hoping for a proposal.

On Saint Valentine’s Day, thousands of locks will be secured to bridges and fences across Europe, and Juliet’s supposed balcony in Verona will be visited by countless tourists. But in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street there will be special masses marking Saint Valentine’s Day, and the martyr’s reliquary will is taken from a special shrine in a side chapel and placed before the High Altar.

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.

But why this church?

Who was Saint Valentine?

And how did he ever end up in Dublin?

Inside the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street … the Carmelite presence in this part of Dublin dates from 1279 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Whitefriar Street Church is an inner city church and a landmark church in Dublin. Apart from Saint Valentine, it is also known to Dubliners for the shrine of Our Lady of Dublin.

This is one of two Carmelite churches in inner-city Dublin run by the Carmelites: the other is Saint Teresa’s Church in Clarendon Street, near Grafton Street, and they represent two separate Carmelite traditions, the Order of Carmelites and the Order of Discalced Carmelites. The Carmelites also run Terenure College, and there are many Carmelite houses and Carmelite-run parishes throughout Ireland.

Great figures in the Carmelite tradition include Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), Cardinal Charles Borromeo, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), who died in Auschwitz in 1942, and Bishop Donal Lamont (1911-2003) of Umtali, an outspoken critic of apartheid in ‘Rhodesia’.

The Carmelite Rule has found more limited use in the Anglican Communion than some others. The Community of the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford is heavily influenced by Carmelite spirituality and follows elements of the Carmelite Rule, although their rule also has many other influences. The Episcopal Carmel of Saint Teresa in Maryland is a full expression of the Carmelite order and rule within Anglicanism, founded for that purpose with the support of the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church. The sisters follow the Discalced Carmelite rule and therefore use the post-nominal initials OCD.

In keeping with the Carmelite contemplative tradition, Whitefriars Street Church provides an oasis of prayerful silence in the midst of the bustling city.

Unlike other religious orders, such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans who had individual founders in Saint Dominic and Saint Francis, the Carmelites have its origin in a group of hermits on Mount Carmel. They followed a common rule in Palestine in the 13th century, and many of them may have been pilgrims who came to the Holy Land and stayed on to live a life of prayer and silence.

The hermits may have chosen Mount Carmel because it had caves, fresh water and a variety of fruit trees – the name Carmel means orchard or vineyard. The mountain is closely associated with the life of the Prophet Elijah and the hermits took him as their model and inspiration. They tried to live “as Elijah in the presence of God.”

Jaqcues de Vitry, Bishop of Acre until 1228, suggested in 1216 that there had been monks on Mount Carmel from the beginning of the Frankish Conquest of Palestine in the 11th century, but evidence only goes back to the 13th century. But the claim was important to secure the survival of the Carmelites, because the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 placed a ban on forming new Religious Orders.

The hermits claimed they had approached Saint Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, around 1210 to ask him for a “formula of life” to guide them, and that Saint Albert gave them a Rule of Life. Their claims were accepted, and this rule of life, based on the Rule of Saint Augustine, received the approval of Pope Honorius in 1226. The motto of the Order is words of Elijah: “I am filled with zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts” (I Kings 19: 10).

Because of the changing fortunes of the Crusades, however, the Carmelites were soon forced to flee their homes and some founded monasteries in Cyprus and Sicily ca 1237, and in Pisa, Florence and Siena. Others went to France, including Marseilles and Paris, and by 1240 the Carmelites reached England. Within 60 years, the order grew to 150 houses in many countries, and they adopted the mendicant way of life like the Dominicans and Franciscans.

In 1274, the Second Council of Lyons re-enforced Lateran IV and ruled that four mendicant orders were to be allowed: Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites.

The first Carmelites arrived in Ireland five years later in 1279, when they founded a friary at Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow. In Dublin, Sir Robert Bagot, chief justice of the King’s Bench, built them a house in Saint Peter’s parish on the south side of the walled city. He had bought a portion of land in what is now Whitefriar Street from the Cistercian Abbey in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow.

By 1500, there were 25 Carmelite monasteries in Ireland. A number of the friars in Ireland and England, including provincials, supported the reforms introduced during the reign of Henry VIII. At the Reformation, the Whitefriars’ priory in Dublin was surrendered on 3 August 1539. Perhaps the most notable and the most detested of the Carmelite friars in Ireland was John Bale (1495-1563), who was Bishop of Ossory for seven months in 1553.

In the early 17th century, the Carmelites returned to Dublin, and had a house in Cook Street. By 1728, they had settled in Ashe Street, and they then moved to French Street (later Upper Mercer Street) and built a chapel nearby in Cuffe Lane in 1806.

They opened their first school in Longford Street in 1822 and moved to Whitefriar Street in 1824. The Longford Street property was part of the original mediaeval Carmelite Priory of Whitefriars. The Prior, Father John Spratt, managed to acquire more of the old site and the community moved to Whitefriar Street in 1825.

The foundation stone of the new church was laid in 1826, and the church was consecrated in 1827. In work that began in 1951, the entrance was moved from Whitefriar Street to Aungier Street, the High Altar was moved to the west end, and the interior was reversed, with a new entrance and its landmark Calvary facing out onto Aungier Street.

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

Despite his popularity, despite all the cards, despite the roses and the chocolates, despite the rings and the proposals, we know little 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. He may not feature in the calendar of the Church of Ireland, but this day is celebrated as Saint Valentine’s Day with a commemoration in Common Worship in the Church of England and in other churches in the Anglican Communion.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Valentine the Priest 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 Valentine 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 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. They were then 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, the Carmelite preacher Father John Spratt, the Prior of Whitefriar Street, was in Rome where he preached a popular and acclaimed sermon in the famous Jesuit church in the city, the Gesu. Following his 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’s remains arrived in Dublin on 10 November 1836, they were brought in a solemn procession to the Carmelite Church in Whitefriars Street where they were met by Archbishop Murray.

But other churches also claim to hold the relics of Saint Valentine, including a church in Roquemaure, in France, the Stephansdom or Saint Stephen’s Cathedral 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, 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 as we journey through Lent, which began last Wednesday [10 February 2016], and that our Lenten pilgrimage is a journey towards fully accepting the love of God offered to us through Christ on Good Friday and on Easter Day.

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

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These briefing notes were prepared for students in a tutorial group in advance of a visit to Saint Valentine’s Shrine in Whitefriar Street Church on 13 February 2016.


Anonymous said...

Are there any special prayers for the intercession of St.Valentine? Thank you.

Unknown said...

Here is a novena prayer I found:

Dear Saint and glorious martyr; Teach us to love unselfishly and to find great joy in giving. Enable all true lovers to bring out the best in each other in God and in God in each other.
Love is Patient and Kind,
It doesn’t envy or Boast and it’s never proud,
Love is not rude or selfish,
It doesn’t get angry easily or keep track of wrongs.
Love doesn’t delight in bad things
But it rejoices in the truth.
Love always protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres.
Love never fails.
One Our Father
One Hail Mary
One Glory Be