Like many holidays and feasts in the west, today – Valentine’s Day – has its roots in the Catholic Church. But in this case the roots are thin and fragile. Extremely little is known about the Saint Valentine who gave his name to today. In fact, he may be any of as few as three or as many as fourteen different Valentines. But the celebration of his unknown exploits and example is not completely without foundation.
The fifth-century Pope Saint Gelasius I established St. Valentine’s feast day, and alleged relics of the saint are to be found in various location in Europe; among them Rome, Dublin, Glasgow, Vienna and Birmingham. Also, starting in the tenth century, churches started to be dedicated to St. Valentine, and at the same time, two late-Roman men, one a priest and the other a bishop, started to be identified with St. Valentine. They are buried in two different locations along the Via Flaminia, which runs from Rome to modern Rimini.
Still, even though there may have been a man name Valentine who was venerated for his holy life, even St. Gelasius I acknowledged that his name was “justly reverenced among men, but [his] acts are known only to God.”
Because of his anonymity, the Church no longer includes Saint Valentine on the calendar of saints, although local celebrations still take place where his alleged relics are kept.
Literary flourishing in the Middle Ages turned the day into a celebration of courtly love, and later into a day to express love in general to whomever one pleases. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Parlement of Foules from 1382, wrote: For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. But he may well have been referring to May 2, the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa, somebody else altogether.
It’s a murky business, trying to figure out who did what when and why we celebrate those things now… But the fact remains: despite rampant commercialisation, today is a day to celebrate the love between people – the greatest Christian virtue.
As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love.
(1 Corinthians 13:13)