The Saint We Call Valentine

Who was Saint Valentine? The name was used by at least three martyrs of the early church, although there is little documentation on any of them. The confusion over the actual saint led the church to drop St. Valentine's Day from its official list of feasts in 1969. And there have been other saints in more recent times with the same name.

The Saints

The saint named Valentinus was a priest in Rome who suffered under the persecution of Christians by the reign of Claudius II. He was reported to have been arrested and beaten, and finally beheaded on February 14th, around the year 270, although evidence of the actual deed is scant. Written records of Valentinus only go back to several hundred years after his death, but there was an ancient church in Rome dedicated to St. Valentine.

Valentine was also the name of the first Bishop of Interamna (now Terni), Italy. He also was said to have been martyred on February 14th, possibly in 273 AD. The basilica of San Valentino in Terni is supposed to hold the remains of the saint. Some believe that Valentinus and the Bishop of Terni may actually have been the same person, who served both towns during different times. After all, Valentine of Terni, a noted healer, was martyred in Rome after he was summoned there to heal a philosopher's son, who was suffering from a twisted spine.

Photo credit: Flickr user Christian Pichler.

A third saint was a man named Valentine who was martyred in northern Africa along with several companions. Nothing else is known of him. In the thousand years since, there have been dozens of men -and at least one woman- named Valentine to be proclaimed saints.

The Feast

The feast day actually came about as a reaction to the Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15th. One of the customs of Lupercalia was for each man to draw the name of a woman who would be his sexual companion for the year. In the year 496, Pope Gelasius I changed this custom to that of having young people draw the name of a saint to emulate through the year. He referred to St. Valentine, whose death date was convenient for the feast, as one "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." This only cemented the idea that Valentinus was an "undocumented" saint.  

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the date of February 14th is also associated with romance because halfway through February is when birds begin to pair up for mating season.

The Relics

For a saint who died so long ago and left so little documentation, there are plenty of his corporeal relics left behind. The fact that there were a great number of saints named Valentine may explain the many relics.

Photograph by Flickr user Mike Coats.

A skull reputed to be Valentine's lies on an alter at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome. The skull is always crowned with flowers.

The parish church in Chelmno, Poland, has a silver reliquary containing parts of Saint Valentine's skull. It has been there since around 1680.

The saint's shoulder blade is housed at the Church of Saints Paul and Peter in Prague, Czech Republic. It is said that Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV brought the relic to Prague in the 1300s.

Photo credit: Flickr user A.Currell.

The Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, Ireland, contains a shrine to Saint Valentine and a reliquary, a box within a box, purportedly containing a few relics of his body and a vial of his blood. The relics were a gift from Pope Gregory XVI to church founder John Spratt in 1836.

A blight on the vineyards of Roquemaure, France, in 1866 spurred a local landowner to make a pilgrimage to Rome for intervention. He returned home in 1868 with a few relics of the body of Saint Valentine. The relics are interred at the local church except on February 14th, when they are carried through the streets of Roquemaure in celebration of La Festo di Poutoun.

Saint Francis’ Church in Glasgow, Scotland, was the recipient of a gift of Saint Valentine relics from a wealthy French family in 1868. In 1999, the relics were sent to Blessed St John Duns Scotus, where the relics were given a place of honor.

Photo credit: Flickr user Mike Tigas.

There are even Saint Valentine relics in the United States. The Old St. Ferdinand Church in Florissant, Missouri, is the oldest Catholic church west of the Mississippi. A shrine inside the church has a wax replica of Saint Valentine; inside this wax figure is a relic of the saint, which was presented to Bishop Louis William Valentine Dubourg as a gift from the King of France in the early 1800s.

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February 14, 2013 - 12:45pm
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