Saint Valentine, an Irish Saint?

Irish Saint by Adoption

Statue of Saint Valentine in Dublin's Whitefriar Street Church.
© Bernd Biege 2015

Saint Valentine, patron saint of lovers, is an Irish saint ... by adoption at least. Not as important as Saint Patrick, but as much an international money-spinner as the big daddy of Irish Christianity himself. And definitely not as Irish as Saint Brigid, whose feast is a fortnight before.

But his remains can be venerated in the Dublin's Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church. Where also a special mass for lovers is held every 14th of February. Maybe the place to be when spending Saint Valentine's Day in Dublin with your beloved. And certainly one of the more romantic places of Ireland.

Who was Saint Valentine?

Valentine, or in Latin Valentinus, is actually the name of several martyrs. The Valentine we celebrate on February 14th lived in ancient Rome and, after being martyred, was buried at the Via Flaminia. That's about the whole story – and the date was so iffy, as were the stories surrounding Valentine, that the commemoration was not kept in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints as revised in 1969.

Nonetheless „Martyr Valentinus the Presbyter and those with him at Rome“ are still to be found in the list of saints proposed for veneration by all Catholics. Ina sort of general way. By the way: Valentine actually never featured in the earliest list of Roman martyrs, compiled around 354.

Origins of Saint Valentine's Day

The feast of St. Valentine (commemorating his date of death, as is usual with saints, who then went "on to their reward") was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 – who quite cunningly described the martyr as being one of those revered by the faithful despite his acts being "known only to God".

Gelasius thus neatly solved, or rather avoided, the problem of there being no less than three Valentines supposed to have suffered martyrdom mid-February: A priest in Rome, a bishop in Interamna (Terni), and a "civilian" martyr in Africa. 

Saint Valentine as Patron Saint of Lovers

First pictorial impressions of Saint Valentine appeared as late as 1493 – a woodcut „portrait“ complete with a background story. This Valentine seems to have been a Roman priest arrested for marrying Christian couples. Despite being a criminal in the eyes of the law, Valentine managed to win the friendship of Emperor Claudius II. Taking this as a good omen, Valentine proceeded with his efforts to convert Claudius II to Christianity. For his pains he was beaten to a pulp with clubs, then stoned, finally beheaded and buried outside the Flaminian Gate (near today's Piazza del Popolo) around the year 270. Obviously, friendship went only so far with the Emperor ...

So, martyrdom just because he was the marrying kind, which immediately made him a prime candidate to become the patron saint of lovers.

Some historians, spoilsports as they are, posit that Valentine is a pure fiction - invented to hijack the pagan holiday of Lupercalia. As to the stories surrounding Valentine, you would certainly be correct in regarding them as fiction (remember, his acts were only known to God). Many first appeared in the fourteenth century in England, even written by Geoffrey Chaucer and friends, celebrating romantic love on February 14th.

A Travelling Saint – The Relics of Valentine

Some sources insist that both the Roman priest and the bishop of Terni were buried along the Via Flaminia, sharing the same feast day (wholesale slaughter and burial of Valentines, two for the price of one). Which made searching for relics interesting, to say the least.

Nonetheless, in 1836 relics exhumed from the catacombs of Saint Hippolytus on the Via Tiburtina were identified as being the earthly remains of Saint Valentine. It seems to me that CSI:Vatican certainly knew how to work miracles with this positive identification.

The remains were swiftly placed in a casket and then whisked off to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin. This was an official donation by Pope Gregory XVI, intended to provide a focus of veneration for the re-emerging Catholic faith in Ireland. At this time Roman Catholics were finally allowed out of the closet, but most ancient relics were missing and old churches often taken over by the Church of Ireland. By providing a bona fide 3rd century saint for Dublin, Gregory managed to bestow some instant antiquity on the Carmelite church.

More Valentines Worldwide

Mind that further relics of Saint Valentine are plentiful: In Roquemaure (France), on Malta, in the Stephansdom (Vienna, Austria), in the Birmingham Oratory (UK) and in Blessed John Duns Scotus Church in Glasgow's Gorbals. Strangely enough the latter church would have served a similar social stratum as Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin.

Even stranger is the fact that the Birmingham relic is supposed to be the complete body of Saint Valentine, given to Cardinal Newman by Pope Pius IX in 1847 – a bookkeeping error in the Vatican?

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