Questions of Faith
Every year in the lead up to February 14, shops are replete with heart-shaped cards, elaborate bouquets of flowers and endless boxes of chocolates. On this special day, couples express their love for each other in a more explicit way than normal with many viewing it as just another secular, commercial event to empty people’s pockets. But does St Valentine’s Day have a Christian origin and should Catholics celebrate it?
While we don’t know a lot about him, historians are confident that a man called St Valentine existed. Two Valentines are listed in the Roman Martyrology for February 14 – one was a martyred Roman priest and the other Valentine was Terni, a martyred third-century bishop.
They may have been the same person, but this is unclear. Some of his relics are claimed to held at Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin.
As there was so little information available about him, when the Church revised the liturgical calendar in 1969, they removed St Valentine as a feast day – although still recognise him as a saint.
“Though the memorial of St Valentine is ancient, it is left to particular calendars, since, apart from his name, nothing is known of St Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14.”
Given the lack of historical information about the martyr, why has the feast day become so associated with romance and courtship?
The amorous nature of St Valentine’s Day dates back to the Middle Ages when it was thought that birds paired up on February 14. The English poet Chaucer wrote in his ‘Parliament of Foules’: “For this was on Seynt Valentyne’s day, When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
Some scholars have suggested that this 18th-Century celebration supplanted an earlier pagan festival known as Lupercalia.
The Roman event was observed from February 13-15 and involved the cleansing of spirits to promote health and fertility. Unlike today, people didn’t exchange roses; it was a brutal and bloody affair involving animal sacrifice. Pope Gelasius I (492-496 AD) abolished Lupercalia but there is no evidence to suggest that he introduced St Valentine’s Day to replace it.
The amorous nature of St Valentine’s Day dates back to the Middle Ages when it was thought that birds paired up on February 14”
As there’s no historical or liturgical connection between the man St Valentine and the day that celebrates courtship, Valentine’s Day as we know it should be best understood as a secular custom.
This is reinforced by the imagery associated with it like Cupid – the god of desire and affection – shooting his love-inducing arrows.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that Catholics can’t celebrate St Valentine’s Day. To the contrary, stripped back from all its consumerist frills, the day lauds matrimony and the commitment a couple make to one another daily.
If you choose to celebrate it this year, thank your spouse for the hard work they do, reflect on how you’ve grown together, and celebrate where you’re at today.