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.

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As for poor St. Valentine, even among Catholics he quickly disappeared from memory. Catholics celebrate Valentine's Day with gusto, but like everyone else, they rarely attach sacred associations to the mash notes, bonbons, lace brassieres, and heart-emblazoned jockey shorts that they slip to each other on that festive day. This is too bad, because a loss of a sense of the holy, even in trivial things, is a great loss.

It does seem as though there was a real St. Valentine who was martyred during Roman times. In fact, there seem to have been two, perhaps three saints Valentine. Valentine--or Valentinus, derived from the Latin adjective valens, meaning strong and powerful--was a popular man's name during the classical period. The best-known St. Valentine was believed to have been a Roman priest beheaded for his Christian faith toward the end of the third century, under the reign of the Emperor Claudius the Goth. A church dedicated to him (or perhaps one of the other two saints of the same name) was erected in Rome about a century after his presumed death.

Other than that, St. Valentine never acquired much of a cult following, as did the more popular medieval saints. The Mass said in his honor was a generic Mass for martyrs into which the priest inserted the words "blessed Valentine" here and there. Even his traditional saint's legend was short and fairly generic: Valentine refuses to worship the pagan gods, Valentine loses his head. No appalling tortures, no dramatic visions, and nothing remotely associated with romance.

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St. Valentine became associated with lovers because his feast day fell on the day before the licentious Roman fertility feast of Lupercalia on Feb. 15. Lupercalia was a sort of Spring Break Week a month early. After an early-morning sacrifice of goats and dogs to Faunus, the god of merry-making, a band of young men, naked except for loincloths made from the skins of the sacrificed animals, ran along the boundaries of Rome, hitting those whom they met, especially women, with strips of the skins. After that, there was quite a bit of drinking, dancing, and what is now called "hooking up." As it did with Saturnalia (now Christmas) and Halloween, the Church did not try to suppress the holiday completely, but Christianized it by discouraging the improprieties and linking it to the saint believed to have been martyred on its eve.

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Charlotte Allen
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