Recently I read a skeptic’s claim that medieval monks invented St. Valentine's Day. This account is an alternative to the fact that Pope Gelasius set St. Valentine’s feast day on February 14th in Anno Domini 496. So little is known about St. Valentine that even the Church, following the dubious claim of a book published in 1966 that the saint never existed, removed him from the liturgical calendar in 1969. It is an odd fact that St. Valentine’s feast is celebrated (in a deracinated way) by the world but not the Church. Since a basilica was built over his tomb just seventy-five years after his death by Pope Julius, and relics from his body were spread throughout the Roman Empire, the evidence of his existence seems manifest to me.
I've also seen, and probably shared, the funny meme about how St. Valentine was beaten bloody with clubs and martyred for his Christian faith—so give us a kiss! Between Hallmark and the chocolate companies, the day has become a way to empty our wallets more than our hearts. It's lamentable in a way, but also a testament to the power of this saint's day, that it still has a hold on the popular imagination.
Among the legends associated with the priest who was martyred in 269 for proclaiming the Gospel, was his habit of performing clandestine Christian marriages. This legend alone associated him with marital love, and happy marriages, of which he is patron. The medieval tradition of courtly love develops on this basis, including the tradition of sending secret notes. Much invention, but all of it springs from a simple truth about a man who most certainly did exist, and who bore witness to God's love as the proper bond between a man and a woman.
Whatever one thinks about the day that bears his name—so unjustly desacralized, in my opinion—it seems fitting that this day still retains a memory of a love which is hidden, and unseen, and which has been made visible in Christ's sacrifice, to whose image Valentine was perfectly conformed as a martyr.
St. Valentine, pray for us.
C. C. Pecknold is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.