Who Took the 'St.' Away from St. Valentine?

Except for his association with lovers, this martyr at best had only a shadowy existence on the Catholic calendar.

BY: Charlotte Allen

 
The only time they call it "St. Valentine's Day" anymore is when they're referring to Al Capone's Chicago massacre on Feb. 14, 1929. In all other contexts these days, it's just plain "Valentine's Day," a secular celebration in which sweethearts of all faiths and none shower each other with candy, cards, expensive dinners, and heart-festooned underwear that can't be worn without embarrassment on any other day of the year. The "St." in St. Valentine's Day that once gave it a uniquely Christian significance has quietly, and perhaps unfortunately, disappeared. How did this happen?

Until fairly recently, St. Valentine actually was a full-fledged Catholic saint, albeit an obscure one, and Feb. 14 was his time-honored feast day. Because St. Valentine was believed to have been an early Christian martyr, the priests saying Mass on that day wore red vestments symbolizing his martyr's blood. The red of the vestments became the color of St. Valentine's Day. And because St. Valentine was thought to have had something vaguely to do with love (no one was really sure what), red hearts, symbols of love, became ubiquitous on St. Valentine's Day, especially after the greeting card industry discovered him during the 1840s and started marketing commercial "valentines"--the lacy greeting cards bearing Cupids and romantic verses that we know so well.

Then, after the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church, embarrassed by the presence of saints on its calendar who might never have existed, booted the already shadowy St. Valentine from his Feb. 14 slot. Into his place, the Church moved saints Cyril and Methodius, two bishop-brothers who had brought Christianity to the Slavs of Eastern Europe during the ninth century. There was never any doubt as to saints Cyril's and Methodius's existence, or of their heroic virtue. The brothers braved years of political and religious persecution as they preached the Gospel. St. Methodius translated the Bible and other Christian works into Slavonic, which is still the liturgical language of many Eastern churches, and St. Cyril is credited with the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet used by Bulgarians, Russians, and Serbs. The priests saying Mass on Feb. 14 switched to white vestments in honor of the brothers' holiness.

 

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