On This Valentine's Day, Remember the Real St. Valentine
On this Valentine’s Day, couples in the western world will exchange romantic cards, chocolates, flowers, and jewelry. Most of them will little suspect the true origins of the day or anything about the history of the man who gave the day his name.
The real, “Valentine,” or “Valentinus,” whose name means “strong” in Latin, would not have been a man for candy hearts and teddy bears, or the sappy sentimentality of the modern day that takes his name. Valentinus was a saint of the 3rd century AD who was executed, probably during the reign of the emperor Claudius II. Little more is known about him than that, and even the exact date of his martyrdom is unclear.
Yet several striking stories are told about him. In multiple stories, he was arrested for marrying Christian couples in contravention of the emperor’s decree forbidding marriage to young men. One cannot but be struck by the fascinating similarity to our own day of a secular government that wants to attack marriage, seeing it as a threat to the state. In the case of Valentinus, the emperor, worried that young men were not volunteering for the army because they preferred their wives, decided to try to limit marriage. Valentinus resisted the unjust decree and married couples in secret, which may explain the modern connection between Valentinus and romantic love.
Eventually, he was found out. Then Valentinus committed one crime worse than marrying couples against the government’s wishes: he tried to convert the emperor.
One cannot help but think of the similarity to John the Baptist. John had also found himself in prison because he resisted Herod’s attack on marriage. Specifically, he had told Herod that it was not lawful for him to have his brother’s life. Before this, Herod had found John interesting and perhaps even liked him. But the attempt to convert him was a step too far. Herod would not be converted.
Venerable Fulton Sheen said of Herod:
“[He] was typical of all worldlings who sent for what they call ‘learned men of the cloth…” They love their brilliance, their turn of phrase, their abstract wisdom; but as soon as these men begin to make the teaching of Christ concrete and personal, they are dismissed with the worlds ‘to intense,’ ‘intolerant,’ or ‘do you know he actually tried to convert me?”
Claudius might well have said this of St. Valentinus. Perhaps he could have found Valentinus interesting in an abstract way. Perhaps he found him an interesting man to talk to. But Valentinus, like John, was not interested in abstractions. He was interested in something more important: the emperor’s soul. And the emperor, who before had found Valentinus interesting and even curious, became furious and ordered his death.
Valentinus thus can be seen as a patron saint of married love, for he married young men and women against the wishes of a corrupt state. And so it should not be wrong to celebrate his feast day with men and women exchanging tokens of their married love. But while celebrating the day that way, we should also remember the real Valentinus: a martyr who stood ready to defend marriage and to spread the faith even at the risk to his own life.
St. Valentinus, pray for us.