The mysterious St. Valentine: Identity a source of confusion

Religious scholars say the message of St. Valentine — love and marriage — is well known. The man beh

Religious scholars say the message of St. Valentine — love and marriage — is well known.

The man behind the message is not as clear.

“Who was St. Valentine? We really don’t know,” said Rev. Kevin E. Mackin, president emeritus of Siena College and a religious studies professor at the Loudonville campus.

Today, people remember the Valentine legacy by giving loved ones heart-shaped boxes of candy, red roses and greeting cards decorated in red and pink. There will be no official observances in Roman Catholic churches; the church dropped Valentine from its liturgical calendar in 1969.

Mackin said the reason for Valentine’s demotion — the Catholic feasts observed Feb. 14 are for St. Cyril and St. Methodius — was the lack of facts about the man’s life. Valentine is chiefly famous through legends.


“The one popular legend was he lived in Rome in the third century,” Mackin said. “There was an emperor by the name of Claudius the Second, I think he reigned from 268 to 270, and he was waging war with the various tribes that were pressing on the Roman border, the Goths in particular. So he prohibited marriages. He wanted soldiers single.

“According to legend,” Mackin continued, “Valentine officiated at these marriages of young people; he was what we would call the ‘marrying priest.’ And because the emperor had forbidden marriages, he was arrested, imprisoned and one legend is he was beheaded.”

There are other stories about Valentine.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there were two other St. Valentines. One was described a bishop of Interamna (modern Terni, Italy) and the other a martyr in the Roman province of Africa. Historians also offer other stories, some with a Claudius connection.

In one, priest Valentine is jailed because he would not worship Roman gods. After spending time in prison, he appears before the emperor and still refuses to give up belief in his God. Claudius condemns Valentine to death.

Another story has Valentine befriending one of his prison guard’s daughters. The girl had vision problems, Mackin said, and Valentine supposedly cured her ailments. He once sent her a message, signed “From Your Valentine.”

Yet another legend makes Valentine a gardener. He grows flowers, and children visit to enjoy the colors and aromas. When Valentine is imprisoned, children bring him flowers from his garden.

Mackin said the legends and stories are the reason Valentine lost his standing. Historians and scholars could never determine undisputed truth about one man.

“On the grass-roots level, I think people still think of St. Valentine,” Mackin said.


That means people still celebrate what Valentine stood for.

“Despite the legends, despite the fact we don’t really know who Valentine is, I think the feast symbolizes love and generosity,” Mackin said. “For married couples, it’s an opportunity to recommit themselves in love to one another and for singles to be generous with what they have.”

Catholic scholars say Valentine, at least one of them, really did exist. Archaeologists unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to St. Valentine. And in A.D. 496, Pope Gelasius I marked Feb. 14 as a celebration in honor of his martyrdom.

St. Valentine remains in high regard among Europeans. Valentine is the patron saint of Terni, and his relics are kept at Terni’s St. Valentine’s Basilica. A painting of the saint hangs behind the altar. In Dublin, Ireland, a shrine to St. Valentine stands inside the Carmelites’ Whitefriar Street Church.

The Valentine myths and stories have survived this long, Mackin said, partly because English author and poet Geoffrey Chaucer linked St. Valentine to the mating of birds and human lovers during his 14th century “Parlement of Foules,” also known as the “Parliament of Fowls.” This literature started the legends of Valentine-inspired love.

St. Valentine may be a familiar name in gift stores during midwinter, but relatively few churches are named in his honor — none is listed in the Capital Region. But St. Valentine’s churches are situated in such communities as Redford, Mich., a Detroit suburb, and Bethel Park, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh.


Rev. Jeremiah O’Shea, senior priest at St. Valentine’s in Bethel Park, also knows the Valentine legends. He likes the saint’s connection to birds — and people — choosing mates in the spring. “This was a time for young men and women to send notes to each other,” he said.

O’Shea also appreciates the story of the Roman priest standing up for his faith.

“To be a priest in Rome at that time was kind of risky,” he said. “They were willing to do that in order to carry on the message of Christ. That’s the real story — they gave their lives for their faith.”

While flowers, sweets and chocolates will be exchanged for Valentine’s Day, O’Shea said wedding vows will not be exchanged at his church.

“Very few weddings are in February,” he said.

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