From bright-pink, heart-shaped candies, to chocolates and red roses, to life-sized teddy bears and pink pajamas, we are everywhere bombarded as we prepare to celebrate Valentine’s Day with “the one we love.” Of course, such gifts would lead us to believe that one must embrace a romantic love in order to properly celebrate. But is that all that Valentine’s Day is really about?
Romance or no romance, February 14 is about a Priest, or maybe two priests, beheaded along the Roman Flaminian Way; it is about Marriage; it is about an ancient pagan polytheistic tradition known as Lupercalia , honoring a she-wolf believed to have suckled the infant orphans Romulus and Remus. Throw in modern day promiscuity, add chocolate and red ribbon, and you have “Valentine’s Day.”
For Christians, however, Valentine’s Day is not about sex or superstition; it is about a Saint and the beauty of Marriage overcoming pagan folly. According to an interview  with Fr. O’Gara of the Carmelites of Whitefriar’s Street Church in Dublin, Ireland, St. Valentine was a Priest martyred in the third century Rome by Emperor Claudius II (or Claudius the Goth). Claudius found marriage unfavorable to Roman soldiers, believing that married men would not fight as valiantly for fear of the fate of the loved ones and family they would leave behind should they be killed. Because of this notion, he placed an edict against the marriage of Roman youth.
At the time, Roman culture was an amalgam of many peoples and traditions assumed into Rome by conquest. As a consequence, polytheism was awarded a place in Roman life along with its many long-standing pagan rituals. About the times, Fr. O’Gara said “we must bear in mind that it was a very permissive society in which St. Valentine lived…Polygamy would have been much more popular than just one man and one woman living together. And yet, some of them [young couples] seemed to be attracted to the Christian faith.”
The date February 14th was a holiday of Juno , the Queen of Roman Gods and Goddesses, dating back to the 4th century B.C. To the Romans, she became the Goddess of women and marriage. In fact, Lupercalia, celebrated on February 15, was a type of “debutante’s ball” wherein young boys and girls, who grew up distanced from each other, first came together socially.
According to tradition , on the eve of the festival of Lupercalia, the names of Roman girls were placed into a “hat,” –more likely jars at the time. Each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar to find his “date” for the festival. In celebration, young women would take to the streets where they would be ceremoniously whipped with strips of goat or other skins in order to have their fertility blessed. Young men would come out to claim their draws and often further “bless their fertility.” Some of these couples would remain together only for a time but others would stay together and marry naturally. However, after the edict, such marriages were no longer allowed.
The Church, wanting to protect marriage as sacred, between one man and one woman for life, found the edict contrary to the natural law and the sacramental right of Christians. Valentine encouraged the youth to marry in the Sacramental bond through the Church and performed marriages secretly to avoid the edict. He was eventually caught performing such marriages and was imprisoned at the command of Emperor Claudius II.
According to accounts of the martyrs, before his arrest, Valentine was approached by a Roman judge Asterius, who later became his jailer. Because Valentine was a man of spiritual and medical learning, Asterius asked that Valentine treat his daughter, Julia, who had been blind from birth. Valentine was also asked to give Julia lessons on everything from arithmetic to nature. Eventually, the young girl began to have faith and prayed that she be given sight.
While tortured and in prison awaiting his death sentence, Valentine managed to write a last note to young Julia. In it, he encouraged her in her faith and signed the note, “from your Valentine.” His death sentence was carried out the next day, February 14, 269 A.D., near a gate that was later named Porta Valentini (now Porta del Popolo) in his memory.
When Austerius went home, his daughter received the note and was healed of her blindness.
In 496, Pope Gelasius I named February 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day. And on November 10, 1836, the remains of St. Valentine were given to the Mt. Carmel Church of Whitefriar’s Street by Pope Gregory XVI. Later, a Shrine was built to house and venerate the remains of St. Valentine. And according to Mt. Carmel Church of Whitefriar’s Street, “Today, the Shrine is visited throughout the year by couples who come to pray to Valentine and to ask him to watch over them in their lives together. The feast day of the saint, on February 14, is a very popular one and many couples come to the Eucharistic celebrations that day which also include a Blessing of Rings for those about to be married. On the feast day, the Reliquary is removed from beneath the side-altar and is placed before the high altar in the church and is there venerated at the Masses. At the 11.00am and 3.15pm Masses there are special sermons and also a short ceremony for the Blessing of Rings for those about to be married.”
According to Fr. O’Gara, “Valentine has come to be known as the patron saint of lovers. Before you enter into a Christian marriage you want some sense of God in your life — some great need of God in your life. And we know, particularly in the modern world, many people are meeting God through his Son, Jesus Christ.”
“If Valentine were here today, he would say to married couples that there comes a time where you’re going to have to suffer. It’s not going to be easy to maintain your commitment and your vows in marriage. Don’t be surprised if the ‘gushing’ love that you have for someone changes to something less “gushing” but maybe much more mature. And the question is, is that young person ready for that?”
“So on the day of the marriage they have to take that into context,” Father O’Gara says. “Love — human love and sexuality is wonderful, and blessed by God — but also the shadow of the cross. That’s what Valentine means to me.”
“Your Valentine” is a great intercessor: for the trials of marriage, for finding love and for healing. So whether you are married, engaged to be married, or hope one day to be married, may you put aside the frenzy of today’s culture and call upon him this day as you celebrate his Feast.